Sam Tighe highlights the importance of dragging West Ham's key men out of position ahead of Southampton's Boxing Day trip to London Stadium. It's the latest edition of Tactical Watch, in association with Sportsbet.io.
Football can feel pretty relentless at this time of the year, with games coming thick and fast, stretching your squad’s fitness and capabilities to its limit. For no club in the Premier League does this ring truer than West Ham, who will play Southampton – their 13th opponent since the 31st of October – on Boxing Day.
Six Europa League group games, a run to the Carabao Cup quarter-finals plus half a Premier League season has seen the Hammers play roughly every 3-4 days since September and it has taken its toll. Injuries concentrated to the defensive line, plus a few positive Covid-19 tests, have forced manager David Moyes to think on his feet and adapt by the day.
West Ham began the season as the most consistent team in the Premier League in terms of selection, frequently fielding the same starting XI and benefitting from the familiarity. That was before the hustle and bustle of midweek and European football kicked in though; the XI fielded against Tottenham Hotspur in the cup on Wednesday was anything but familiar.
They switched away from their regular 4-2-3-1 shape and into a 3-4-3, to account for the loss of five typical starters. Ben Johnson, usually a full-back, played at centre-back, while winger Jarrod Bowen deputised up front for Michail Antonio.
How many players return for Boxing Day is a question even Moyes cannot answer, but if at all possible, they’ll likely return to the 4-2-3-1 system that’s served them so well this season. Vladimír Coufal’s suspension was served midweek, so he’ll bolster the right side and perhaps remove the need to field five defenders, while West Ham haven’t won a game since Aaron Cresswell got injured; if he’s fit to return it’d be a huge boost for them.
No matter the shape or system, though, Moyes will continue to lean on the two tactical dynamics that define his team: the midfield partnership of Declan Rice and Tomáš Souček; and the stretching, direct channel runs of his striker.
Rice and Souček are the key to the Hammers’ solidity, patrolling the centre as a true pair, joining up to block off passing lanes, remove space between the lines and at times making West Ham extremely difficult to play through. Add in the tenacity of Coufal and Cresswell’s full-back play either side, and it’s no wonder even the best have struggled to break them down at times.
Rice is extremely capable of driving forward with the ball from deep to begin attacks, though a longer ball into the channel for Antonio to chase is more common. He excels at isolating defenders and then beating them; Bowen isn’t quite as effective, but deputises well.
The stretching runs help get the ball forward fast, but they also create space for an attacking midfield trio to operate in. In Pablo Fornals, Saïd Benrahma and either Bowen or Manuel Lanzini, there’s trickery, vision and dribbling in abundance.
In the reverse fixture early this season at St Mary’s, Saints were able to nullify the Hammers’ attack thanks to a mammoth performance from Mohammed Salisu. A repeat may well be required – be it on Antonio or Bowen.
There’s also joy to be had in testing West Ham’s injury-hit backline. You may have to pull Rice and Souček out of position to do so, though, so quick combos down the flanks may become key. Against Spurs the pair pulled extremely wide to receive and build play from deep, leaving the centre of the pitch empty at times. A well-timed press could catch them cold there.