Scouting Report: The tactics behind West Ham's free-scoring start to the new Premier League season

JJ Bull
·4 min read
David Moyes congratulates his players are their comeback against Tottenham - AFP
David Moyes congratulates his players are their comeback against Tottenham - AFP

If West Ham were able to maintain their early Premier League free-scoring form, their current average of 2.2 goals per game (11 scored in five matches) would result in a total of 83.6 goals scored and give David Moyes a decent shot at the title. 

This is, of course, highly unlikely but the signs are that this season should be a lot more comfortable than last, with Moyes settling on a tactical system that gives his side defensive solidity and facilitates their great strength: counter-attacking.

The only game so far in which West Ham have had more of the ball than their opponents was the 2-0 defeat to Newcastle, with Moyes’ team easily beaten despite having 58 per cent of possession. A switch from a 4-2-3-1 in that game to a 5-4-1 resulted in a much-improved performance against Arsenal, and Moyes has stuck to it since, beating Wolves 4-0 and Leicester 3-0, before the brilliant 3-3 comeback against Spurs.

The system ensures West Ham have players behind the ball out of possession, with Jarrod Bowen and Pablo Fornals defending wide in a midfield four but positioning themselves high up the pitch when West Ham win the ball, coming off the wing to attack on their stronger foot.

Ahead of them is Michail Antonio, who utilises his boundless energy, determination, pace, strength, balance and movement to work the channels and create wide overloads, offering an out-ball and attacking focal point. Antonio gives West Ham the option to play this way - a less mobile striker like Sebastien Haller does not.

Three of West Ham’s goals have been scored from set-pieces, with Aaron Cresswell’s delivery key - only six players have created more chances in the league - but their real threat is on the counter. When West Ham break they do so quickly.

Wolves learned this in the 17th minute of their 4-0 defeat, with six West Ham players surrounding one Wolves forward to win possession on the edge of their box. Declan Rice immediately looks for Antonio.

Declan Rice pass
Declan Rice pass

Antonio holds off Adama Traore, who fouls the striker to prevent the counter-attack.

Antonio is fouled
Antonio is fouled

Fornals reacts instantly and takes a quick free-kick, threading the pass through to Bowen on the right.

Fornals pass
Fornals pass

Bowen controls while running, takes on the defence, and cuts inside onto his left foot.

Bowen cuts inside
Bowen cuts inside

Wolves' defence cannot reorganise fast enough and Bowen tucks a lovely finish into the far corner.

Bowen scores
Bowen scores

West Ham take the lead.

There's no great secret or tactical wizardry behind this goal, West Ham have simply defended well in numbers and executed a quick counter. As soon as they take the lead, the team can sit behind the ball as their opponents seek an equaliser, until eventually space opens up to exploit once more, which is how they ended up putting three past Leicester, with the last goal an example of this strategy working perfectly.

Again, West Ham defend deep in numbers and Rice wins the ball, immediately looking for a forward pass. This time he finds Fornals on the left.

Rice with the ball
Rice with the ball

Fornals carries the ball inside the pitch as Antonio moves wide to vacate the space, swapping positions with the runner.

Fornals runs inside
Fornals runs inside

Fornals waits for Bowen to make a run beyond the last man and threads a pass between Leicester's centre-backs.

Bowen runs in behind
Bowen runs in behind

Bowen sprints in behind, gets to the box and finishes to make it 3-0.

West Ham's average possession of 43.8 per cent suggests Moyes wants bodies behind the ball out of possession and to attack while the opposition is vulnerable in transition. This is also what he tried last season, albeit in a different shape, with decent performances often undone by a single mistake - the trick this season might simply be committing fewer of those, giving West Ham the opportunity to defend a lead rather than chase, and then pounce.

The change in shape has certainly helped. West Ham's clinical counter-attacks pose a genuine threat to any team who rely on possession-based systems to create chances - like Manchester City, who must be extremely careful on Saturday not to fall into the same trap as Wolves and Leicester. One badly-placed pass could be all Moyes' men need to pull off another shock result.