Monday, June 17, 2024

How can West Ham take points off Manchester City? Hammers’ set pieces could decide Premier League title

You’ll know the story. Our hero, battered and bruised, on the cusp of defeat to the evil antagonist, can take no more. Without the strength to fight on anymore his doom is imminent. Then comes their deus ex machina, the wizened mentor from earlier, ready to hold the foe off at the past. Our young challenger escapes, ready to complete his noble quest.

You can imagine David Moyes as Obi Wan Kenobi in some off Broadway stage production of Star Wars, can’t you? If not, perhaps you will be able to after Sunday. The outgoing West Ham manager knows there is no fight left in him, but, if he can just hold out against the might of Manchester City, he can buy time for his young apprentice to complete his quest. After all those body blows he has taken at City’s hands over the year, might the last triumph be for Moyes and his protege Mikel Arteta?

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It makes for a great story but in the real world, well, it feels more plausible as a work of fiction than fact. West Ham, with nothing to play for but the pride of their outgoing manager, have a horrendous record against City. There is a reason why Moyes is leaving the club he guided to European glory 12 months ago. His team has not been particularly good this season, particularly in recent months, when it became apparent that the board’s willingness to keep hold of a man that had divided the opinion of the fanbase was swiftly ebbing away.

Since a backs to the wall win at Arsenal on December 28, West Ham have picked up just 19 points from 18 games. The 41 goals they have conceded are more than Burnley, the 36.7 expected goals (xG) they’ve given up, also more than Burnley. Bottom half underlying metrics since the first half of the season have led to bottom half results in the second.

Still, Pep Guardiola sees cause for nerves. His post-match press conference at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium saw him refer back to the blown title that wasn’t against Aston Villa on more than one occasion. “The game will be completely similar in terms of emotion and everything,” said the City boss. His identification of West Ham’s great strengths seems as good a starting point as any for an examination on how West Ham might gift the title to Arsenal.

West Ham’s dead ball masters

“Now it’s [Mohamed] Kudus, [Jarrod] Bowen, [Michail] Antonio, [James] Ward-Prowse, [Tomas] Soucek,” said Guardiola. “Set pieces. Channels.” Park the individual talent for a moment and it is the dead balls in particular that become intriguing. After all, West Ham’s great European odyssey was powered by them hitting corners and free kicks into the penalty area, where Moyes men simply out-talled the opposition to head down with ease. Even in the land of the giants that is the Premier League, West Ham stand tall.

So far this season, only three teams have created more xG from non-penalty set pieces than the Hammers 14.2. Free kicks are a particular strength for Moyes’ side, marshalled as they are by England’s most pinpoint right foot since David Beckham, James Ward-Prowse. Those with knowledge of the set piece art tend to emphasize that there is more to the 29 year old’s success than just the many hours he puts into his craft on the training ground. His ball-striking, the way in which he naturally plants his feet: these are the innate tools that let him hit the ball with ferocity on his instep.

Concede a free kick in the channels and all you can really do is hope that, if your side get a boot on a ball flying with enormous whip and pace, it happens to deflect to safety. This delivery against Aston Villa in March, for instance, caused an outright panic that resulted in the ball bundled in the net only to be ruled out for something that happened in the rumble around the ball.


James Ward-Prowse delivers a customarily wicked free kick in West Ham’s 1-1 draw with Aston Villa Wyscout/Premier League

Ward-Prowse may not have scored from a free kick this season — though bending that corner in against Wolves wasn’t too shabby as an alternative — but no one is laying more chances on for teammates. Kieran Trippier, Bruno Fernandes, Alfie Doughty and Martin Odeegard are second in the Premier League’s rankings for chances created from free kicks with nine. Ward-Prowse has 16. He has 1.62 expected assists from free kicks. Only two other players in the top flight have one. If Manchester City concede a free kick anywhere in the final third, they will be under threat.

Most sides, including Manchester City when they faced West Ham in August, opt to defend Ward-Prowse’s deliveries with a defensive line parked on the edge of the penalty area. That might go some way to limiting the direct threat of the first ball into the box but the Hammers have the height to win that and create knockdowns for others.

In true Moyesian fashion, there is no complexity for complexities sake in how West Ham attack dead balls. They will make adjustments — take the draw with Tottenham earlier this year where Jarrod Bowen dropped delivery after delivery just in front of the notoriously shaky Guglielmo Vicario — but for the most part they profile as a team who aim for the prime spot just inside their six yard box and trust Kurt Zouma and Tomas Soucek to do the rest.


Shots taken from set pieces by West Ham in the 2023-24 Premier League, sized by xG value TruMedia

That might work well against Stefan Ortega, who will enter the City XI with Ederson sidelined due to a fractured eye socket. The German has proven himself to be one of the best backups in the Premier League this season, the hero of the hour when he blocked Heung-min Son to secure victory at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. But in a small sample size of crosses faced this season, Ortega doesn’t profile as a springy, off his line cross-gatherer in the mold of Emiliano Martinez and David Raya. He has dealt well with Ben White styles blockers, but the punches with which he cleared crosses against Real Madrid and Crystal Palace were not the most convincing. Beyond even that, City’s number two just hasn’t run into that many sides who would really look to monster him at set pieces. When he did face the sort of chance that Zouma is so expert at getting his head on, he was lucky that Luton didn’t score.

Ortega, will, however be protected by one of the Premier League’s best set piece defenses. City have conceded just two dead ball goals this season and a league best 5.9 xG. It helps no end when you have enough of the ball that the Ward-Prowses and Fernandes might only get one or two set pieces to test out but watch back the most dangerous chances they have faced and City have a great quality for putting just enough pressure on the ball. Add in Ruben Dias’ willingness to hurl himself in front of anything and you have quite an effective dead ball defense.

This might just be one spot where West Ham’s strength doesn’t blend well with Manchester City’s defensive profile. That is not quite as true elsewhere, however.

Counter attacking threat

If your vision for the most Moyes era West Ham goal is not Zouma or Soucek rising highest at a set piece, it’s almost certainly Jarrod Bowen flying in behind the opposition defense. One on one with the goalkeeper he strikes home, five minutes of Irons defending turned into a precious goal in the blink of an eye. No side in the Premier League betters West Ham’s nine goals from counter attacks this season while only Alexander Isak has more than Bowen’s four goals from fast breaks.

That hefty return on the breakaway is typical of what this team is great at. In Moyes four full seasons at the club he has three campaigns in which his side rank in the overall top 10 for counterattacking goals and their total tally of 22 is eclipsed only by Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool.

Both this season, and over Moyes’ four years as a whole, there is a case to be made that West Ham have just had a bit of a hot streak in front of goal when they’re flying down the pitch. This season’s nine goals came from 6.6 xG, over the four years as a whole they have constructed 83 breakaways that ended in shots worth 16.6 xG. Some of the overperformance may be streakiness but when there are four years of data to consider, one wonders if there is more at play. After all, throughout that time West Ham have had players who are very good at counterattacking football. Whether that be the muscularity of Antonio in the channels, the precision of Bowen’s left foot or the quality of service they get from Lucas Paquetta, this is a team built to get hot on the break.

It will be coming up against one that is not quite as effective at snuffing out breakaways as might be thought. There are clear reasons why City might face a disproportionate number of counters; when their build up play is forcing every player on the opposition into their own third then a lot of attacks Guardiola’s side face are going to look like counters. This season those moves have been getting through with a little more regularity though. No team in the Premier League has conceded more breakaway goals than City’s eight. 

They have been undone by some quite spectacular finishing on occasion — take Alexander Isak’s bending strike at St. James’ Park earlier this year — but there are vulnerabilities to be probed when City concede possession, as Son proved on Tuesday night. Rodri’s more aggressive positioning in the last two seasons gives his side real opportunities to strangle attacks at source but break out and City might only be a mistake away, particularly now that they are deploying more up and down the flank full backs in Kyle Walker and Josko Gvardiol.


John Stones’ loose pass opens an avenue for Palace to counter Wyscout/Premier League

In this passage of play against Crystal Palace above a loose giveaway by Stones is exacerbated by Gvardiol, so impressive in the second half of the season, jumping out of the back three in an attempt to pressure Jordan Ayew. The Palace No.9 lays the ball back to Adam Wharton, who has the quality to immediately spring Jean-Phillipe Mateta in behind. In Oliver Glasner’s Crystal Palace, that means one thing only, a goal at Selhurst Park. 


Palace spring Mateta in behind, from where he will go on to score Wyscout/Premier League

Much the same happened earlier in the campaign at the London Stadium. Gvardiol got drawn out of the line, nutmegged by Bowen and Vladimir Coufal was released in enough space that he could keep clear of Jeremy Doku, look up and clip a cross to the back post and Ward-Prowse.

The chances could be there for West Ham. Certainly they are appearing with more regularity than they were at the start of what might be City’s fourpeat. In 2020-21 Guardiola’s side gave up 13 shots, 1.6 xG and one goal to teams on the counter. Last year those numbers were 25, 3.4 and three. Now there are fewer openings but good quality ones with opponents turning 19 shots and 3.6 xG into eight breakaway goals. 

There you have it, the exhaust port in the Death Star, one primed to be punctured by a small raiding party of rebels. One last act by an old master of the Premier League might be all it takes to give this season a remarkable ending.

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