Premier League 2019/20: West Ham vs Leicester City – tactical analysis
Manuel Pellegrini took to the West Ham dugout for the final time on Saturday as the Premier League side fell to defeat to Leicester City with a much-changed line-up running out 2-1 winners at the London Stadium.
From the off, the Foxes looked the better side as Kelechi Iheanacho was hauled down by Lukasz Fabianski, only for the Polish shot-stopper to save the resulting penalty from Demarai Gray. The striker wouldn’t forgive him a second time though and did break the deadlock shortly before half-time with a near-post header.
Just moments before the break, Pablo Fornals secured his first Premier League goal from a well-worked move to make it all even at half-time, though Gray would make amends with an impressive finish early in the second half to give Leicester the lead they needed to see out the three points.
This tactical analysis will look at just where Pellegrini went wrong in his final game in charge as West Ham boss as he fell to defeat to Brendan Rodgers’ Leicester City. The analysis will consider the tactics of both sides in this Premier League fixture.
Pellegrini was boosted by the return of Fabianski in goal, but it was not the only change as Angel Ogbonna, Pablo Zabaleta, Aaron Cresswell, Mark Noble, Robert Snodgrass and Michail Antonio were also replaced. The inclusion of Issa Diop and Carlos Sánchez were two decisions which would go on to have a major influence on the outcome of the game.
Rodgers showed just how far rotation can go as he made a whopping nine changes to the side which were beaten by Liverpool on Boxing Day. His team saw only Kasper Schmeichel and Jonny Evans start their second game in 48 hours, with Jamie Vardy left out completely as his wife gave birth. Papy Mendy was perhaps the biggest surprise, playing his first minutes since a one minute appearance in August, whilst summer signing James Justin got his first start in the Premier League at right-back.
The root cause of West Ham’s defeat lies in their woeful defensive organisation. Ogbonna’s absence meant that it was Diop who partnered Fabián Balbuena in the heart of defence, with Ryan Federicks and Arthur Masuaku replacing Zabaleta and Cresswell at full-back. Perhaps just as important was the introduction of Sánchez as the holding midfielder in front of the back four in place of Noble. Not a single one of those five players covered themselves in glory in either of Leicester’s goals and looked far from solid throughout the rest of the 90 minutes. There was seemingly no shape or structure to the backline whilst communication between them was seemingly almost non-existent.
There was no better example than Leicester’s first goal. A lack of communication and poor positioning from Masuaku saw him keep the ball in play needlessly, with Diop and Balbuena then both losing track of their men, allowing Pérez and Iheanacho to sneak free at the back-post, capitalising on Fredericks equally poor positioning seeing him caught too far upfield. Allowing two forwards such space at the far post was a woeful mistake to make which would cost them dearly, with Sánchez repeating a similar mistake in allowing Gray to burst past him in the build-up to the second goal.
Whilst Fredericks won just 23% of his defensive duels, again a concerning statistic for any coach, it was the lack of structure which cost West Ham so dearly. Leicester could run riot in the spaces and gaps which they left open, particularly when turning over possession by pressing high and forcing Diop and Sánchez in particular to give the ball away with Balbuena the only man to average more than 80% pass completion from any of the back five.
A substitution which lost the game
The decisive moment in this game came on the hour mark as Pellegrini shuffled his pack, looking to find a second equaliser. The Chilean hauled off Sebastian Haller and replaced him with Antonio. The intentions of the coach are unclear, but the reality was that Antonio played in a wide position which was already congested. The overcrowding of the attacking midfield roles with players like Fornals, Manuel Lanzini and Felipe Anderson meant that such positions and the wide areas were overcrowded,
Repeatedly, situations such as the below would occur, with a crowding of players on the flank making it easy for Leicester to close them in and force an error, whilst there was no central option to provide a way out. This was reflected in that no player registered a longer average passing length than Antonio, frequently finding himself trapped and looking to a long ball to provide an escape route. That pass length of 24 metres also helps to explain his poor pass completion of 44%, the lowest of any player to take to the field.
The introduction of Albian Ajeti 15 minutes later made it clear that Pellegrini had seen that the change was not working. Ajeti, who registered 0.17 xG, 11% of the team’s total, despite playing only 20 minutes, lacked the presence of Haller and struggled to make a substantial impact. Whilst he did provide a focal point, it was a downgrade from the presence of Haller, himself ineffective, and only served to change the attacking set-up yet again for a West Ham side which were time and time again lacking a clear plan once entering the final third.
Leicester persist with a central press
Against Liverpool, the Foxes came undone as Trent Alexander-Arnold ran riot with the space that they left out wide when pursuing a central press. They stuck with that approach at the London Stadium and, whilst it did allow Masuaku to provide something of a threat in the first half, it was a success. Even with a full rotation in personnel, the system was deployed as Rodgers has used it throughout this season and it worked effectively and prevented West Ham from building up any kind of momentum in their play as they looked to transition into the final third.
The approach worked particularly well given the fact that early on in the tie, the central attacking midfielders from West Ham struggled to exploit the wide areas. This meant that the midfield duo of Mendy and Hamza Choudhury could nullify the West Ham attack without much effort, with Pérez dropping deeper to provide support when required. It was only later in the first half when they began to turn to Masuaku to get down the flank and exploit the greater freedom out wide, where he was allowed to make four crosses and also registered one shot, though none caused any real problems for Kasper Schmeichel given that they combined to a total of 0.03 xG and 0.31 xA.
This will provide a confidence boost for Rodgers, who will be more comfortable in the knowledge that he can rest and rotate his squad more freely in a busy time of the season. It was clearly not as effective, given that Mendy registered just five recoveries, compared to Choudhury’s eight and Youri Tielemans’ season average of 7.16, but it was sufficient to see off West Ham’s attack and break up their play, forcing them wide where they were ineffective.
Leicester were never required to get out of first gear to win this tie, whilst West Ham failed to do the basics well. Neither side was anywhere near their best, as could be expected given the number of changes made by both managers, but the Foxes adapted far more efficiently. Their use of their key basic tactics, such as the central press, were well-suited to facing West Ham, and by the time Pellegrini did react, he did so without any real game plan by removing the central threat from attack.
Woeful defensive organisation is what cost West Ham so dearly on Saturday, though there will be growing concern about their lack of efficiency in the final third given the number of offensive players on the field. David Moyes will have his work cut out on his return to the club, but Rodgers on the other hand can feel very pleased with a valuable three points whilst resting his key men.
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