Tearing down the Iron wall and preventing West Ham from running: Tuchel vs Moyes clashing styles for a UCL spot – tactical preview
All the Super League drama may have distracted us from football but this weekend the EPL continues with some spectacular clashes, one of them being West Ham vs Chelsea on Saturday at 18:30 local time. This London derby, involving one of the teams involved in the Super League creation – Chelsea – and one of the teams whose ambitions would’ve been harmed by it – West Ham – will be key for a UEFA Champions League spot as both clubs currently sit fourth and fifth with the same points after 32 matches.
Since Tuchel’s arrival, Chelsea have looked very good and dominated most of their games, having the ball and creating good chances but Moye’s West Ham look to be dominated and will gladly give away possession to counterattack and use space. In this tactical analysis, we’ll preview the tactics of both teams and the key aspects of the game.
West Ham: low block and counterattacking variety
We can expect West Ham to continue using the tactics they’ve been using for most games this season. Sitting in a low block to defend in a compact shape and create spaces to counterattack in quick transitions has worked very well for Moyes this season and playing against a dominating Chelsea side, it’s natural to stick to the system that makes the most out of West Ham players.
Moyes has changed between a 5-4-1, a 5-3-1-1 and a 4-2-3-1 this season, but one of the back-five systems seems to be the most probable option considering the rival. Anyway, the principles of the Hammers’ game are independent of their formation.
West Ham will look to defend in their own half, with their defensive and midfield lines very close to each other and forming a compact block that doesn’t allow play between the lines. West Ham allow 16.34 passes per defensive action, one of the highest in the EPL, meaning they prefer to sit deep and let the rivals attack, looking to counterattack with the spaces that appear behind the rival defensive line.
The Hammers don’t only get their compactness from playing their lines together but also from leaving spaces on the flanks and forcing the game wide. With their three centre-backs and the physical presence of Tomáš Souček in the middle of the park (and Declan Rice when he’s fit), they feel comfortable defending smaller spaces and crosses. West Ham rivals cross 16.91 times per game, more than the EPL average, especially among the teams in the top half of the table.
For this match, West Ham won’t have Craig Dawson and Declan Rice, two of their best defensive players, and will have to play Fabián Balbuena, Issa Diop and Angelo Ogbonna at the back. Cresswell and Masuaku are also doubtful, so it could be Ben Johnson who completes the defensive line on the left side. All the substitutes are good enough to play and have enjoyed playing time this season, so the worries shouldn’t be too big.
In attack, West Ham are a great counterattacking team. They have very good runners with and without the ball and also players capable of breaking the first line of pressure to launch these quick transitions. With their striker and sometimes also Lingard staying relatively high during the defensive phase, they always have good options to start these attacks. Lingard, Antonio, Bowen or Masuaku, to mention dome, are very strong runners with the ball at their feet and also into space, and with the rivals leaving space in behind, they can fully exploit their strengths.
When counterattacking, West Ham are a very complete team. They have several options to start quick attacks that we’ll review briefly here.
Their first option is finding Lingard, Antonio or another central player like Bowen, Soucek or Fornals in central areas between the lines right after recovering the ball. With the opposition fully committed to attack, these players will usually have space to turn and transition quickly into attack, while the ones that don’t receive the ball have the pace to threaten with their runs in behind.
When this option doesn’t work because the rivals press well or are marking their forwards, West Ham look to play long balls and win the second ball. Antonio has been the best option to do this but he’ll be unavailable for this game, so we could expect Bowen, Lingard and, to a lesser extent, Fornals, to play in the false 9 role. Bowen and Fornals only win around 35% of their aerial duels, while Lingard hasn’t won any aerial duels this season, so they would prefer to receive to their feet or into space. Anyway, if they at least challenge for the ball in the air, then West Ham can win the second ball and continue their attack from there.
With Chelsea likely using a back-three, West Ham wide men will be an important weapon when attacking the space left by the wing-backs. West Ham’s formation allows them to get players into attack in different waves as the attack progresses and despite starting from a deep position, we can often see the attacks led by the forwards, the midfielders arriving at the box in a second wave and the wing-backs progressing on the wing to overlap or to provide an option for a long pass to the other side of the pitch. Having a back three plus at least one of the central midfielders allows West Ham to keep their defensive shape even when they commit players forward.
The player Chelsea will need to keep an eye on is Jesse Lingard. The Man United loanee is having the best season of his career at West Ham and his strengths are perfect for a match against a high-pressing and offensive team like Chelsea. With 1.15 goal contributions per 90, Lingard has added a top-level end product to his 2.68 completed dribbles and 3.16 progressive runs per 90. He’s in the top 15% of EPL players in sprints, sprinting distance, high-intensity runs and high-intensity distance and will jump at any opportunity he has to run and use his pace with spaces. Even if he suffered a small injury in the last match against Newcastle, Lingard is expected to start the game.
West Ham have a clear game plan and the players to develop it and against Chelsea, they’ll have a tough test to their top-four aspirations. If they don’t concede soon and force Chelsea to attack and take risks, they have good options of getting a good result at the London Stadium. Arguably their best players in each line (Dawson, Rice and Antonio) are out but their replacements are trusted by Moyes and capable of executing the plan.
Chelsea: dominate possession and create spaces
Same as West Ham but with an opposite style, we don’t expect Tuchel to variate the tactics he has used so far. He’ll surely use a back-three formation that could change between a 3-4-3 and a 3-4-2-1 depending on the chosen lineup and the moment of the game.
Chelsea will surely dominate the game and have the ball most of the time. In the last games in which they have faced teams with a similar PPDA to West Ham’s (Crystal Palace and West Brom), Chelsea have always had more than 60% possession. But the results against counterattacking teams haven’t been perfect, losing against West Brom and assuming risks against Sheffield United or Atlético Madrid away and generating less xG than the rival in both matches. As we saw before in this analysis, West Ham are designed to face dominating teams like Chelsea and it will be a very interesting clash of styles between Moyes and Tuchel.
With West Ham leaving the flanks free, the role of Chelsea’s wing-backs will be very important. Tuchel will have to make a decision on both flanks as each of his options provide different strengths to the team.
Knowing that the Irons will concede crosses, Tuchel could opt for Reece James on the right as he has one of the best deliveries in the league, completing 1.48 crosses per 90. This option would pair very well with playing Olivier Giroud to try to reach those crosses but the Frenchman doesn’t seem to be part of Tuchel’s plans and he would probably look for other options.
Marcos Alonso as a wing-back is another great option to attack the far post and head these crosses. He wins 65.7% of his aerial duels and would be difficult to handle for West Ham’s right-back Vladimir Coufal, who only wins 51.7% of his aerials and is 13 cm (5 inches) shorter. However, Chilwell is also very good in the air and has scored a couple of goals this season, also having a better delivery than Alonso if he was the one to cross, so it wouldn’t be surprising at all if Tuchel chose the English international. Whoever plays on the left will be a very important asset for Chelsea with his late runs at the far post.
When trying to break down West Ham’s low block, Chelsea will encourage their forwards to drop and try to play between the lines. West Ham will usually be compact, so any play taking place there must be very accurate and quick but Chelsea players should have the quality to create some chances, especially without Rice on the Hammers’ team.
Also, the wide forwards tend to come inside and play in the half-spaces, making it possible to combine in those pockets of space. These movements from the forwards will also drag defenders out of position and create space in behind for other forwards or the wing-backs to run into, plus allowing the players who dropped deep to attack the box with late runs which the West Ham midfielders will need to be aware of.
Below, we can see a couple of times that doing this worked against West Ham. In the first one, Watkins comes deep, drags Ogbonna out of position and then plays a one-two with the winger, running into the space he has just created and scoring.
In the second one, William José’s movement attracts the attention of three West Ham players and Fabio Silva takes advantage of this and runs in behind, receiving a ball over the defensive line and scoring.
When building up, Chelsea won’t face many difficulties because West Ham won’t press. Anyway, if the wide centre-backs drive the ball forward and get into the opposition half and even into the final third, they’ll create advantages that could be difficult to defend for the Hammers. Azpilicueta as a natural full-back seems the most appropriate to do this on the right flank.
Finally, Chelsea will need to control West Ham’s counterattacks to win this game. The three centre-backs should ensure they have control of any direct passes but the wing-backs and central midfielders must be quick to recover their position and win second balls. Also, pushing the wide players too high could leave the wide centre-backs exposed to West Ham’s attacking players who are very good at running with the ball at their feet.
Chelsea are expected to dominate the possession but they need to be patient and hit high levels of accuracy to tear down West Ham’s defensive wall. Controlling and cutting short early the counterattacks should be their main defensive focus. If the game advances and they don’t score, the Blues will surely take risks by committing more players forward, leaving even more space for West Ham to counter and run.
With Yarmolenko, Rice, Antonio and Dawson unavailable for this game and Cresswell and Masuaku doubtful, West Ham don’t have many options to change their lineup and are expected to play a 5-4-1 with Coufal on the right side of the defence, Balbuena, Diop and Ogbonna in the middle and Ben Johnson on the left. In the middle of the park, Mark Noble and Soucek are the only options, with Fornals, Lingard and Bowen moving around both wing and the striker positions. Moyes will have good options to change the game from the bench with offensive players like Masuaku and Saïd Benrahma.
On the away side, Chelsea won’t have Thiago Silva and Darko Kovacic. Their back-three should be formed by Azpilicueta on the right, Kurt Zouma in the middle and Antonio Rudiger on the left. On the wings, Reece James and Chilwell look like the best options, with Kanté and Jorginho playing centrally. Up front, it would be difficult to replace Pulsiic, Havertz and Mount after the game they had against Crystal Palace and considering West Ham won’t concede spaces for players like Werner to run. From the bench, Tuchel could introduce Hudson-Odoi to make the right-wing more offensive, put Giroud in if they’ll rely on crosses or Werner to use his pace. Ziyech would be another interesting option to break down West Ham’s defensive structure with his creativity.
A game between teams as different as West Ham and Chelsea with a UEFA Champions League spot at stake should definitely be an interesting one. Both Moyes and Tuchel know how they want to play and will try to impose their tactics in this vibrant London derby.
If West Ham can keep a clean shit in the first minutes of the game, Chelsea will start to stress and they could commit mistakes, which the Hammers are more than ready to punish. But if Chelsea get an early goal, West Ham will be forced to take a more positive approach which isn’t their main strength and Chelsea would find more space to play with their quality players.
A West Ham win would be huge for them as they would take Chelsea’s top-four spot while also proving why the Super League won’t be a good idea until teams like the Hammers are allowed in.