How Olli Harder has transformed West Ham from relegation survivors to mid-table fighters – tactical analysis
Last season, West Ham United Women were involved in a four-way survival battle at the foot of the WSL, ending up just three points ahead of demoted Bristol City Women when the season reached its conclusion. However, this season, they are sitting sixth after their first five games, having recorded just one defeat. This has largely been down to the tactics introduced by New Zealander head coach Olli Harder, who, since his arrival in December, has paid close attention to the detail of each aspect of West Ham’s style of play. He has tried to implement a free-flowing style of football that encourages his players to use any spaces available to them, whilst being strong at the back, and this tactical analysis will examine their attacking and defensive play in closer detail, as well as identifying how some of their new signings have made an impact on their play.
West Ham United Women have shown an increased level of attacking creativity this season, which has helped them to fashion more opportunities in the final third.
Under previous head coach Matt Beard, now back at Championship side Liverpool Women, West Ham tended to operate with one or sometimes two strikers at the top of the pitch, meaning they were often isolated and closed down by defenders too easily. However, Olli Harder’s increase in attacking numbers has prevented this happening as much, as well as giving the players more opportunities to link up in the final third.
Looking specifically at this image, former Glasgow City defender Zaneta Wyne has the ball on the edge of the box, with Czech Republic midfielder Katerina Svitkova, Canada forward Adriana Leon and former London Bees player Melisa Filis all making runs into the box. As a result, it is easier for them to get a shot away, as Birmingham are unable to mark all three attackers, and this is one way that West Ham have changed their attack for the better.
Their ability to get more players into the box has come from a formational tweak made by Harder. Last season, West Ham tended to play with a 5-4-1 setup, which was used 19% of the time, whilst a traditional 4-1-4-1 was their next most favoured structure, used 13% of the time. Their tactics revolved around playing through the thirds and dominating the midfield, which meant that their final third play was overlooked at times. This season, however, their two most-used formations have been a 3-4-2-1 and a 3-5-2 (used on 37% and 20% of occasions respectively), which shows how Harder has focused on using wing-backs to control the wide channels, which then allows more players to support the forwards in the middle.
In this image, midfielder Kate Longhurst, who played at right wing-back against Leicester City Women, is in so much open space on the wing, with time to pick out a teammate in the central areas. The amount of time Longhurst has comes from West Ham’s long aerial balls up the pitch, which decreases the time their opponents have to close off the spaces before West Ham move the ball up the field. However, if we look in the middle, we see how she has different passing options, and this is another positive of Harder’s alterations to their attack.
When they lose possession, West Ham’s focus switches to winning the ball as high up the pitch as possible. Here, Manchester City Women are playing out from the back, but the pass from goalkeeper Karima Benameur Taieb is hit too weakly, allowing the second West Ham attacker to make the interception. Manchester City have had plenty of problems on and off the field this season, but this particular mistake was actually a result of West Ham’s desire to regain possession, and their ability to play with the energy that Harder demands is another change we have noticed in their performances this season.
When it comes to their defensive play, West Ham United Women are generally well-organised, with good communication and awareness of each other’s positioning, which has made it difficult for opposing teams to break them down so far.
One noticeable tactic has been the way they get tight to their opponents. We have already mentioned this with regards to the forwards, but the defenders also know their roles and look to limit the options that Birmingham, on this occasion, have. The three central defenders have marked one attacker each here, whilst those closest to the wing are combining to force Northern Ireland left-back Rebecca Holloway into taking the ball down the wing, rather than crossing it inside the pitch from her current position. Birmingham’s threats so far have come from winger Jade Pennock and Greece striker Veatriki Sarri, so getting out to them early was important here.
This image also demonstrates their defensive work rate, with Aston Villa Women trying to find a way back into the game here. However, West Ham’s back five have narrowed and surrounded the player in possession; another indication of their organised setup. By making it harder for them to be beaten, West Ham have recorded improved results in their first five games, with clean sheets against Leicester and Manchester City and just four goals conceded, compared to 18 in their opening five games of last season. This defensive improvement is huge, and is another indication of the good work Harder has done on the training ground.
They are still not the finished article though, as there are occasions when they lose their concentration and leave space open. Here, Aston Villa are looking to force a way through the narrow defensive line, with German midfielder Ramona Petzelberger, in the blue circle, the immediate threat in this situation. As a result, three West Ham defenders have drifted towards her, but two others have stayed back, which has left Remi Allen in open space between the two lines. When the ball comes through to her, she scores a late equaliser for the visitors, which could have been easily prevented. Harder would no doubt have been annoyed by the concession of this goal, but that shows the high standards that he and the team have, which is another sign of their improvement under his leadership.
One of the main reasons that West Ham United Women have played with an increased purpose this season has been their summer recruitment. Last summer, the club let 10 players go and brought in 11 more, as Olli Harder looked to put his stamp on the side and set them up to match his preferred style of play.
One of their major targets was striker Claudia Walker, who was one of Birmingham’s best players last season, and she has made a big impact in the final third for West Ham. She is a striker who likes to stretch the pitch, and has the confidence to maintain possession under opposing pressure, such as here, when her former team are surrounding her and trying to limit her options. However, her ball control is excellent, and the defenders are unable to make a tackle attempt.
Walker’s shot here leads to West Ham’s only goal of the game, so her clinical nature means West Ham have a player in the final third who can convert their opportunities. It is common to see Walker linking up with others around her, and she has settled into West Ham’s style of play well.
Another major (and perhaps surprise) addition was Japan international Yui Hasegawa, who signed for the club from AC Milan Femminile. She is the type of midfielder who gets into different spaces around the pitch, always looking to create opportunities for others and break opposing defences down. Here, she twists around the Leicester defenders and passes through the gap created, allowing Iceland international Dagny Brynjarsdottir to shoot at goal. Hasegawa has great vision with the ball, meaning that she has ably filled the playmaker role Dali had last season.
Harder is looking to take West Ham up a level this season, and Hasegawa’s international quality and experience of top level European football will help them to achieve that. Against Manchester City, she was instrumental, constantly finding spaces and causing problems, so she has definitely made a difference to their attacking play this season.
A third player who joined the club over the summer was Tameka Yallop. The Australia international is a versatile player, capable of featuring in central midfield or as a wing-back/full-back, so gives West Ham different options in different formations. Harder knows her well, having previously coached her at Norwegian Toppserien side Klepp, and the fact that she was one of his first signings indicates that he knows the qualities she will bring.
In this image, she has dropped between the defence and midfield to receive the short pass from her teammate, before moving it aerially towards the three attackers on the far side of the field. With this matching several aspects of West Ham’s play that we have analysed, it is clear that Yallop has slotted into the team well.
Whilst we have looked at West Ham United Women’s performances during games, the best way to detail their improvements under Olli Harder is by comparing their statistics from last season with those from this one.
West Ham’s passing and crossing accuracies have not changed dramatically, which shows that Harder puts as much emphasis on those areas of the game as Matt Beard did beforehand. However, one change is that West Ham have already scored more average goals per game in 2021/2022, and have a higher expected goals value too, showing how their new style of play has given them more threat in attack. However, having more shots does mean that less will find the intended target, which explains the drop in their shots on target value.
The final thing to note is that they have conceded over one goal less on average per game, and that is a direct result of their change in formation, as they now have an extra player in defence who can help to close off the gaps and make it harder for opponents to cut them off.
In conclusion, it is clear from this scout report that Olli Harder has made plenty of tactical changes to West Ham United Women, helping to improve them in all areas of the game. In attack, they are now more creative and productive, with increased support from the midfielders also contributing to that, whilst the statistics indicate that their defence has proven tough to break down. If they continue to play with the high standards indicated in this analysis throughout the rest of the season, then, whilst a top four push might be just beyond them, there is no reason to think that they will be in a second consecutive relegation battle, and that is a success in itself.