The Analyst: How can Norwich City overcome high-flying West Ham?
- Credit: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd
West Ham United are enjoying another impressive season under the stewardship of David Moyes.
Even though post-Manchester United, the Scottish coach has been the butt of jokes and ridiculed, he is proving his doubters wrong with some exceptional coaching at the London Stadium.
West Ham sit fifth in the Premier League on merit. They have a tactical system that is robust and allows them to compete in every match, irrespective of the opponents.
Norwich face a daunting prospect at the London Stadium on Wednesday evening, but there are areas where Dean Smith can target and seek to exploit as he bids to change his team's fortunes.
Better without the ball?
There is a striking anomaly when you look at the possession rankings in the Premier League.
There is a trend that those who enjoy more of the ball on average per game sit higher in the table. But when you cast your eyes at the bottom of the list, there is one team that stands out.
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That is West Ham.
Averaging just 45.6% of possession per game, Moyes' men sit sixth from bottom in terms of how much of the ball they see. But this is deliberate - the Hammers are a better side without the ball.
Much is made of the sides who are capable of controlling games through their use of the ball, but West Ham allow their opponents possession - in fact, they prefer it.
Given they have players capable of progressing the ball through running, Declan Rice, Jarrod Bowen, Nikola Vlasic, Michail Antonio, there is less of a reliance on the construction of chances through retaining the ball or building up play slowly.
But through Rice in particular but also with Pablo Fornals, Bowen etc, they have the quality for variation. Combined with an aerial threat that makes it difficult to force them into wide areas.
Whilst their average possession share is low, they are extremely effective with how they use the ball. They average 11.81 shots on target, get 35.8% of their efforts on target and 241 of their 257 shots have come from open play.
Rice is the key to their effectiveness. His ball-winning abilities mean West Ham can afford to leave their attacking players high up the pitch and overload their opposition when possession is reclaimed.
In many ways, it is tough to formulate a game plan because West Ham are capable of playing direct, utilising Antonio's physicality, they can pass through a press via Rice predominantly but also have the quality to unlock defences in a low block.
That is the challenge facing Smith and City on Wednesday evening. Maybe, it is a case of squandering possession and absorbing pressure whilst hoping to utilise the pace of Rashica on the break.
But the performance data shows they do give away chances of their own and concede possession relatively regularly. If Norwich can make this is a football match rather than a contest based on physicality, then there is a real chance for them to threaten.
Struggles against a three at the back?
It was interesting to hear Smith admit he was giving consideration to deploying a three at the back at the London Stadium.
The Hammers have faced such a formation on three occasions this term, against Brentford, Wolverhampton Wanderers and Chelsea and lost two of those three matches.
Those defeats arrived against Brentford and Wolves and were similar in that West Ham deployed their favoured 4-2-3-1 formation. In their victory against Chelsea, they matched the 3-4-2-1 system used by Thomas Tuchel.
In both of the defeats after three at the back formations, West Ham's opponents averaged a greater number of expected goals and restricted the amount of chances provided to the likes of Antonio and Bowen.
Brentford's 2-1 victory at the London Stadium can perhaps offer a blueprint to City as to how to beat West Ham.
In a 3-5-2 shape, Frank made a decision to hand West Ham possession and then sought to utilise the pace they possess in transition to exploit the space left by the Hammers' full-backs, who do often look to overlap their inverted wingers.
There was an element of bravery in their approach, Frank instructed his attacking players to get beyond Rice and Soucek, meaning they could profit from any turnover and create an overload.
Wolves, who beat West Ham 1-0 using a 3-4-3 formation, used a more possession-based approach but once again sought to utilise transitions.
There is a blueprint for Smith should he wish to follow it, especially given the way Brentford went about beating Moyes' side back in October.
How do Norwich go about halting Declan Rice?
There are few better midfielders in the Premier League than Declan Rice at the moment.
Eventually, he will move to a club challenging on all fronts, both domestically and in Europe. His fee is likely to be north of £100m, the hype around his performances justified.
Along with Soucek, he is a major cog in a physically intimidating midfield and has the capabilities to complete all the aspects of the game with real quality and poise.
He can play with both feet, can play progressive passes, can drive forward but is crucially strong in his defensive work, particularly when it comes to recovering possession.
Soucek is more of a box to box midfielder than Rice, but his performances have begun to look slightly weary in the last month or so.
It isn't too much of a stretch to compare Rice to Ngolo Kante, both are extremely strong off the ball and willing runners.
Rice is a tenacious player, strong in the tackle and combative in the air. He is two-footed, and able to jockey opponents in either direction, and to turn and sprint either way should his opponent knock the ball past him and try and beat him for pace.
Whilst his ball-playing numbers aren't as strong as many would like, he is improving in this area, as aforementioned, if afforded the time and space to pick a pass, he is capable of doing so.
When West Ham's left-back pushes on, he often likes to occupy this position when his team are in possession in order to switch play to the right-hand side.
Playing an attacking midfielder to occupy Rice may be the natural solution but would be reliant on midfielders running beyond the ball in those attacking phases to hurt West Ham from an attacking sense.
There is also an argument for letting him have the ball, given he is often conservative when it comes to how he uses it.
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