West Ham United – Manchester City: Hammers Close To Sinking The City Ship (2-2)
Defensive rotations and calculated long balls exposed Manchester City’s frailties, both on and off the ball. Despite West Ham United’s defensive prowess, the visitors got the ball to the wingers faster and more aggressively to recover the scoreline in the second half, yet penalties can still kneecap the Champions.
Tactical analysis and match report by Joel Parker.
The psychological aspect remains the biggest wild card in football. We, as observers, can see how football is set up and how a goal is scored, but who is to say we know what the players are thinking?
It’s these components that can plague any team at any level. Look no further than the curious case that is Manchester City. Contential collapses are well documented, but their high-pressure games in the league have rarely seen City slip at the end. Away to Wolves could have easily provided one of these moments, a notoriously difficult place for Guardiola’s team to travel to. Four goals in an hour from Kevin de Bruyne buried those doubts early, as they stuck five past their opponents.
The result put them three points ahead with two games to go, but the great mental test would be put under strain once again. West Ham United are towards the end of a fantastic season, balancing a lengthy Europa League campaign and challenging for the top four. Such scheduling has eventually taken its toll, defeats to Chelsea and Arsenal put them further behind, whilst Frankfurt ended chances of a trophy, but victory would put hopes of a Europa League return on track.
David Moyes made just the one change, to the team that comfortably beat Norwich City 4-0 last week. This came in the midfield, as Saïd Benrahma was replaced by Tomáš Souček. Michail Antonio was a doubt but was able to start, whilst Mark Noble was on the bench, set to make his final appearance for West Ham, after almost twenty years in the first team.
Choices for Man City were more complicated, with almost all of their center-back choices being ruled out for the season. Aymeric Laporte and Fernandinho also went off with injuries against Wolves but passed fitness tests to make the pairing in the back four. Riyad Mahrez, Gabriel Jesus and Jack Grealish all came in, as they replaced İlkay Gündoğan, Raheem Sterling and Phil Foden.
Disconnected City pass into problems
Whether City are rigid or flexible deturs the quality of chances that they can make. Unfortunately for Guardiola’s team, there was a big disconnect between the forwards and the passing circuit, as West Ham swamped their own half and stopped such connectivity forming in the halfspace.
Against the low block, City usually forms a lot of rotation and emphasises play down the left side: this was no exception. Bernardo Silva often sat on the same line as Rodri, with Jack Grealish on the outside, Oleksandr Zinchenko moving on the underlap and De Bruyne drifting towards the ball side in support. Even with these dynamics in place, City’s passing was unusually slow and difficult to build any sort of rhythm without progression routes or against a low block which offered zero space.
13th minute: Example of West Ham’s defensive rotation. As the ball moved towards the wide option (in this case Silva) Bowen and Souček shifted over, to create a 1-2 down Man City’s left side and double down on the halfspace option.
When the ball reached Grealish, he often attempted to dribble the ball in the halfspace himself, instead of being able to play the ball on his left foot to the runner in this area. The ball constantly funnelled towards the wider channel, before the winger moved the ball onto their stronger foot and put the ball back towards the center, a very similar pattern on the right with Mahrez too.
Though City was more lethargic on the ball, the congestion that West Ham caused played a major factor. Their defensive success came from Jarrod Bowen and Pablo Fornals being able to occupy the outside option, with the fullbacks and ball sided midfielder blocking the halfspace area. This pattern could change too, if the fullback stepped out, the defensive rotation would take place with the winger tucking in.
West Ham was able to nullify two of City’s biggest arsenals – aggressive halfspace runs and De Bruyne being engaged. With this in mind, it’s easy to see why Guardiola’s team created very little in the opening stages.
Bowen’s inside runs provide a pack-full punch
West Ham had very little offensive product in this period, although they had created vulnerability in two areas. An Antonio charge saw the striker carry the ball through City’s half, before being ushered off the ball at the corner of the penalty box. These phases often see Kyle Walker snuff out such runs on the counterpress, but with Rodri beaten, this put Antonio against Fernandinho with Cancelo higher up, and such protection from the English fullback unavailable.
As well as a Walker-less defense, wide kicks from Łukasz Fabiański did see space form from the knockdowns that West Ham produced, with Man City not providing too much pressure on the potential receiver.
Moyes’s men hit these areas with brutal execution. Fornals got the ball in space, and put Bowen behind the defense, with Zinchenko yards away from his man. Bowen rounded Ederson and stuck the ball in the net in a well-calculated West Ham move.
23rd minute: Buildup to West Ham’s first goal. From the goalkeeper’s kick, Fornals was in too much space on Antonio’s knock-on, whilst Bowen already moved behind Zinchenko on the far side.
For a brief period, this altered the game state into more chaotic territory, as West Ham was able to move the ball through several transitions. City struggled to deal with the outball towards Antonio, nor provided a counterpress on the receiver of a knockdown. Bowen nearly connected behind Zinchenko, but Laporte swept the danger clear.
When the game slowed, a slight change could be seen on the left, as Zinchenko was now the deeper player whilst Silva pushed high on the halfspace. If City had any success, it surprisingly came from Rodri making a late run on the right, out of his usual deep position or Gabriel Jesus feinting to open up an angle for a shot, which worked on a few occasions, but not in the best of shooting locations.
City would be punished for their sluggishness again in a very similar pattern to the first goal. Fabiański’s boot towards the right was flicked on by Souček, with Antonio drifting towards that side in support and Bowen making a run in the opposite direction. Antonio dinked the ball over Laporte and Bowen was behind again. Despite Fernandinho making a recovery, Bowen was still able to provide an excellent finish.
Switch the play, switch in results
The aims of City’s passing changed going into the second period. Yet again, Grealish and Mahrez were still the targets on the outside but passes to them came from deeper and more distant areas. As a result, West Ham’s midfield line could not provide the defensive rotation as quickly, with their 4-4-2 shape not shifted towards that channel. Grealish and Mahrez’s output was a lot more successful and Man City started to put the ball into more dangerous areas as a result.
Just a few minutes into the half and City grabbed a vital early goal. West Ham dealt with the initial corner, but the second phase posed more problems as Rodri lingered in the box. His header towards the edge of the box was met by Grealish on the volley, a deflection off Craig Dawson assisted the attempt, but a goal that got City back in the game.
49th minute: Chance created from Rodri switch (Grey ball, first pass.) More space was open in the halfspace as the entire West Ham team didn’t shift over towards their left side, which saw an angle open for Mahrez to feed De Bruyne (Black ball, second pass.)
The visitors built on this momentum, even when West Ham’s midfielders dropped, they still had several routes. Their success can also be pointed to De Bruyne permanently on the right side, able to support Mahrez with direct, aggressive runs inside or hovering around the edge of the box, in space as Fornals and Declan Rice dropped further when Mahrez had the ball higher.
Moyes’s team appeared to have fallen past the fine line, between sitting back in control and being trapped. Man City was in their most comfortable state, but the odd slip up amongst the defenders was able to gift West Ham with a few chances. First was Laporte retreating and Ederson sweeping, which saw Laporte having to pass the ball towards the corner flag with Antonio pressing. Zinchenko received but gave the ball straight to Bowen and the forward moved past Rodri, only to put the ball in the side netting.
The second came from a poor pass back from Fernandinho, with Rice pressing on the City captain. This put Antonio through on the left, with Ederson far away from his goal. He scooped the ball over the goalkeeper but was not on target.
Guardiola’s team continued to circulate the ball, as West Ham were dropping all their players into the box when having to defend. Despite being compact and well organized down the channels, West Ham was not impartial to conceding a cheap free-kick, in areas that were not suitable. This would allow the opportunity for another decent delivery to come into the box. With twenty minutes left, City was able to equalize: Mahrez’s inswinger steered in by Vladimír Coufal.
Agonizing late efforts
Despite City being in their favored game state, it’s still quite unusual that Guardiola doesn’t make a change when momentum is often on their side. They stuck to their guns, but West Ham still offered a threat. Following a long pass from Aaron Cresswell, Antonio’s cross was connected by Souček, to flick the ball into space. Bowen charged and smacked the ball, the deflection off Laporte saw the ball wrap around the wrong side of the post.
Moyes put on Noble for his last hurrah, without the captain taking much of the ball as Man City were still in control and still switching play. Mahrez’s impact was aided by De Bruyne on the right, whilst Grealish’s impact was aided by Jesus on the left, as the striker often drifted towards the left and targetted Craig Dawson in the West Ham defense, from both his dribbling and aggressive movements behind the center-back.
With eight minutes left to play, City built down the left side, moving the ball inside, back towards Zinchenko on the outside and the angle opening to find Jesus. Grealish’s movement opened space for Jesus to slalom behind him, and in the process, he was brought down by Dawson. After VAR review, City was given the penalty, with Mahrez stepping up to take it, saved by Fabiański. Despite the visitors keeping pressure, Man City couldn’t find another opening, Guardiola couldn’t find a substitution and West Ham couldn’t break out, as an excellent contest came to a close.
Between the two, a draw is probably the fairest result and one which doesn’t derail either side. Man City’s objectives don’t change for next weekend, whilst West Ham confirmed a European spot next season – which competition that would be is still in the balance.
Moyes has established a very difficult team to break down but also has the profiles in the attack that can cause a lot of teams danger. They can threaten through target men and set-pieces, the types that even Man City can turn to, even if their target man is in the form of their defensive midfielder. We will see what Erling Haaland can do to add to this dynamic next season.
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