Phew! As clean sheets go that was the most fortunate that I can remember for some time. After the game Hughton even admitted that we ‘rode our luck’ and West Ham boss Pellegrini somewhat justifiably claimed his side were the better team. So whilst we walked away with the three points, there’s plenty to improve on from another hectic Albion game. One which I’ve tried to make some sense of below.
Poor in possession – whilst there were positives, nonetheless this game highlighted again some of the issues from recent games, one of which being our poor ball retention. Hughton said after the game that the players ‘made some poor choices in possession’, which frankly undersells the issue somewhat.
The stats tell the story: 36% possession, 68% passing accuracy, frankly we were below our usual standard, not good enough and got away with one. The lack of possession was clearly somewhat a tactic to dispel West Ham’s threat on the counter attack, but nonetheless the poor ball retention when in possession was a real issue that threatened to cost the Albion all three points had West Ham been better in the final third. Much of the talk before the game was of the strengths of the Hammers front three and the threat it posed to the Albion defence, but considering the amount of possession we gifted them, they nonetheless offered a relatively meek threat that the Albion back four dealt with well.
This is particularly true of gifting free kicks in dangerous positions, something we’ve discussed before. The more the Albion gave the ball away the more players like Duffy and Kayal were forced to make a tactical foul to prevent instant danger whilst giving away a set piece around the edge of the box. The comforting thing is that whilst the Albion faced nine corners and a number of free kicks from outside the box we defended them well on the whole, progress from last season that shows the work on the training ground is paying off.
It can be said that the issue of poor ball retention is exaggerated as we were missing Dale Stephens, which is true. He’s often been the lynchpin of the side and as recent performances have shown you only really notice how key certain players are when they’re not there. But some of the passing was reminiscent of the first half performance away to Southampton when we put on probably our worst 45 minutes of the season so far, barely stringing a pass together at times, a game which Stephens was involved.
Propper was at fault both then and in my opinion last night too. He made too many sloppy passes and made too many passes where better options were available to build play and the move soon broke down. That said news of his injury is a blow, especially with Stephens still out. He was key last season after a slow start and I have no doubt this season he will have the same impact. But as one door closes, a Bissouma sized window opens.
Bruno bought in for composure… ironic? – Hughton stated in his interview with Sky Sports after the game that captain Bruno was brought into the side to provide some composure on the ball, which is ironic considering how bad our ball retention was.
In fact Bruno had the 3rd worst passing accuracy of any Albion outfield player (61.5%) only beaten by Duffy and Murray, players in positions you’d expect a lower than average percentage, whereas the other players in the wide positions were much nearer a 70% accuracy last night, that said you’d normally expect nearer an 80% accuracy from those areas of the pitch.
Bruno also struggled to get forward, often penned in by West Ham’s attacking threat, this made things especially difficult as the full backs are often a key attacking outlet for the Albion. Coupled that with Bong’s more defensive nature it’s no wonder West Ham dominated possession.
Bruno’s unusually quiet attacking game is demonstrated by him making no crosses. Bruno averaged nearly 2 crosses a game last season, a stat Montoya has equaled in his period in the side, something that may tempt Hughton to revert back to Montoya for the game against Newcastle after the international break.
‘Brave’ defending from the centre backs – one thing that doesn’t need improving on is the centre back partnership of Dunk and Duffy. They both put in a compete defensive performance, blocking, heading away and generally dealing with any attacks the Albion faced. The threat posed by the West Ham front three was diminished by this wonderful defensive partnership and whilst we rode our luck, nonetheless they did their jobs well. Some are saying this is the best defensive partnership in the club’s history, five more years of this and they’ll be no one doubting the fact.
Izquierdo’s impact – another of the real positives of the night was the return to the AMEX of Jose Izquierdo, who offered a great impact as a late sub. Whilst he came on in the late stages of the game where we were mostly seeing out the game by defending very deep, the threat was always there. He showed with his pace on the break and willingness to attack what a threat he is. All this with the added danger of the ability to shoot from long range, something West Ham will know all about from last season. In fact this could have led to a second, had Locadia not strayed marginally offside before he put the ball past Fabianski off the rebound of an Izquierdo shot.
The Brilliant Solly March – in a bold and surprising move Chris Hughton asked Solly March to play the number ten/second striker role behind Glenn Murray and what we saw certainly in the first half was plenty of good reasons to repeat the tactic. With the role usually filled by the injured Pascal Gross, March filled in and offered a very different threat to the German.
Whilst Gross’s ability to pick out a pass and create a chance is second to none, a front two of him and Murray lacks any real threat from pace, which in a game with such low possession stats can counteract any attacking threat. It was this pace and ability to take on defenders and stretch the play that March showed which caused West Ham issues on a number of occasions and a bit of better decision making on a couple of those occasions from March could have seen the Albion further ahead at the break.
It’s notable that despite all the attacking talent brought into the squad in the last two transfer windows, that it’s the long serving established players like Knockaert, March and Murray that are continuing to create most of the attacking threat for the Albion.
Murray completely unmarked? – how you can leave him unmarked in the box is criminal! This goal was a great example of Murray’s previously discussed tactic of standing still whilst others move around you. In doing so he again found himself in the right place at the right time to score the winner. He also did the same to be in the right place at the right time to block a goal bound shot from Arnautovic with the game still at nil-nil Another vintage display from Mr Murray.
Summing up – so whilst there’s plenty to improve on there’s also plenty to be thankful for, particularly the defensive abilities of Dunk and Duffy and the goal scoring ability of Murray. Once again it was the ability to win the battle in both penalty areas that told for the Albion rather than the battle in the midfield, which was quite clearly lost. With eight points from eight games we enter the point picking period ahead of many people’s expectations (including my own), which is kudos to Hughton’s tactics and team selection.