Dinamo Zagreb 0 West Ham United 2
Thursday, 16th September 2021
by Chris Wilkerson
West Ham United started their Europa League campaign with a convincing and consummate 2-0 win in Croatia.With Dinamo Zagreb arguably the toughest opponent in the group for David Moyes?EUR(TM) side, the manager will not only be delighted with three points to start the European adventure, but further pleased with a fantastic performance that turned a hard tie into an easy win.
Moyes made five changes to the draw with Southampton, seeing debut starts for Zouma and Vlasic, as well as first starts to the season for Lanzini, Diop and Fredericks. With new players and early season rust in the minds of pessimists, instead each player settled excellently and showed there is a depth to this squad, key in a season like this.
As part of a first European campaign for five years, there could be concern about tired legs and inexperience, but again these doubts can be put to bed. The players were exceptional throughout and a lot of confidence can be taken into the rest of these Europa League matches.
The Irons were in control start to finish, all built on a platform of hard work from front-to-back. The new look front three - with Lanzini a little deeper to join Rice and Soucek in midfield - gave little rest to the Zagreb defence. A flurry of early corners showed our threat, although the flow of goals from there have dried up recently, it was an intent that seemed to shock the hosts into deference.
It signalled how the half continued, The Hammers completely in control. Whereas in some situations West Ham flounder in front of a packed defence, instead the side looked to be probing and working their way into gaps behind the defence. The final ball was lacking early, but the signs were that there was joy to be had.
The pressure maintained with barely much break, Zagreb offering a quite ridiculous 35 yard drive from a freekick that never threatened Fabianski.
With the pressure on their defence barely relenting, the Croat side seemed desperate to regain control by playing the ball across their deep backline.
When in control, it works fine. When a little nervous, mistakes creep in. With the ball seemingly safe on the right side of the Zagreb, the defender kept his head down and played the ball back to the goalkeeper.
With his head down, he failed to see the figure of Michail Antonio lurking. Not for the first time, the striker pounced on a loose pass, beat a rather lackadaisical goalkeeper to the ball before rolling it into an empty net and giving the Hammers the lead and a deserved reward for their start to the game.
It imbued the side with even more confidence, and no more so was that clear than with Antonio. He had been a nuisance before, but his goal only inspired him further. There was a 15-20 minute spell from here where he was unplayable.
One fantastic round the corner pass should have seen the lead doubled, Fredericks overlapping excellently and driving into the box, but his shot was too close to Livakovic and the goalkeeper saved well. It was a shame for the right back who put in a brilliant performance on his first start of the season.
In defence, the Hammers looked calm, the French connection in the centre of defence standing up to any challenge and stepping out to defend aggressively on the front foot. Cresswell was assured throughout and the midfield were in full control.
The football was neat and tidy, and whilst the intent was there to score, Rice, Soucek and Lanzini remained a solid core to play around, keeping control of the ball and the flow of the game. This was not gung-ho and out of control, an awareness of the danger Dinamo Zagreb could possess.
The home side were underwhelming, talked up as the biggest threat in the group but not laying a glove on West Ham. There were promises of threat as the half came close to an end, but even those were defended well and failed to threaten a rather bored Fabianski.
There were moments without end product for the Hammers at the other end. Vlasic continued to probe, frustrated that a ball across goal was blocked, and then soon on the ball again but shooting wide, whilst Antonio was inches away from connecting with a header close to goal.
The only blot was a harsh booking for Lanzini, the midfielder forceful in winning the ball and booked more than likely for the feigning injury of the Zagreb player.
Half time came with the Hammers truly comfortable. The sparse home crowd, which grew as the half went on, are used to seeing easy victories, and it was either shock or distance to the pitch that meant they stayed seemingly quiet throughout.
The home side did react, bringing on a forward for a defender after the break and starting even from kick off with more intent than they?EUR(TM)d carried in the opening 45 minutes as the substitute Juric attempted to run in a straight line through the heart of the West Ham midfield. He was soon sandwiched between Rice and Soucek, presumably aware of how foolish he had been.
It is a credit to this side that they weathered the enthusiastic Zagreb start to the half with relative ease. The defence were pretty much excellent throughout, with Zouma catching the eye as the new boy everyone is desperate to perform. On this evidence, he will be starting league games as soon as possible.
There was a moment of worry as Lanzini lunged in from behind and fouled. This one should have been a yellow, and whilst the first clearly wasn?EUR(TM)t, the Argentine can count himself lucky to have stayed on the field. Moyes turned to Benrahma straight away, clearly agreeing.
Whilst the Algerian prepared, Zagreb played a loose pass in midfield. Declan Rice, as he ever does, reacted first and took possession. Rather than taking it under control, he pushed it in front of himself and started to gallop, driving from inside his own half, knocking aside a defender with ease and then into the left side of the area. Cool as you like, Rice smashed it through the goalkeeper?EUR(TM)s legs on his weaker left and the captain gave his side a 2-0 cushion that never looked like being lost.
Barely five minutes into the second half and any mild momentum the hosts had built was gone. To their credit, they refused to play the beaten side and were much improved for the second half.
They could have scored on a few occasions had luck gone with them rather than the visitors. A long range effort deflected off Zouma with Fabianski planted to the spot. He watched nervously as the ball bounced just inches wide of the opposite post.
They probed in different areas but found no joy. If Soucek wasn?EUR(TM)t heading away, it was Zouma or the improved Diop there.
It was really only once that the Hammers showed any fragility at the back.
An easy pass from left to the centre found nearly every West Ham defender slightly off balance. Ivanusec danced with the ball into the box, but when he found space to shoot, the defence had recovered to slow him. Still, his effort rolled only inches wide of a beaten Fabianski. A better connection may have caused more problems.
It was a 15 minute spell of some level of dominance for Zagreb, but one well weathered by West Ham. Soon they were in control again, displaying some of the lovely passing football this Moyes team has treated us to over the last year or so.
Whilst not carrying much threat, the ability to keep the ball for large spells sucked the life from Zagreb and helped the Hammers control the game without having to race around at breakneck speed. In a tough season, this will be key to maintaining fitness levels.
Zagreb ended the game without a shot on target, a fair reflection of the control West Ham had. They created one more opportunity, a low cross flashed across goal, but the striker?EUR(TM)s lunge was short of the ball and Fabianski claimed well.
Instead they contended with a collection of West Ham substitutes who carried on what had gone before them. Masuaku, Noble and Yarmolenko were given ten minutes, and many will have been happy to see Antonio, Fornals and Rice all given that little bit of rest.
The game petered out, and David Moyes was clearly delighted as the clean sheet remained and his side won 2-0 to top the group. This was set as their toughest challenge, his side made it look easy.
The Scot was even treated to a rendition of David Moyes?EUR(TM) Claret and Blue Army as he walked up for his post-match interview, whilst it is great to hear both sets of fans applauded the other in the streets after the game.
A special performance from a team it really is becoming obvious we should cherish whilst we can. It?EUR(TM)s West Ham in Europa, folks, and we might well be good at it this time.
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Player RatingsLukasz Fabianski
The very little that he had to do, he did well.
Maybe he should have scored, but his recovery pace in defence halted openings on more than one occasion and he got up and down the flank all game. A good return.
Defensively one of this most solid displays in a West Ham shirt. Lovely passing from the back, some good crosses early, but it was the ease in which he defended that caught the eye, especially one moment where he shepherded the winger out of play where usually he might be beaten.
Seemed more authoritative with his front foot defending, which could be down to the trust in his partner. Nothing silly, no lapses, a promising performance.
Looked in complete control at all times and solid as a rock. It?EUR(TM)s usually attacking signings that get the support excited, but Zouma looks a fantastic and assured signing.
The boy is a special, special talent. Every other week he seems to have improved another part of his game. 3 shots, a goal after an interception and 60 yard dribble, one misplaced pass of 54. He was good enough to have played in that midfield alone today, so much better was he than his opponents. Exceptional.
It is interesting to see that, even in a game we dominated, Soucek seemed to stay deeper and be more of a defensive juggernaut. 7 aerial duels won, defending his box brilliantly.
Quietly brilliant, for me. He can be an acquired taste, but his control and passing in tight areas and under pressure is unmatched in the squad. Looks a perfect fit for European football and certainly proves now that he?EUR(TM)s a central midfielder.
Heavily involved in the attacking play, yet he was notably holding his position deeper and wider as the second half went on, aware of the need to protect the full back. Whilst his three shots weren?EUR(TM)t threatening, it was good to see him having a go in dangerous areas.
A touch hit and miss, he made some simple things look difficult, and some difficult things look easy. It?EUR(TM)s encouraging how comfortable he appears on either foot, whilst his workrate was excellent. Some struggle to meet Moyes?EUR(TM) expectations for that in their early West Ham careers, but Vlasic looks to have the mettle. Chased the ball inside more than Bowen, but probably protected his flank far less.
Faded in the second half, but the instincts and awareness for his goal were nothing short of a natural striker. Brilliantly taken, it was harder than it looked, and then he bullied the Zagreb players for the rest of the half. The referee gave him nothing, probably out of sympathy for the hosts.
(Replaced Lanzini, 51) Came into a game that was basically finished. Smart flashes and carried a bit of threat.
(Replaced Vlasic, 68) Came on and did his work up and down the flank.
(Replaced Rice, 81) Just happy to see him with the armband in a European game. Controlled the ball excellently.
(Replaced Antonio, 81) A few dancing stepovers sold defenders. Looked confident he was better than his opponents.
(Replaced Fornals, 81) Some dancing feet to raise a cheer.
Did not play.
Did not play.
Match FactsWest Ham United: Lukasz Fabianski, Ryan Fredericks, Aaron Cresswell, Issa Diop, Kurt Zouma, Declan Rice, Tomas Soucek, Manuel Lanzini, Pablo Fornals, Nikola Vlasic, Michail Antonio.
Goals: Michail Antonio 21 Declan Rice 50 .
Booked: Manuel Lanzini 32 .
Sent off: None.
Dinamo Zagreb: Dinamo Zagreb: Livakovic, Sutalo, Theophile-Catherine (Juric 46), Lauritsen, Ristovski (Moharrami 63), Ademi, Misic (Tolic 75), Franjic, Ivanusec (Menalo 83), Orsic (Gojak 83), Petkovic.
Subs not used: Zagorac, Andric, Baturina, Bulat, Dilaver, Spikic, Stefulj .
Booked: Misic (66).
Sent off: None.
Referee: Ruddy Buquet.
Man of the Match: Declan Rice.