West Ham Utd 1- 1 Newcastle Utd: Analysis & Review

If David Moyes is Brendan Rodgers’ kryptonite then Newcastle United might well be Moyes’. Of the non-big-six teams he has faced more than fifteen times as a manager, only Blackburn Rovers can top Newcastle’s points-per-game return against the Scotsman (1.37).

And since Moyes returned to West Ham, the results against the Magpies have been underwhelming at best, 2-2, 0-2, 2-3, 4-2 and 1-1, five points from a possible fifteen. So it was no surprise when a rejuvenated Newcastle under Eddie Howe were the first to settle on the ball on Saturday.

In fact, in the first ten minutes of the game, Newcastle had 77% possession away from home against a team twelve places above them in the league. In part, this is testament to the work Howe has done with Newcastle and the confidence they’ve gained over the last few weeks with wins over Leeds, Everton and Aston Villa but it’s also a clear indicator of a very sloppy West Ham start.

It would be easy to loop back around to the same argument about fatigue affecting the group but given that we’re just minutes into a game after a full week’s rest, tiredness isn’t an excuse here. Slow to second balls and loose in possession, we started at walking pace and could quite easily have been punished from Newcastle’s first attack when Fornals gave a free-kick away wide-left and no one attacked the resultant ball into the box leaving Joelinton clear to nip in front of Rice at the back stick and shoot. A sharp save from Fabianski kept the scores level.

I actually think we were pretty lucky here that Joelinton chose to stay on his feet. It’s a stonewall penalty if he goes down.

Having an early warning like this was probably quite lucky for us as it snapped us out of our early malaise– Uh… Straight from the following corner, we were caught cold as we allowed Newcastle to take it short, change the angle and whip a ball all the way to the back post where Joelinton was free, again, to nod the ball down to Murphy who really should’ve scored.

Tone set.

As the game settled after this frantic start, two things became immediately clear. One: Newcastle had started with the right attitude, on the front-foot, pressing well and winning every second ball. And two: West Ham’s defence down the right-side wasn’t functioning at all. Ryan Fredericks had been brought in for this one after Coufal’s horror show against Harvey Barnes last week and Fredericks made about the least convincing claim for a first-team spot possible as he was beaten time and time again by Jacob Murphy, Joe Willock and Matt Targett, picking up a yellow in the process and managing to look pretty hopeless all around.

Fredericks is so focused on covering the flank here that he is drawn away from Dawson, opening a huge gap in the half-space for Murphy to attack.

The main theme that ran throughout Fredericks’ first half performance was a lack of awareness of runners. Often far too keen to commit to the first duel he can see, he leaves gaps for others to attack and exposes himself to being easily passed around. Though there probably was a communication issue with not enough information being relayed by Soucek at times, this lack of defensive intelligence has underpinned much of Fredericks’ time with West Ham and is the key reason why his contract won’t be renewed in the summer. You can’t compete in the top half of the Premier League with a member of the back four that needs to be talked through every single game.

Moving on, the broader theme of the first half was one of insecurity in possession. From minute one to minute thirty, West Ham had a team-average of 68% pass success. A full 10% lower than Newcastle’s 78%. There were poor individual performances in possession within this (Fredericks, Soucek and Dawson) but none that topped Benrahma.

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Now, a lot of people will rush to check the pass averages and find that Soucek had 56% success in this period, Fredericks 43% (wow) and Dawson 60%, so how could Benrahma’s 63% be the worst? Many “attempted passes” go into formulating a pass accuracy metric like WhoScored?’s and you’ll often find that headers and clearances will be lumped in too. Playing at number ten, Benrahma’s pass success calculation will consist almost entirely of real attempted passes (due to his lack of involvement in defensive actions like headers or clearances) and playing in a key position for locking in possession and transitioning us forward, the Algerian keeping hold of the ball is crucial to our ability to control the game. A brief comparison to his opposite number on Saturday tells the story of the first half. Joelinton, who had an excellent game throughout and was key to transitioning Newcastle forwards quickly, had 100% passing accuracy in the same period.

So, when Newcastle won the ball and played forwards, they could rely on an effectiveness in transition that we were sorely lacking. And this is where we really miss Lanzini. Snapping back to a week earlier and limiting the sample to just the first thirty minutes, we can see that Lanzini recorded 100% pass success in the same period against Leicester. Thirteen passes, thirteen teammates found. The Argentine may not be the most dynamic individual ball-progressor as he has lacked a turn of speed since his knee injury but his ability to play progressively and securely is something that has come to be a crucial part of this team since his reintroduction as a starter in December.

Saying all of that, it was just after the thirtieth minute that we took the lead. Completely undeserved and totally against the run of play, Dawson got himself on the end of a wonderful Cresswell delivery from a free-kick that Antonio had done brilliantly to win after dribbling inside Krafth and forcing the Swede to foul him. And those three had probably been our best players in the opening period. Dawson had continued his strong individual form with a commanding defensive performance, Cresswell hadn’t been beaten at the back and was strong as ever in possession and Antonio was relishing his duel with Fabian Schar, pulling the Swiss defender into the half-space and spinning in behind to great effect.

And the goal definitely settled us as our team-average passing accuracy ticked up from 68% to 83% as we wrestled some control back. Fornals and Benrahma started to get on the ball a little more in central areas and we looked to be growing in confidence just before half-time, right when the aberration of Joe Willock’s equaliser happened. Now, I review and analyse our games live on Twitter before writing them up into article form and breaking down this goal took seven tweets so bear with me as I try and pull this together into a few cohesive paragraphs…

First of all, the initial turnover that leads to Newcastle’s surge forwards comes from a tired and lazy ball out to the right flank from Zouma. We’re heading into first half added time in a game we’re winning 1-0 and finally have some control over, security in possession is inexpensive and simple to achieve against a weak press. Why give the ball away so cheaply?

Secondly, half-time hasn’t arrived yet and you do still need to function as a team and work for each other in the last couple of minutes. As Bowen goes up for the header, Antonio makes no effort to get across Burn to be there for the knock-down and when Bowen wins it, Soucek feels the need to rush up and contest the loose ball. It’s a huge over-commitment caused by Antonio’s initial slugishness that is then not backed up by anyone covering for, or helping, Soucek.

A one-man-press is always a huge risk and as Newcastle play around Soucek and through the lines into the gap he’s left, it takes two passes for them to take four West Ham players out of the game.

Even then, the recoveries aren’t terrible and Fornals executes a recovering backwards press on Krafth to force him to carry down the touchline and into traffic where Benrahma and Cresswell can join to create a 3v1 and turnover possession. But Benrahma stops and decides to retreat into the central space to cover the gap left by Fornals, showing a complete lack of defensive intelligence akin to Fredericks. This is the kind of thing that you almost exclusively see in players who need to be heavily coached to perform their role within the team, you can actually see him pause to think about the coached rotation with Fornals and his instructions to press Shelvey rather than using any in-game perception to see that pressing Krafth would win the ball back.

So, as Krafth gallops away unopposed down the right flank with Cresswell screaming “Said!?”, it’s easy for him to get a cross in which, luckily for us, isn’t very good and drops out to the other side of the box with Murphy. Here, Murphy cuts inside to open the space for Fraser to overlap, which Soucek inexplicably doesn’t track, and plays the Scotsman through into the half-space for a free cross towards Willock and Wood.

Again, we’re bailed out by Newcastle’s lack of quality as Fraser’s cross is awful and it’s easy for Rice to get first contact but after this many mistakes it’s become infectious and Rice heads the ball backwards rather than forwards and Dawson decides to attempt a block on Willock rather than a block on the ball allowing the ex-Arsenal man to reach a leg around and poke the ball in off the post.

In all, that’s a catalogue of errors involving about eight members of the team and concluding in one of the worst goals I’ve seen us concede this season.

Half-time. 1-1.

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Swapped in for Fredericks at half-time, Ben Johnson came on and made a huge impact on the game simply by being infinitely more confident at the back. With a compact back-four offering a secure platform for the midfield to get into the game, both Rice and Soucek were able to step-up from poor first half performances into stronger and much more impactful second-halves.

Rice showed a lot more confidence and assuredness on the ball, taking more responsibility for getting us up the pitch and Soucek was able to commit more effectively to duels in the centre with less fear of the channel being exposed behind him. The whole structure of the team is vulnerable to collapse when you can’t trust the decision-making of your defenders and you can clearly see how much more control we have when we have a functioning and confident defensive quartet.

And most impressive of those in this game was Kurt Zouma. Dominant in his battle with Chris Wood, Zouma won a huge number of headers and was constantly able to clear the box with his proactive reading of the game in challenging situations. There were even a couple of excellent recovery tackles when Newcastle were able to breach the defence as we pushed higher for a winner towards the end, he was far-and-away the West Ham man of the match in this one.

But the story of the second half is really an extrapolation from the point I made about Lanzini in the first. Although Benrahma’s passing accuracy improved as the game went on, his lack of vertical movement off the ball presents real problems for the team in construction. We desperately missed Lanzini’s ability to come deep and pick up the ball in pockets of space, forcing opposition midfielders to commit to a press which he can then play through. Benrahma’s bending runs from out-to-in, after he was swapped with Fornals, as he sought to exploit the spaces created by Antonio’s drifting into the channels, gave a better showing of what the Algerian is good at, where his lack of deeper movement from the ten position showed more of what he’s missing.

And this goes for Fornals too who also offered little when moved into the centre. It’s strange that a team with so much depth in one position, versus so little depth in others, manages to look light in that slot so regularly. It’s a huge disappointment that Fornals, who was selected for Spain again in the last international break, hasn’t kicked on more this season. This is a player who undoubtedly has the ability to take control of games but hasn’t shown that consistently enough in a West Ham shirt. Often too keen to play quick incisive passes through the lines, his urgency seems to be coming at the expense of his security on the ball and this can be a major source of frustration in games when we’re being encouraged to dominate possession, which Newcastle did effectively in the second half as they sat-off and transitioned into a classic counter-attacking style.

Our build-up became more and more dysfunctional throughout this second period too as we began to circulate the ball in a horseshoe shape. Across the defence and up the left flank, back, across the defence and up the right flank, back, ad nauseum. Many would locate the problem here in Antonio’s drifting into the channels but this is something he’s done to great effect in games like this that we’ve won and while it was frustrating and a couple of poor decisions in the final third blew an average performance out of proportion in some fans’ minds, Antonio is not the main problem.

Your defence is your first line of attack and your attack is your first line of defence. Setting the tone at both ends of the pitch is crucial to getting both sides of the game right and with Benrahma’s misunderstanding of pressing from ten and our inability to progress the ball centrally through the centre backs or central midfielders, we got both wrong in this game. This is much more central to the strength of a performance than your striker ballooning a cross over the bar.

Moyes said himself after the game that he needs to go away and look at what he and the staff are doing at the moment because the team’s performance levels are not returning to where they should be. Surely the key area we have to look at is how we progress the ball through the thirds.

Though Moyes’ inclination to build and create overloads in the wide areas has brought us great success over the last two years, teams are now increasingly happy to retreat into low blocks when we have possession and create 3v2s against our wide players. We averaged 14.8 crosses per match with 32% success in 2019-20, 16.57 crosses per match with 35% success in 2020-21 and 18.3 crosses per match with 28% success so far this season.

It’s clear where the drop-off is yet the number of attempts continues to increase. Stop the supply from wide and you stop West Ham. The solution is not to cross more, in fact it’s probably to cross less. We’re at risk of becoming too one-dimensional and with just four of our seventeen crosses finding a teammate against Leicester and three of fifteen against Newcastle, it’s high-time we tried something a little different.

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