Why West Ham are the worst 'pressing' team in Europe – and does it even matter?

  • by Ben Green
  • Filed: Saturday, 1st October 2022

There was a moment against Everton that captured the collective mood of every West Ham fan tightly-packed in the Bullens Road Stand: David Moyes frantically tapping his watch as Frank Lampard’s men contrived to waste time and run down the clock. The sense of irony certainly wasn’t lost on myself. I (and I assume many others in the away end) had been mentality performing that same act towards Moyes from minute one.

As the team sheet filtered through an hour before kick-off, a sinking feeling set in, but (and I suppose this is the crux of the issue) an expected one. West Ham have not performed well for a long time, you can count the good performances over the last nine months or so on one hand. You would, therefore, be forgiven for thinking Moyes would have few inhibitions shuffling the pack in search of a more successful formula.

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However, Moyes, as we know (and this is not necessarily a bad thing), is a manager who is staunchly wedded to his own tactical convictions, seemingly unable to shift from the tried-and-tested. There’s, of course, a Janus-faced aspect to this: an admiration for a manager who knows what works for him, but a deeper concern that he’s unable to adapt and swim with the currents — not against them.

Of course, Moyes deserves to select whomever he chooses. In my lifetime, he is the best West Ham manager I’ve had the pleasure of rooting for. And I’m not going to start calling for the metaphorical noose to tighten around his neck. He’s earned his time to turn this around, and I believe he will. But, that certainly doesn’t mean he’s impervious to criticism, nor forensic examination.

I think the biggest concern from the Everton game was not the personnel selected by Moyes, but rather the system — and then a reluctance to tweak that system. It became apparent minutes into the contest that Everton’s midfield composition of Idrissa Gueye, Amadou Onana and the effectively-repurposed Alex Iwobi offered the perfect blend of attributes to muzzle West Ham’s own double-pivot of Declan Rice and Tomas Soucek.

There was a fluidity and cohesion about Lampard’s midfield trident, a synergy that offered verticality and a tempo-setting tenacity that meant West Ham struggled to find their own rhythm as the hosts swarmed football in cyclical waves of pressure. From where I was sat it seemed imperative that a change of system was needed — and quick. As it happened, no such change was forthcoming.

Instead, the tweaks that were made, came in the guise of personnel — like-for-like — and not system, shape, or formation. The effectively-defanged Lucas Paqueta made way for Said Benrahma, Pablo Fornals trudged off for Maxwel Cornet, and Michail Antonio swapped places with Gianluca Scamacca. And as possibly expected, the personnel shift didn’t really change the complexion of the contest.

Chances fell, make no mistake, but looking at the match as a whole, rather than through a highlights-reel lens, West Ham didn’t play well, a point Moyes himself stressed after the contest. They were often one-dimensional, struggled to unlock Paqueta (though his own languid style was certainly complicit in this) and lacked the pressing conviction to really put the hosts under any form of sustained and concerted pressure. And it's that final point, for me, that's at the heart of the issue currently afflicting West Ham.

As someone who works in data analytics for football, I don’t want to bore you with the same regurgitated metrics about xG (expected goals), 'assists per 90', etc. As we know, selective statistics can and often are carefully cherry-picked to suit certain narratives and reinforce rhetorics, though none of the aforementioned look particularly good for us.

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For example, we could say that Aaron Cresswell is the fifth-best playmaker this season among defenders in the Premier League based on chances created (10). However, scratch beneath the surface, and you can see that only five of those chances have been created from open play, which puts him down in joint-ninth below Bournemouth's Jordan Zemura and Everton's Vitaliy Mykolenko. In fact, he currently sits level with Newcastle centre-back Fabian Schar and Brighton's Pervis Estupinan (who has only played four matches).

So, always be careful how you view statistics in football. But, that's not to say analysing the game through data isn't useful; some metrics offer a fascinating insight into playing styles. And there is one metric, in particular, that I do want to draw your attention to. For casual observers and possibly even some statisticians, this will be a very alien concept, but given the advancement of statistics in post-match analysis, it may not be long before the concept 'PPDA' shifts from esoteric to everyday parlance.

PPDA for the uninitiated refers to “the number of opposition passes allowed outside of the pressing team's own defensive third, divided by the number of defensive actions by the pressing team outside of their own defensive third”.

So what does that actually mean? Well, in essence, it records how intense a team presses by measuring the number of passes you allow an opponent in their ‘defensive’ area of the pitch (usually 3/5ths of the pitch). A high figure indicates more opposition passing per defensive action, so a weak press, and a low figure indicates less opposition passing per defensive action, so an effective press (I'll let you guess which one of these West Ham falls into).

In absolute layman's terms it's how many passes you allow the opposition (in their territory) before attempting to stop them. But why does this matter?

West Ham, as we know, are not a pressing team, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing; we can’t all play froth-mouthed, high-octane gegenpressing and expect miracles to work. But what we should be concerned about is that, not only are West Ham not in the highest percentile of 'high pressers' — but we are, in fact, the worst pressing team in the Premier League (and Europe), based on intensity. Our PPDA values at 20.2 according to The Analyst. In other words, we allow the opposition at least 20 passes in their own half (and a bit of ours) before we initiate a defensive action (often defined as tackles, interceptions, blocks, fouls, etc). We are the only club this season to surpass the 20-mark.

Now again, this is not necessarily a bad thing. Every club has their own style and system. Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid, for example, ranked 14th and 15th respectively last season in La Liga for PPDA (Atleti are currently last this season, though they haven't exactly started 2022/23 like a house on fire). Diego Simeone, as we know, embraces a low-block, rigid system that looks to keep space congested and tight, before allowing the creative unpredictability of his (world class) attackers to unlock doors. Carlo Ancelotti, likewise, espouses a more possession-based brand that looks to build out from the back, dominate the midfield zone, and exploit the flanks with their ingenious wing-wizards and overlapping full-backs. It will also come as no surprise to see Jose Mourinho's Roma currently ranked dead last for PPDA in Serie A this term.

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Simply put, there is no single tactical panacea; contrasting styles and brands constitute the fabric of football. But I do believe our own press (or lack of) is slightly concerning. Last season we ranked in the bottom three alongside Watford and Norwich, and this season we are the only club in Europe's top five leagues to surpass the 20-mark — so if we're using PPDA as our measure for 'pressing' here, we are effectively the worst pressing team in Europe this season. And it's evident without even looking at the data. There is an uncertainty about West Ham's press that often means we can be easily bypassed in the opposition's own half.

As Antonio goes to press one centre-back, Bowen half attempts to push up, while Fornals drops deep (and vice versa), with the full-backs and midfielders (Rice and Soucek) holding their shape further back in a low block. This often means Antonio's persistent harrying almost becomes redundant and he exudes far too much energy chasing shadows. Rather than a collective press, I like to think we resemble Squid Game contestants in 'Red Light, Green Light'. There's uncertainty; some go, others hesitate.

And it should be stressed here that West Ham's current malaise will not simply be resolved by pushing higher up the pitch and pressing more. It takes months, if not years, to implement such a style of effective counterpressing — and as mentioned, there really isn't a tactical gold standard in football, every system has its merits. But, I wanted to highlight the sheer disparity between West Ham and the rest of Europe with this particular metric, as I believe it goes some way to explaining the current lack of cohesion.

So, what worked so well for us last season then if we ranked so low for PPDA? Well, some may argue it's actually been a while since we last played consistently well, rather than the occasional 'good' game here and there. Our last run of successive Premier League wins came in January. In fact, we've won just six Premier League games in the last 24 matches. For a club ostensibly trying to gatecrash the so-called 'Big Six', that is not European-challenging form.

Could it simply be ill-fortune? Well, perhaps last season, Benrahma's post-cruncher breaches Asmir Begovic's net; Rice scores his penalty against a newly-promoted club; VAR shines brightly upon us at Stamford Bridge; and Antonio curls one past Hugo Lloris for three points rather than the woodwork. These may all be contributing factors.

Of course, football is ever-evolving, and those that fail to move with the times get left behind. In a results-driven industry that cares little for the sentimental, now may be the time for Moyes to finally push the boat out, abandon his tried-and-tested and experiment with a new system, new personnel, a new belief – which may just give us a fresh perspective, renewed invention and vigour.

I believe Moyes has the experience and know-how to turn this around; he just needs to act now before the current really picks up.

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