West Ham United 2-2 Brighton & Hove Albion
Saturday, 26th December 2020
by Chris Wilkerson
An abysmal West Ham were lucky to take a point at home to struggling Brighton as two equaliser spared their blushes to see the game end 2-2.Questions will be asked of the manager, with David Moyes picking a side so defensive and lacking ambition that he may have shredded the goodwill he has earned from fans who were sceptical of him.
He returned to the back five that had worked so well in the early stages of the season, Ben Johnson replacing Pablo Fornals as the only personnel change from the defeat to Chelsea. That meant a second consecutive starting berth for captain Mark Noble, and a team that looked from the outset to be eight defensive players behind Bowen and Haller.
It didn't work, not for a moment, and the first half of football was arguably as poor as West Ham will have played in living memory. And that includes West Ham teams who have been pummelled by the likes of Reading and Blackburn, so devoid of any positives was the first 45.
These match reports often talk the reader through the notable events across the game, but the first half was too awful to describe, let alone there was only one incident to discuss anyway.
For a true description of it, the 30% possession at home to 17th placed Brighton, who weren't playing particularly well either, is enough to imagine just how poor West Ham were on the ball. Haller has managed to look isolated when we play other attackers, so a system where Bowen was the only other forward and still expected to defend the right flank was unsurprisingly ineffective and less than exciting.
There appeared no plan, no attacking patterns, no intent to really be an attacking threat. As the half ended, West Ham had gone 170 minutes of football without a shot on target, not since Haller's spectacular goal against Crystal Palace, a stat that does little to encourage the continued selection of Noble in central midfield.
It is worth mentioning that Cresswell had a shot with his right foot. It was the only part of the first half that didn't feel like a representation of the year 2020.
Eventually, Brighton did score. They had been invited to attack from the first whistle, and only Balbuena, Ogbonna and Coufal can take any credit as the three did seem intent to take part in the game, unlike the eight around them.
The irony is that in going back to a defensive five-man defence and adding the extra central midfielder, the flanks were less protected than usual. On this occasion, Brighton overloaded Coufal and passed around him 2v1. The ball into the box was poorly controlled by Maupay, but his poked pass was cut out by Rice, only to fall back to the striker. Maupay swivelled and stabbed the ball at goal, beating Fabianski from close range and punishing West Ham.
The team was so bad, the manager so meek, that there will have been fans happy to see the side concede as punishment for being so cowardly. Had the fans been allowed in, the half-time boos would have been thoroughly deserved.
Thankfully, mercifuly, Moyes used the half-time break to make changes. Yarmolenko and Lanzini came on, Noble and Bowen replaced so that the back five, at home to Brighton and a goal down, could be kept in place.
The changes worked, that much was obvious almost immediately. There were players in the opposition half, options to pass to and Lanzini's movement and willingness to take the ball in any position and play progressive passes made a huge difference. Two minutes in, Haller headed a shot on target. I wouldn't usually mention it, but it was 172 minutes since the last.
Yarmolenko was lively, even if his weaknesses were on show too. He doesn't work as hard as Bowen, he doesn't have much in the way of speed, he overplays, but he is always thinking about how he can threaten a defence. In a 45 minutes where he often looked off the pace of Premier League football, it was this intent that forced the equaliser.
Intent is the word most crucial to this display. The attacking intent was minimal to the point of dangerous in the first half; Yarmolenko's intent forced something to happen.
Dancing with the ball at his feet, innumerable stepovers did enough to earn the space for a cross. His curled dink didn't find the flying run of Soucek, but the Czech's dart at the ball caused panic in the Brighton defence. The ball dropped to the floor and Lanzini went with it, turning his body whilst almost laying down to poke it back to Ben Johnson.
With only his second shot in professional football, the full back opened his body up and curled the ball into the top corner, beating Sanchez in the Brighton goal and getting his side back into the game with his first ever goal.
It was a shot in the arm the team needed, an energy starting to move through them that sparked life into their attacks and certainly encouraged Soucek to make more and more marauding runs into the Brighton area.
That being said, the lethargy of the first half couldn't be shaken entirely. As Brighton regained their composure, the lack of fluency in the West Ham side soon returned. Ten minutes after that equaliser, Brighton took the lead once again.
And it was time for VAR to make its first dramatic entry into the game, although that it exited stage right having made the wrong decision made it's appearance as welcome as ever.
That being said, West Ham defended so poorly that they deserved to concede. A short corner was signposted about a minute before it happened, but Yarmolenko wasn't really interested in going over to stop it. So, the invitation to try it so warm, Brighton played their quick routine and crossed to the front post, where Soucek headed directly into Dunk. The ball dropped down and the centre back reacted quickly to flick the ball beyond Fabianski and give his side a second lead.
Slowed down replays showed the ball hitting Dunk's arm, and whilst everyone tried to remember whether it hit his arm in a way that meant it was a foul, VAR eventually decided the goal should stand. They were probably wrong, but in a world before VAR there is not one person who would say that goal shouldn't be allowed, and the West Ham defending was so poor that they deserved the punishment.
Still the back five remained, 2-1 down at home to the team in 17th. It finished the game too, and it really is starting to look like Moyes had no interest in signing Benrahma.
With a desperate need to claw something out of this horrible game, there were few signs of urgency. Brighton can be criticised for again trying to defend their lead and effectively negating the parts of their game they are good at.
And as was the narrative of the day, poor execution of unnecessarily defensive play was punished.
It was the opposite of what had happened for the Brighton second. This time, Cresswell hit a corner to the front post and, inexplicably, Dunk flicked his header on and it smashed right into the forehead of Soucek. With better accuracy than he could have dreamed, it flew off his head and smashed into the corner of the goal, levelling once more for West Ham and scoring his fourth headed goal since signing last season.
And it gave West Ham a point they really didn't deserve. For Brighton it must have felt like defeat, especially when coming up against a side who probably could not have played any worse.
For West Ham and David Moyes, it is one the rest of us should be allowed to forget, but the manager in particular should not. The performance, the first half in particular, was the manager's fault. The intent only showed weakness, the system a clear fear and mistrust of his own defence and a refusal to believe his forward players could provide enough to win that game anyway. The players were not great, but rarely will a team have been so hampered by their manager.
That said, his substitutions worked, especially Lanzini. Yarmolenko may have provided for the first goal, but Lanzini got that assist thanks to perseverance and ingenuity, whilst his play in the second half completely changed how the side functioned and he was arguably the best player on the park even in a 45-minute burst.
The game highlighted the lack of pace in this squad, with Jarrod Bowen and Declan Rice arguably the only two players in the first half who were capable of running fast enough to be considered sprinting. The best part of the day was footage of Michail Antonio running drills on the pitch at the end of the game. His presence was so sorely missed even before Masuaku was forced out through injury, but without either man this side is pedestrian.
Whatever the first half was, it should not be repeated. Find yourself a West Ham fan who defends the manager on that and you can treat yourself to never listening to their opinion again.
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Player RatingsLukasz Fabianski
There is some blame on him for both goals. Not on the inability to save them, but because he plays quite attached to his line and it allows teams to squeeze up right to goal on crosses and benefit from deflections or ricochets in the box.
Coufal is not a wingback, he does well supporting a winger and overlapping, so seeing him and Johnson as the two wide options was a horrible watch. However, he did get up to support the attacks and, most importantly, his defensive worth on the flanks is brilliant. There is very little a full back can do when 1v2 on the wing, so the first goal is on the system.
His attacking play was more limited than Masuaku, and it showed the importance of playing the right players in the right roles to make systems work, but early in the second half he made the effort to get into the box as an attacking threat. At the time, it seemed almost pointless, but his desire to do that was rewarded the second time when he did excellently to score. He was also very good defensively and it is clear that this is a young player who has the ability to play in the Premier League.
Reasonably solid and has really improved in how he will step out of defence to pressure players or take the ball. They will be disappointed that both Brighton goals came from balls into the box from wide areas, a strength earlier in the season that now seems to be a weakness to expose.
Reasonably solid, but again the defence seems to have lost a little organisation lately, and whilst the blocks and headers in the first half were good, it's probably also the absolute easiest part of his game.
Another Cresswell corner was profitable, so there is no way he is being dropped from this team, but he as otherwise very poor on the ball. His reluctance to pass to Johnson was very clear and won't have helped the young defender relax in a new role.
Evidence from this season would suggest that the progress Rice has made as an all-round midfielder is immediately limited when Noble plays. He should have done better for the first goal, even if he deserves credit for the initial awareness to intercept, and he failed to influence from the middle when the side needed his attacking ability.
Neither West Ham goal happens without him, yet he still managed to do his defensive work in midfield and get up and down the pitch all game. Only blemish is his defensive header for Brighton's second was not good enough. It's his run and presence that causes the first equaliser, whilst his goal was a reward for always making the right run and being such a threat in those situations.
The death of his Premier League career is being overplayed by fans and media alike, but Noble was a non-entity today, at least in helping his side. It is worth noting that his manager is selecting him for a job that is so out of line with his skillset, with Noble never fast enough to be a pressing midfielder even in his heyday. Now he is used for his running - a weakness - and played in a team with no movement or pace for his passing skills to be displayed. There is a role for Noble, but it is not as one of eight defensive players at home to Brighton and with Haller up front. What is most baffling is that he appears to be playing a role that Fornals has all the attributes for.
Bowen was given a thankless task. He was Antonio, up front and chasing long balls as the slower man Haller could only watch, whilst also still expected to defend up and down the right flank because the three men in midfield stayed central regardless. He was by no means one who deserved to come off in a negative sense, but he deserved the rest and to be spared from another 45 minutes of turgid football.
There must be alternatives. Yarmolenko, Bowen, Benrahma. One of them must offer enough to negate losing Haller's aerial presence. Today's game was some sort of lesson in torture for him, Bowen often defending so far away from Haller that the striker may possibly have been told to isolate by NHS Test and Trace. There was no service, the manager had picked basically eight defenders and they were all playing badly. But he cannot make anything happen and the need for some pace in behind a defence, just to open up some space for the midfield to play as defenders are forced deeper, is so clear that it's starting to look like Moyes is punishing Haller.
(Replaced Noble, 46) The assist from the floor was brilliant, almost looked like one of Antonio's old celebrations, but it was his influence on the passing and link-up around the middle of the park that made so much difference. He always wants to come and show for the ball, which then made sure long and aimless balls forward were happening less and less. He's not back to the peak of his powers, but he's certainly back to being an effective option for this side.
(Replaced Bowen, 46) A lot of moves broke down at his feet, and he has a quarter of Bowen's workrate, but he looked to make things happen in the final third and seems freed from the restrictions Moyes has placed on other players. It wasn't 45 minutes that convinced you he needs to be playing more, but it was enough to show he offers a threat to be used more regularly from the bench.
Did not play.
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Did not play. Fornals and Benrahma also unused subs.
Match FactsWest Ham United: Lukasz Fabianski, Vladimir Coufal, Ben Johnson, Fabian Balbuena, Angelo Ogbonna, Aaron Cresswell, Declan Rice, Tomas Soucek, Mark Noble, Jarrod Bowen, Sebastien Haller.
Goals: Ben Johnson 60 Tomas Soucek 82 .
Sent off: None.
Brighton & Hove Albion: Sanchez, Webster, Dunk, Burn, White, Bissouma, Lallana (Alzate 46), March, Trossard, Maupay (Jahanbaksh 90), Welbeck (Gross 83).
Subs not used: Steele, Bernardo, Veltman, Mac Allister, Propper, Zeqiri.
Goals: Maupay (44), Dunk (70).
Sent off: None.
Referee: Simon Hooper.
Man of the Match: Ben Johnson.