West Ham United 0 Dinamo Zagreb 1
Thursday, 9th December 2021
by Chris Wilkerson
West Ham’s unbeaten run in the Europa League came to an end this Thursday evening, a much-changed side beaten 1-0 by second-placed Dinamo Zagreb.With the luxury of first place and qualification already confirmed, the manager was given the opportunity to hand Europa League debuts to a handful of academy products.
A whole back four came from the youth teams, with Ashby, Baptiste, Alese and Longelo making up the defence, as well as a chance for a first start up front for Sonny Perkins.
The inexperience in the back line was bound to be tested by a Dinamo Zagreb side who needed a result in London to assure their own qualification.
It was maybe that lack of experience that allowed Orsic time and space on the edge of the area in the third minute. But any hopes of an easy welcome to the first team were burst as the Croatian took advantage and released a pearler from the left and across goal into the top corner, with Areola scrambling but no match for a quite sensational goal.
Sometimes when you want a kind opening to ease your nerves, top level sport decides otherwise. Rory Burns may well sympathise with the shocked defence.
The next few minutes were about settling the nerves, and it was not unnoticed that the captain slowed possession down to give many of the young defenders a touch of the ball to get them comfortable.
Injuries permitting, this may well be one of the last games our captain starts for this club, and how special it was for him to lead on a new generation for a European tie in East London.
With all the changes across the team, the performance lacked fluency. Attacks were not as sharp as West Ham fans have come accustomed to, whilst a lack of physical or aerial threat was also clear. Perkins worked hard, but was often easily beaten by any long balls and aerial duels.
The influence of Pablo Fornals grew as the half went on, the Spaniard showing the confidence of a player having a fine season, and one who knew his seniority in the team.
He seemed to go looking for the ball to take off his teammates, trying to take charge and will those around him to do more and to do it better.
The side played most of the first half in a 4-2-3-1 shape, and about the most interesting part of the evening from a West Ham perspective was again seeing Moyes change to something resembling a 4-2-2-2 as the game went on. It had happened against Chelsea at the weekend and happened again here, suggesting the manager has the system at the forefront of his thoughts.
It was needed in the first half, Perkins just unable to establish a grip of anything up front. Where he was left to physical battles, his older and more experienced opponents had him beat. Equally, some of his layoffs and interplay were lacking; this would have been a real education for him.
Much credit should go to the midfield duo of Kral and Noble, the pair arguably the two standout performers.
With an attack lacking any synchronicity and a defence of youth products, the two of them taking control in the centre kept the side on top. For all this game lacked a spark, and for the most part was a series of consistently failing passages of play, Noble and Kral were good with and without the ball, both doing a job of protecting the defence and being a platform for those further forward to play from. That they couldn?EUR(TM)t does not damn the pair in the engine room.
A match report itself will usually give some explanation to events, but aside from the goal, this game lacked any. Areola was drawn into a few decent saves, but never anything that taxing.
You could watch that 90 minutes again and still fail to see West Ham have a chance. They were the dominant side, which in itself is a shift in this club?EUR(TM)s stature. Even with half a second string and eventually seven academy players playing, Dinamo allowed West Ham to dictate and dare not overcommit. True, the early goal was always going to change their approach, given a draw would have confirmed their qualification regardless of the other result, but they were clearly daunted by the opposition.
To tell the story of the game, it really is more pertinent to highlight that for all the control of the ball the home side had, they could never control the tempo. Dinamo defended deep and in numbers, and West Ham could find little inspiration to break through. They appeared unable to raise the speed of play to unsettle their opponents, nor offer the guile to take advantage of their possession.
For every opening, there was a poor choice or a poor touch. If not those, there were balls into the box that failed to find their target, whether they be played poorly or attempts that needed to be almost too precise to work. Whilst Perkins struggled, he was offered very little of note in supply.
Yarmolenko was eventually moved up to play alongside the young striker, but did little to help. Talk in the press of his desire to move has become more common, and if this is his final appearance in claret and blue, he did little to convince anyone that he will be missed.
Some credit should be given to the desire and effort of Nikola Vlasic. The Croat has failed to shine so far in a West Ham shirt, but there were again flashes here of what he has to offer. Unfortunately for him and his side, he could not find anything to really threaten his opponents in the final third.
Still, the hard work will not have gone unnoticed. He certainly impressed more than second half substitute Sa??d Benrahma, who had an underwhelming 45 minutes. The first half looks to be crying out for someone who could beat players and stamp quality onto the game. Benrahma was a long way short of doing that.
If anything were to sum up the performance, it may well have been the corners. Each of the six deliveries was poor, a shame considering how much of a threat they have been in recent times. So many hit the first man, and then others overcompensated by hammering balls way beyond the numbers in the box.
What the fans were there for, at least what they were interested in, was the performances of the young players.
Most impressive was Longelo, the left back driving forward on multiple occasions with the ball at his feet. It was these mazy runs that caused the most excitement in the stands. Attention was on Alese and Baptiste, but Longelo caught the eye and did enough to make an impression of the West Ham support.
The two young centre backs grew into the game well. What was most cheering was how clearly they were trusted to defend as West Ham tried to force a breakthrough. In some of these slow and drawn out passages of attacking play, Baptiste and Alese were left at the back alone, and both had good covering pace to track runners on counters. They fought well in physical duels, and whilst neither did much to convince they could fill a first team void with the injuries at the moment, they can both be happy to have given sound performances on a bigger stage.
Ashby left an impression too, looking keen to bomb forward and defending with fight.
It was only Perkins who looked to really struggle in the game, but the youngster can be forgiven as he played in an attacking unit that failed to ever ignite.
Late on in the game, with around five minutes remaining, Moyes chucked on two more. Keenan Forson made his debut, and Freddie Potts was also introduced, becoming the second son of Steve Potts to make a West Ham appearance.
The game itself had long finished as a contest, the early goal pretty much killing it. It felt like a glorified friendly not long into proceedings. There was very little bite, no tension and even less cohesion in the West Ham ranks. Arguably there was more entertainment in watching the away side?EUR(TM)s 65 fans jumping up and down for almost all of the 90 minutes.
Instead it felt a mild celebration of what West Ham had achieved. How great it was for this side to be able to play players from the youth team, such was their dominance in the group stages. First place secured, the reward was to give these lads another step in their education, whilst Kral, Areola and Vlasic were given another 90 minutes in their integration to this squad.
Now the glamour of Europe can be put to one side. The round of 16 begins on March 10th, with the draw taking place on February 25th. By that point, teams in second place in the groups will have faced those third-placed Champions League sides, with names like Barcelona, Borussia Dortmund, Sevilla and RB Leipzig entering the competition now.
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Player RatingsAlphonse Areola
Left completely outdone by a fantastic early goal, he reacted well when he was tested later on.
Willing and energetic, he failed to really find a final ball and both he and Baptiste will wonder whether they could have made it harder for the goal.
Deserves praise for his confidence on the ball. He could have played safe passes or passed up the opportunity to run forward, but he took on the responsibility when he saw the opportunity. Overlapped well and can be very proud.
As above, probably could have pressured the shot better. After that, he slowly got into things and stood up to the demands of the game well.
Whilst it was clear he was at a physical disadvantage, he challenged bravely and got better in the air as the game went on. Calm on the ball too.
A few sloppy passes and a few silly attempts at clever passes in the final third, but he and Kral got to grips with things in the middle to manage West Ham and especially the young defenders through the game.
Shades it from Noble as he was doing a lot more of the ugly work whilst also getting up and down a lot more. He clearly isn?EUR(TM)t a naturally creative midfielder but he is adding more to his game than being merely just a defensive shield. At that job, he was key to stopping the young defence being overwhelmed.
In a flat team, he looked to try and force a tempo into his timid teammates and he at least made the effort. Let down by others around him.
There were signs today of something more and he really deserves to be playing in games alongside the stars in this squad before he is really judged.
Considering this is meant to be a chance for him to show his class, he looked a long way off his best. Maybe he?EUR(TM)s just ready to go.
Nothing really worked for Sonny, but he worked relentlessly hard and refused to give up.
(Replaced Fornals, 45) Came on with energy but couldn?EUR(TM)t put it to good use. His touch was poor and he just didn?EUR(TM)t look focused.
(Replaced Yarmolenko, 87) The game may as well have been over by the time he came on.
(Replaced Perkins, 87) As above.
Did not play.
Did not play.
Did not play.
Did not play.
Match FactsWest Ham United: Alphonse Areola, Harrison Ashby, Emmanuel Longelo, Jamal Baptiste, Ajibola Alese, Mark Noble, Alex Kral, Pablo Fornals, Nikola Vlasic, Andriy Yarmolenko, Sonny Perkins.
Sent off: None.
Dinamo Zagreb: Livakovic, Sutalo, Theophile-Catherine, Peric, Ristovski, Ademi (Bulat 71), Gojak, Stefulj (Dilaver 80), Ivanusec, Andric (Juric 64), Orsic (Misic 64).
Subs not used: Zagorac, Cavlina, Moharrami, Lauritsen, Tolic, Baturina, Menalo, Spikic.
Goals: Orsic (3).
Booked: Ristovski (30), Ivanusec (44), Misic (85).
Sent off: None.
Referee: Maurizio Mariani.
Man of the Match: Alex Kral.