West Ham United’s Premier League season may be just seven games old, but it can already be broken down into two distinct parts – August and September.
The first month of the season was, a Carabao Cup win at League Two side Cheltenham Town aside, largely forgettable, as the Hammers conceded ten goals in the process of losing their opening three Premier League matches.
The second was much-improved, with Premier League victories achieved over Huddersfield Town and Swansea City, a point earned at West Bromwich Albion and just three goals conceded – all of them in a 3-2 home defeat by Tottenham Hotspur – in four top-flight matches.
Here, we look into the numbers behind West Ham’s dramatic defensive improvement and ask how and why Slaven Bilic’s side have tightened things up at the back.
Changing the formation
Bilic opted for a flat back four in the opening three Premier League games of the season, all of which were played away from home, at Manchester United, Southampton and Newcastle United.
The Hammers employed a 4-2-3-1 formation at Old Trafford and St James’ Park, and 4-3-3 at St Mary’s Stadium, but results were not good – 4-0, 3-2 and 3-0 defeats, to be precise.
West Ham conceded ten goals and 52 goal attempts in those three matches, at an average of 17.33/game.
Following the international break, Bilic switched – the Swansea home game aside, when he opted for a 4-4-2 ‘double six’ formation with two deep-lying central midfielders – to a three-man defence, with full-backs filling the wide midfield positions in a 3-4-3 system.
With more defenders on the pitch, West Ham immediately looked more secure and the space afforded to opposition forwards dried up.
The result? Just three goals and 37 goal attempts conceded – an average of 9.25/game – in four matches.
Putting in the hard yards
Put in the simplest terms, West Ham’s players have run further in their last four matches than they did in the previous three.
In the opening three games of the Premier League season, the Hammers covered an average of 101.41km/game. In the four since, they have covered an average of 107.08km/game.
That is 5,670 metres or 3.52 miles more than they did in the opening three matches.
Individually, too, all six Hammers defenders upped their ‘distance covered’ numbers in the four games played in September.
As these stats show, Winston Reid, Jose Fonte, Pablo Zabaleta, Aaron Cresswell, Angelo Ogbonna and James Collins all covered longer distances/game in September than they did in August.
Players winning their individual battles
While football is a team sport, games are won not just by teamwork, but by players winning their individual battles on the pitch.
For defenders, that means winning aerial battles and tackles, positioning themselves in the right place to make interceptions and clear the ball from the danger zone.
That also means keeping the ball when in possession because, if the opposition do not have it, they cannot score!
With the above in mind, consider the bullet points below and you can see why the Hammers improved their defensive performance in September:
All six West Ham defenders won more than 50 per cent of their aerial battles
James Collins (80 per cent) Winston Reid (79.25 per cent) and Pablo Zabaleta (62.33 per cent) particularly dominant in winning their individual aerial battles
The same six defenders are keeping the ball better, raising their overall pass-completion percentage from 76.3 per cent in August to 77 per cent in September
Of the six, Fonte, Ogbonna and Zabaleta have all markedly improved their individual completion percentages in recent weeks.
The Fonte/Reid factor
Winston Reid and Jose Fonte did not spend a single minute on the pitch together in West Ham’s opening three Premier League matches.
However, aside from the final 16 minutes of the 3-2 defeat by Tottenham Hotspur on Saturday 23 September, when Slaven Bilic changed formation in a bid to overturn a 3-1 deficit, the pair have been on the pitch for every second of the Hammers’ four top-flight fixtures in September.
As part of a three-man central defensive unit against Huddersfield and West Brom, and then as a pair for the visit of Swansea City, the experienced duo have shored things up considerably at the back.
In the 344 minutes Reid and Fonte have shared a pitch (not including added time), West Ham have conceded three goals – or one goal every 114.66 minutes.
In the 286 minutes Reid and Fonte were not on the pitch together, West Ham conceded ten goals – or one goal every 28.6 minutes.
Keeping the opposition at arm’s length
It stands to reason that, the further your opponents are from your goal when they are in possession, the less likely they are to score against you.
The numbers prove that theory to be true, with the number of times West Ham’s opponents have brought the ball into their final third and penalty area both much lower in September than the preceding month.
In August, the Hammers conceded an average of 58.66 final third entries, 37 penalty area entries and 22.67 crosses/game.
With the opposition closer to West Ham’s goal, they gave up 17.33 shots, 9.33 shots from inside the penalty area and 6.67 shots on target/game.
However, in September, all those figures had fallen significantly.
West Ham conceded just 37 final third entries, 23 penalty area entries and 17.75 crosses/game, leading to far fewer chances being created and taken by their opponents.
In four games last month, the Hammers allowed just an average of 9.25 shots, 3.5 shots from inside their penalty area and 2.5 shots on target/game.