West Ham have suffered from an identity crisis in recent years. Worse still than their consistently underwhelming results has been the accompanying lack of direction and entertainment on show. Appointed manager in the summer, Manuel Pellegrini was challenged with turning this around and restoring ‘the West Ham way’, though there are concerns over his suitability for the task.
Pellegrini does not come armed with an approach as clear as his modern managerial peers. Unlike the Sarrismo of Maurizio Sarri, Jurgen Klopp’s gegenpressing or Pep Guardiola’s positional play, there is no term or soundbyte to sum up his style. However, historically his teams have played attractive and attack-minded football. And, while some felt West Ham’s summer transfer policy – like their new manager – lacked the desired strategic definition, there was some method behind the madness.
The most expensive signing was the £35 million capture of one-time Manchester United target Felipe Anderson. He, like Andriy Yarmolenko and Lucas Perez, was brought in to provide trickery, pace and precision in the final third, while the midfield was bolstered by the addition of two technically gifted string-pullers in Jack Wilshere and Carlos Sanchez. In defence, the signatures of Issa Diop and Fabian Balbuena provide Pellegrini with aggressive and mobile centre-backs to operate in a higher line, while Ryan Fredericks is the sort of overlapping full-back the Chilean loves.
Of these eight players and fellow new arrival Lukasz Fabianski, only one is under the age of 25. That player is Diop, though he previously captained Toulouse during three full seasons of regular first-team football. Evidently, the aim was not simply to give Pellegrini individuals with the technical and tactical qualities to suit his attacking style, but to bring in experienced players who could perform immediately. Unfortunately, the start hasn’t been as fast as was perhaps planned.
Handed a tough start including clashes with Liverpool, Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United, West Ham lost five of their opening eight Premier League games. In spite of the losses, however, Pellegrini repeatedly stated he would not change his approach. While he modified the system after a 1-0 defeat to Wolves, adding an extra midfielder and moving from 4-2-3-1 to 4-3-3, he has remained committed to his principles.
His West Ham tend to defend in a 4-5-1 mid-block, with a back four featuring Balbuena, Diop, Pablo Zabaleta and Arthur Masuaku sitting midway between the halfway line and their own penalty box. The addition of another central midfielder has seen Declan Rice play behind Mark Noble and Pedro Obiang, allowing them to apply more pressure in central areas while both wingers drop back to help cover the forward movement of opposing full-backs.
Offensively, Pellegrini has gotten West Ham to focus more on building possession from the back through short passes and playing through the opposition’s block, rather than over it. Rice stays close to the centre-backs to offer a passing option, though Noble also drops deep to receive possession from Balbuena or Diop.
Most of the team’s attacking progression comes down the wings. One of the most overt tactical changes Pellegrini has implemented has been the introduction of inverted wingers who cut inside and dribble at opposition defences as opposed to the previously favoured traditional wingers who used their pace to hit the by-line and cross into the box.
Anderson on the left and Yarmolenko on the right are both excellent dribblers who love to take on their opposite man, come inside and get shots off. The pair also combine with the overlapping full-backs and outer central midfielders, at times forming triangles with the intention of releasing a free man down the wing.
Up front, Marko Arnautovic’s transformation from inconsistent winger to effective line-leader has given Pellegrini the type of striker he needs. The Austrian roams to connect attacks, as opposed to simply staying on the shoulder of the last man and looking to get on the end of crosses or balls over the top. He also drops deep to act as a focal point for counter-attacks, receiving and bringing one of the wide men into play.
There have been some teething problems with Pellegrini’s style. At times there has been a lack of balance in defensive transition due to the advancement of both full-backs, while the absence of real creativity in midfield is worrying for a budding possession-based side. Noble, Rice and Obiang are steady passers, but none of them are particularly penetrative or comfortable moving ahead of the ball to offer a forward option. The returns from injury of Wilshere and Manuel Lanzini later in the season may go some way to alleviating this particular issue.
Under Pellegrini, the weekly changes of system and style that frustrated in recent seasons are gone. Defensively, the back-four is set and the low block has been dropped for a more assertive stance. Offensively, the full-backs overlap and combine well with the wingers, and the team looks to build possession more gradually through the thirds. The results so far may not catch the eye, but West Ham’s identity crisis is almost over.