Manchester City returned from the international break to continue their undefeated streak in the Premier League, defeating West Ham United 4 - 0 at the London Stadium on Saturday. The final score would indicate another dominate performance by the Blues, and they certainly were the better team, but I actually came away from this match fairly impressed by the Hammers. They are clearly a talented team on paper, especially when you consider the attacking talent up front, and it finally seems like the pieces are starting to come together, despite the lopsided defeat. West Ham did a great job of disrupting the standard flow of City’s attack and were smart about how they orchestrated their counters.
So what did West Ham exactly do to give City more problems than we are accustomed to seeing?
Well for starters, they have an intelligent, proven manager in Manuel Pellegrini, who all City fans are well accustomed to from his time in Manchester. Pellegrini devised a simple, yet effective, gameplan that proved to work on both ends of the pitch. This gameplan was based in the mindset that West Ham would not sit deep, invite pressure, and allow City to batter them repeatedly until the levees broke. Instead, Pellegrini had his team press up the field, especially on City players receiving the ball with their backs to goal in the midfield. Doing so often forced the Blues to return the pass to the backline, if they managed to retain possession at all.
When Pep Guardiola’s side beat the pressure, West Ham fell back in their final third but only defended with 8 players. Marko Arnautović and Michail Antonio tended to stay around the halfway line, providing multiple outlet options while also preventing City’s center backs from getting too involved in the attack. This left two banks for four to defend City’s attack with straightforward marking assignments (fullbacks on wingers, wide midfielders on fullbacks, etc.). Pellegrini didn’t leave his men to defend one-on-one however, having his backline stay on their heels with the main priority not letting anyone in behind. The pressure was then dropped down from the midfield line, creating a strong bracket around the City attacking force.
West Ham maintained their shape incredibly well, specifically in the center of the pitch where center backs Fabián Balbuena and Issa Diop and central midfielders Pedro Obiang and Declan Rice provided a stable box that City had difficulty penetrating. Pep Guardiola tried a few things to account for this. The most obvious adjustment City made was interchanging the attackers in order to subvert the Hammers’ expected marking assignments. Sergio Aguero, who had a quiet day in terms of scoring chances (1 shot on goal and 0.11 expected goals), was moved all over the pitch. He spent a lot of time out on the wing while Sane/Sterling would tuck in or would drop into the midfield with Gundogan looking to run in behind. His heat map, shown below, how City tried to pull West Ham’s shape apart by moving around their primary scoring threat.
On top of that, Guardiola also compressed the horizontal spacing of his attackers, which subsequently compressed the West Ham backline. This gave space for City chip in balls onto runs off the outside shoulder of fullbacks Pablo Zabaleta and Arthur Masuaku that were actually inside the penalty box. Though the Blues did create a couple chances, and one goal, from this tactic, these type of passes are generally low percentage and West Ham cleared the vast majority of them.
But West Ham also looked dangerous on the front foot as well. I counted six situations that I would consider decent scoring opportunities for the Gunners. Though only they only put one shot on goal from these, each one had the potential to be much more than the final outcome. Out of this collection of chances, five of them came down the right wing and often involved Michail Antonio.
With Fabian Delph back in the lineup, Guardiola increased how often the left back would step inside as a defensive midfielder. This is a movement we are all familiar with and it has been proven effective, but it certainly can leave City vulnerable if not done properly. Tucking the left back inside is usually accompanied by a shift into a three man backline, evenly spaced out horizontally. Against West Ham however, this shift wouldn’t always occur and it just left a hole where the left back usually would be. So when City would turn the ball over, particularly in the midfield where the counter had less distance to travel, the now three-man backline had to recover both vertically and horizontally, offering lots of pockets for West Ham attackers to run into to. Luckily, West Ham didn’t take their chances and the Blues came away with another clean sheet.
Now, you’re probably asking yourself, if West Ham impressed how did they lose 4 - 0? And shouldn’t I be talking more about how City broke them down?
Yes, Manchester City certainly deserve credit for putting four in the back of the net when they weren’t at their personal best and faced a tough opponent. Not to be too simplistic though, but City put this game away by identifying the fullbacks as the weak links and going after them. As I mentioned earlier, compressing the backline to run off Zabaleta and Masuaku was a big part of this, but the latter was really the problem for West Ham. You could argue he gets a lion’s share of the blame on the first three City goals, on two of which he just let Raheem Sterling get in behind. It wasn’t surprising at all when he was taken off the field at halftime because he really did stain what was otherwise a solid performance.
With a difficult slate of matches coming up over the next month and City still alive in four competitions, it’s worth noting their struggles, however small they be, in preparation for these upcoming challenges. A more ruthless attack may have put some of these chances away and the whole complexion of the game may change. It’s obviously better to identify these potential downfalls against West Ham instead of Liverpool or (insert Champions League contender here) so we can thankful for that. I don’t view any of the concerns I’ve mentioned here as fatal flaws, but they are things Pep Guardiola should keep in mind. I realize this may be one of the least positive reviews of a 4 - 0 victory, so I do apologize for ruining the vibe but I do still think this team is the best thing since sliced bread.