West Ham right back Vladimir Coufal headed away a cross and played a quick give-and-go with Pablo Fornals before laying the ball off to Jesse Lingard. With Wolverhampton scrambling back on defense, the now 28-year-old Lingard, on loan from Manchester United, beat two retreating centerbacks from his own half before finishing far post to give the Hammers a 1-0 lead. An eventual 3-2 win would see David Moyes’ side leapfrog Chelsea into a Champions League position with eight matches remaining in the season.
There have been more creative goals scored this season, but Lingard’s moment was the height of directness, speed, and efficiency. There is an added layer of surprise considering he had zero Premier League appearances under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer before changing sides. Since making his loan move in January, no player has been involved in more of their team’s goals than Lingard, who has six goals and three assists. With analytical language further closing the gap between soccer and basketball, Lingard leads the Premier League with three goals scored off fast breaks, fitting in perfectly with a counterattacking side.
And if there was any manager who would go against most modern methods of pressing based on their reputation, it would be Moyes. The now 57-year-old manager made his name last decade with Everton, playing a cautious, counterattacking 4-4-2 formation. He was then sacked after one season at Manchester United in 2013. His career has sputtered since, going from Real Sociedad, Sunderland, to West Ham in 2018, then back to West Ham midway through last season.
“I think there’s only two or three managers with a better Premier League win record. That’s what I do, I win,” said Moyes last December upon his return. The comments were ridiculed at the time considering his seemingly old-school nature within the paradigm of new age Bundesliga-schooled managers.
Moyes hasn’t disappointed, and there is something about staying true to oneself in the face of modernity. Take away their 4-2-3-1 formation and we can see West Ham’s style just from the stats. To start, their leading goal scorer is 6-foot-4-inch defensive midfielder Tomas Soucek with nine goals (Soucek has been appropriately compared to Marouane Fellaini, Moyes’ former midfield enforcer at Everton). The side have recorded the lowest amount of tackles in their opponent’s attacking third, showing their passiveness without the ball. They average 40.8% possession per match, the third lowest in the league.
West Ham also lead the Premier League in goals scored off set pieces and are second in goals off headers. They rank first in interceptions and fourth in aerial duels won. Of course, they are in the bottom half of several attacking stats including passes completed and completion percentage. Adding to their goal-scoring efficiency, they also shoot from the smallest average distance from goal per shoot.
We’ve seen this before. We know this team just by looking at the stats. We know how effective this type of team is, and we also know the debates between results versus aesthetics that quickly follow.
That we talk so much about off-ball defensive actions shows the shift in discourse throughout recent years. Yet Moyes’ emphasis on sitting deep, winning aerial battles, and launching counter attacks was the original way for lower resourced teams to punch up in the standings. Data and pressing often go hand-in-hand, but Moyes has also found a statistically optimal way for his team to play.
There is a beauty in the brutality - maybe not in the inherent style itself, but in the faithfulness of each piece building and enhancing the larger whole. It’s not negativity for its own sake, rather a carefully considered approach of directness and defending with players adding to the larger idea.
In addition to leading the team in goals, Soucek also wins the second most aerial duels per match in the Premier League. His midfield partner Declan Rice is tied for the lead in interceptions. We traditionally think of the balance of midfield duos in terms of a passer and a destroyer, but the pair are statistically elite in their congruent defensive skillsets. Other defensive extremes include Coufal making the third most tackles against dribblers, proving his one on one ability against wingers.
Thus Moyes’ side is dominant in the air, intercept passes on the ground, don’t get beat in one-on-one battles on the wing, and score off set pieces. They have masterpieces, including a December win over a spiritual opposite in Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds United. Down 1-0 to their high-pressing opponents, they hit back with headed goals off a corner kick and a free kick. It sounds simple but there is a careful consideration in putting together those performances. This isn’t an inferior squad playing pessimistically due to a lack of talent. This is each piece functioning as its highest level.
And with the dribbling pace of Lingard, the counter attack is optimized for directness and efficiency. Even the dribbling sequences reinforce how the side defend, with the ability to rely upon individuals without committing too many players forward. To further showcase their risk averse attack, left back Aaron Cresswell leads the side in assists, chance creations, and pass completions. While defending through the middle while using width to create chances is a tested approach for teams of all levels, rarely have skillsets fit this perfectly.
Moyes bought Soucek and Couffal last summer for $17.82 million and $6.6 million respectively. Rice came through the academy, with the now 31-year-old Cresswell signed back in 2014. The acquisitions don’t align with the paradigm of teenage phenoms that we’ve grown used to from the most forward-thinking clubs, but finding undervalued talent takes on different shapes depending on its context.
This is also a result of perception, of how we elevate extreme pressing teams as being inherently intelligent due to their cutting-edge approach. Likewise, we can’t be fooled by appearances: West Ham have built an efficient roster in their own way. The emphasis isn’t running or pressures, but in winning aerial battles, intercepting passes, and controlling the uncontrollable elements that define the Premier League. There is a paradox in maximizing a regressive style, but it’s effective just the same.
So can West Ham actually finish with a Champions League spot this season? An easy answer is the side missing out with a rejuvenated Chelsea just one point behind. A final table with West Ham still in Europa League splits the difference as Moyes’ initial goal when he was rehired last December was to not get relegated. As for Moyes, this recent run reminds us of his decade at Everton rather than his post-United career. He may have been right: he knows how to win specifically in the Premier League.
Besides, this is some distance from where the team was a year ago when they finished 16th with their lowest point total since 2011. They started the season attempting to play Manuel Pellegrini’s style of possession football before returning to Moyes’ counterattacking and set pieces. The Pellegrini era showed the impossibility of bending a league style to one’s vision. You can have your aesthetic preferences with pressing, passing, or long-balls. But there is something in accepting a league’s style for what it is, and then optimizing for it in all facets of play.