West Ham v Frankfurt: David Moyes Must Confront Major Tactical Dilemma In Defence
What to do with West Ham’s defence?
David Moyes and his coaching staff must confront a complex tactical conundrum before the Hammers take to the field against Eintracht Frankfurt on Thursday.
They’re in a difficult spot for a multitude of reasons.
Firstly, the Premier League outfit will be without three of their four senior centre-backs in the first leg of their Europa League quarter-final tie.
Kurt Zouma is nearing a return to fitness after suffering an ankle injury in West Ham’s 2-0 loss to Brentford on 10 April. Issa Diop is in a similar situation: his ankle was damaged a fortnight ago in a 1-1 draw with relegation-threatened Burnley. Neither are likely to feature on Thursday.
Angelo Ogbonna is also unavailable, he’s still working on making his way back from a serious knee injury.
“It’s really important that we can get them back and hopefully we do so as soon as we possibly can,” Moyes said before West Ham’s 1-0 loss to Chelsea.
“We’ve got some injuries, but all clubs have got some injuries at this time of the season. I’ve got to juggle and find a way of getting something which gives us a defensive set-up.”
The other thing: West Ham’s centre-back depth chart sans the injured three reads something like this:
Aaron Cresswell (out of position)
Ben Johnson (out of position)
Declan Rice (out of position)
With that in mind, what is West Ham’s ideal defensive configuration for Thursday’s clash? Craig Dawson will start but alongside which partner(s)? Ultimately, Moyes has two options: stick with the back-five he deployed versus Chelsea or roll the dice with a return to his 4-2-3-1.
Considering the significance of Frankfurt’s visit to the London Stadium, it’s worth weighing up the options available to Moyes ahead of kick-off in UEL quarter-finals.
Option #1 – Five in Defence versus Frankfurt:
Although the Hammers came unstuck against Chelsea at the weekend, their performance in a relatively unfamiliar shape was encouraging. They lined up in a 5-2-1-2 formation, effectively matching the Blues player-for-player at Stamford Bridge.
However, there’s only so much we can read into West Ham’s performance on Sunday: Moyes made six changes to his starting eleven, with Michail Antonio, Declan Rice, and Jarrod Bowen receiving some much-needed rest.
As a result, it’s pointless to dig into the specifics of how the match unfolded but we can look at West Ham’s structure for a couple of reasons:
There’s every chance Moyes will stick with the same system versus Frankfurt,
Like Chelsea, Frankfurt usually line-up in a 3-4-2-1 formation.
This is how West Ham’s XI will look if Moyes sticks with the same shape, but reintroduces his stars to the line-up:
Antonio – Bowen
Rice – Soucek
Masuaku – Cresswell – Dawson – Johnson – Coufal
(NB: Moyes could easily adjust this shape into a 5-2-3, with Fornals and Bowen flanking Antonio. I’d argue this is unlikely because he very rarely operates with two central midfielders as he likes to control central zones.)
(NB II: Sorry about the wonky line-ups in this piece, I (wrongly) assumed it was possible to centre align text on Substack… I’ll make graphics next time!)
I don’t hate it.
Firstly, it makes sense to stick with the same players in central defence because they handled everything Chelsea threw at them until Dawson’s idiotic dismissal. Although he isn’t the fastest defender on the planet, Johnson’s footspeed will come in handy for two reasons:
Filip Kostic, Frankfurt’s best player, will be attacking West Ham’s right flank, Johnson’s defensive coverage is important,
Cresswell, Dawson, and – to a lesser degree – Coufal need someone with legs around them.
Sticking with the same players in central defence also prevents Moyes from having to push the panic button on Rice. If the Scot drops his pseudo-captain into defence, it will open a giant hole in midfield that would have to be filled by: Fornals, Lanzini, Alex Kral, or Mark Noble. Frankly, I don’t see that happening.
Also of note: Moyes needs to balance his defensive instincts with making sure his side are impactful on the transition. That’s why starting Masuaku at left wing-back is a good idea.
Although he’s defensively irresponsible and hit-and-miss offensively, Masuaku is West Ham’s best option at wing-back,
The 28-year-old completes 1.48 dribbles per 90, a trait that will force Frankfurt to press him aggressively,
He’s an active and effective presser: 15.91 pressures per 90 with a 31.4% success rate.
For what it’s worth, Cresswell is defensively passive: 6.62 pressure per 90 with a 33.5% success rate.
In other words, Masuaku is a solid fit at wing-back because the role allows him to press carelessly (unlike at left-back) and attack fearlessly (unlike at left-back).
Briefly, let’s consider how a back-five system would look with Cresswell at wing-back and Rice in central defence:
Antonio – Bowen
Fornals – Soucek
Cresswell – Rice – Dawson – Johnson – Coufal
I spy a couple of issues with this set-up:
Although Fornals and Lanzini are active (and trustworthy) pressers, starting both in central midfield would see West Ham concede their size advantage in the middle. Considering the Hammers thrive from winning aerials in the centre, that’s not ideal.
Cresswell isn’t dynamic enough to make an offensive impact on his own down the left, nor is Coufal on the right.
West Ham’s creativity would be stuffed in central areas, making it easier for Frankfurt to press the East London side out of contention.
Anyway, what about a return to the 4-2-3-1?
Option #2 – Four in Defence versus Frankfurt:
We’re going deep into hypotheticals here, but let’s run through West Ham’s options should they decide to return to a back four, starting with Rice at centre-back:
Fornals – Benrahma – Bowen
Lanzini – Soucek
Cresswell – Rice – Dawson – Coufal
I don’t hate it: dropping Rice into centre-back would allow Moyes to inject more creativity into central midfield while upholding West Ham’s numerical advantage in the middle.
NB: the example above is indicative of how it ** could ** work, Lanzini and Fornals could be flipped because they’re both defensively responsibly. Benrahma would have to play as the #10 because his commitment to defending is flimsy.
Now, we’re into full-backs at centre-back territory:
Fornals – Lanzini – Bowen
Rice – Soucek
Johnson – Cresswell – Dawson – Coufal
Alright, but what about this…?
Fornals – Lanzini – Bowen
Rice – Soucek
Cresswell – Johnson – Dawson – Coufal
Truthfully, I don’t like either scenario here. Cresswell and Johnson are completely unproven as central defenders in a back four – more so than Rice.
If forced to pick between Johnson and Cresswell at centre-back, I’d opt for the former. Cresswell is more of an offensive threat (his delivery is much better than Johnson’s) and I cringe at the idea of having two chronic shirt-pullers start alongside one another at centre-back in West Ham’s biggest home game for a generation.
(Is a Cresswell-Dawson combo a recipe for recklessness in defence? Probably.)
There’s also the pie-in-the-sky option of starting Aji Alese in a back four alongside Dawson. Here’s what you need to know about Alese:
He’s 22 years old,
Reportedly mature for his age,
Comfortable with the ball at his feet,
Was left out of the U23’s line-up on Monday.
That said, he’s only made 14 senior appearances to date, most of them in League Two.
While there are reasons to believe in him as a prospect, you don’t need me to tell you that starting an untested right-footer at left centre-back would be a questionable strategy considering the importance of Thursday’s match.
Briefly, on Frankfurt:
I’d be very confident about the semi-finals if Zouma was in the line-up.
Frankfurt are ninth in the Bundesliga, haven’t won in the league since 13 March, and recently drew with Greuther Furth (3-8-20 on the season). In other words, the German side are beatable.
However, it’d be ludicrous to take Oliver Glasner’s side lightly. They finished fifth in the Bundesliga last term, just eliminated Barcelona, have a collection of top-drawer players in their squad:
Kevin Trapp is having a solid season – he’s saved 3.8 goals above expected this term,
Filip Kostic is a creative threat: he ranks in the 94th percentile for big five league wingers for assists per 90… and it could be argued he’s a wing-back,
Jesper Lindstrom plays a similar style to Bowen and will cause West Ham issues down the left,
There’s a lot to like about Obite N’Dicka – the 6-foot-2 centre-back won’t be overpowered by Antonio in individual battles.
So… do you believe in West Ham? (I do.)
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