West Ham v Sevilla: Tactical Cheat Sheet
Only one word fittingly describes the magnitude of tonight’s match between West Ham United and Sevilla.
Trailing by a one-goal margin after the first leg, the Hammers have nothing to lose – besides from their place in the Europa League, that is.
In many respects, that’s the beautiful thing about being drawn against a club that has made this competition its own. Sevilla, six-time winners of the Europa League, are – or at least should be – heavy favourites against West Ham.
Julen Lopetegui’s side, second in La Liga three-quarters of the way into the season, are an elite outfit. They’re defensively impressive, attack with poise, and are backstopped by Yassine Bounou – who’s grown increasingly dependable with age.
Sevilla are an intimidating opponent for West Ham to face, incredibly so.
Let’s not forget: in the weeks before David Moyes returned to East London in December 2019, the Hammers were nosediving towards relegation. The mood at the London Stadium was rancid, a world away from how it feels now.
Of course, that’s partly because success fuels belief and belief fuels success. West Ham, until very recently, were chronically unsuccessful and therefore didn’t have many reasons to believe that success would be arriving soon.
Then, thankfully, Declan Rice – and the steep trajectory of his development – changed everything.
Aided by Michail Antonio’s bizarre emergence as a somewhat reliable goalscorer and – dare I say it – some savvy recruitment, Rice has transformed a downtrodden team into one capable of beating almost anyone on their day.
And that, amazingly, includes Sevilla.
Now, in the interests of expending some of my nervous pre-game energy – and reminding you that this newsletter still exists – I’ve put together a second-leg tactical/player cheat sheet, a quick list of talking points worth looking out for during tonight’s game.
Enjoy, and please tell your friends/colleagues/enemies to subscribe to West Ham+ 19 if you think they’ll enjoy this wild blend of inane rambling and half-decent football analysis.
Defence: Craig Dawson’s Composure
In the first leg, Sevilla allowed Craig Dawson to take his time in possession. They wanted the 31-year-old to have the ball because distribution isn’t a strong point in his game – he only completes 1.46 progressive passes per 90, a statistic backed up by his 83.9 per cent pass completion rate.
In other words, Lopetegui views Dawson as West Ham’s weak link in defence – and will try to exploit the Englishman’s haphazardness in possession by baiting him into using (and losing) the ball poorly.
Strictly speaking, this is a point about how West Ham transition from defence to attack. However, Dawson’s ability to rise to the challenge on the ball will shape how he performs off it – because it will determine where Sevilla gain possession and how they attack as a result.
The bulk of Sevilla’s attacks will start in their own half if Dawson uses the ball well – which would cater to his core strength, winning aerials.
Offensive Transition: Ben Johnson’s Distribution
Ben Johnson’s crossing is often hilariously hit-and-hope. Tonight, he must find a way to elevate the quality of his production for two reasons:
Sevilla will try to control the tempo of the second leg and timewasting will play a role. As a result, Johnson can’t afford to help the travelling side run down the clock by overhitting his crosses.
Last week, Sevilla’s left flank was vulnerable… Johnson’s zone of the pitch is a key battleground.
Don’t be mistaken, the 22-year-old will significantly influence the outcome of the tie.
Defensive Transition: Tomas Soucek’s Positioning
Moyes, notoriously stubborn, doesn’t tend to make many tactical changes – which is why Tomas Soucek’s positioning in the first leg was so interesting. The Czech international was deployed as an out-and-out defensive midfielder last week, slotting in alongside Rice (who was also stationed deeper than usual), to offset Sevilla’s quality on the counter.
Here’s the dilemma facing Moyes: deploy Rice and Soucek as a proper double-pivot (to guard against counterattacks) or set one of his midfielders free (to bolster his attack).
With Antonio an injury doubt, Soucek’s physicality could be useful in the final third… just a thought.
Attack: Pablo Fornals’ Big-Game Temperament
Pablo Fornals was terrible against Sevilla in the first leg. He was sluggish, failed to complete basic passes at both ends of the pitch, and seemed to be overwhelmed by the occasion.
Remember, it was Fornals’ misplaced pass that led to the game-winning free-kick.
To illustrate my point, let’s compare Fornals’ stats from last week with his performances on the season:
46 passes attempted (42.6 per 90)
28 passes completed (31.6 per 90)
60.9% pass completion (74.8% across 2021-22)
0/4 dribbles completed (20/44 across 2021-22)
2 shot-creating actions (2.87 per 90)
53 touches (52.9 per 90)
25 pressures (21.1 per 90)
To lift the lid on the numbers:
Fornals’ involvement in the game was typical, his touches reflect his per 90 average
Fornals was more involved in defending than usual, attempting more pressures than his seasonal average (note: for a player of his role, he presses a lot anyway)
Fornals’ passing was uncharacteristically poor, even though he attempted more of them than usual
Fornals’ overall possession play was disappointing, he created fewer chances than usual and attacks died at his feet
The Spaniard is a very important player for West Ham, a topic I wrote about for BTL a few months back. To put it bluntly, the Hammers will lose if Fornals (or whoever is picked to start in his usual role) performs poorly again. Gulp.