After West Ham’s 3-0 win at Anfield, Slaven Bilic presented his side’s performance as almost the product of a relaxed approach. Bilic’s English is a little vague sometimes, so maybe something got lost in translation, but he essentially presented the victory as the validation of a ‘turn up, enjoy the weather, knock the ball about’ mentality.
Not a bit of it. Whether by design or not, the Croatian is diverting attention away from just how disciplined his side were on Merseyside and West Ham clearly worked extremely hard during the week on maintaining their shape when Liverpool were in possession.
Bilic’s public comments did have some relevance, though, because the Hammers’ opening goal was unquestionably one they wouldn’t have scored a year ago under Sam Allardyce. There was an element of fortune to it, in that Manuel Lanzini found himself on the end of a slight scuff from Aaron Cresswell, but the opportunity arose from the visitors’ bravery and they earned that bit of luck.
Lanzini is shown in the bottom right-hand corner, but note the amount of West Ham players who are forward in the third minute of the game. It was an attacking situation, so you would expect a certain amount of presence in the Liverpool box, but you would also assume that, this early at this ground, a visiting team would be far more cautious.
The goal has a pinball quality to it, yes, but it’s still one which can be attributed directly to Bilic for his willingness not to be submissive at a big ground.
So, to a degree, West Ham were rewarded for a bright approach and two of their goals came directly from a willingness to push high into the Liverpool half.
The real story - the bigger ingredient - in their victory, though, was how they played without the ball. If West Ham line-up in a 4-3-3 formation when in possession, then they revert to a 4-5-1 without it - and it was that “five” who built the platform for the win.
Rival managers are starting to work Brendan Rodgers out. Over the past couple of years, his teams - in their various incarnations - have shown that they’re most dangerous either when they steal possession in attacking or intermediate areas, or when they’re allowed to connect neat phases of play in the corridor of space in front of their opponent’s box.
West Ham denied them the opportunity to do either. The gap between their defensive and midfield lines was very thin and the five players ahead of the back-four did a terrific job of leaving their unit to press the ball-carriers, but then of returning to their position to protect their defenders.
This is a really good example of what West Ham did well yesterday - consistent, structured pressing pic.twitter.com/IzeUQBJUxk
— Seb Stafford-Bloor (@SebSB) August 30, 2015
That sequence above repeated itself time and again and it was ultimately why, rather than relying on smash-and-grab “hero” defending, West Ham spent most of the game looking relatively comfortable in their lead. Yes, there was slick quality to their passing and they were ambitious and accurate when they broke out of their own half - just as they were at The Emirates a couple of weeks ago - but this was a very astute tactical performance from Slaven Bilic and one which should go a long way to rebuffing any claims that he doesn’t have the acumen for this league.
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