David Moyes and his three strokes of genius…

Date published: Monday 15th January 2018 10:16

Right now you’re probably wondering who’s that guy impersonating David Moyes. A lot of Sunderland supporters might be feeling the same way. I’m wondering myself.

Let’s be very clear: David Moyes was rotten at Sunderland. He was dealt a bad hand – exactly how bad is becoming clearer by the day – but he played it about as badly as possible. No need to go over it again: that’s what the internet is for. A couple of hours with the browser of your choice, plus some lovely archived fan podcasts, will let you relive the nightmare.

But David Moyes has not been rotten at West Ham United. After a bedding-in period, his Hammers have notched 12 points in their last seven games. This past weekend it was their turn to inflict the humiliation, and away from home to boot: 4-1 at Huddersfield.

So what’s changed, besides the club crest on the jacket? To be honest, I haven’t a clue. But I can tell you what’s changed at West Ham since he arrived, which hopefully will be the next best thing.

As everyone knows by now, the big change was putting Marko Arnautovic at striker. In the 1-0 win over Chelsea, he was played on the left of a five-man midfield, but moved inside as a second striker when West Ham had the ball on the right. He got the winning goal, and has played striker almost every game since.

Daniel Storey covered this very well in his Early Winner column, and I’d like to take his analysis a step further. The dribbling central striker is a rarity in the modern game. Eden Hazard plays as a withdrawn forward. Wilfried Zaha has played quite a bit in a two-striker set-up, but even then has moved wide to do most of his dribbling. Among players with at least 1000 minutes, the most prolific striker-dribbler is Sergio Aguero, who ranks 22nd in the league with 2.3.

The obvious reason is that the centre is too congested for a dribbler. On the wing you get frequent 1v1 situations where the dribbler has room to manoeuvre. But when you’re on the wing you’re in a less dangerous position, and a successful dribble is less likely to result in a goal.

So if you put a good dribbler, and just as importantly, good passer, in the central striker role, a successful dribble means the opposition is in real danger. When Arnautovic has played as a lone striker or as part of a two-man frontline, he’s posted 3.125 successful dribbles/90. In those games he’s picked up four goals and two assists, and averaged two key passes a game.

Again, let’s be clear: this was a stroke of genius. Arnautovic had been a winger, and a decent one at that, for the whole of his Premier League career. No one had ever seriously thought about putting him up top.

Daniel Storey made the further point that Arnautovic also doesn’t need to track back as much, which eliminates the chief weakness in his game. In fact, Arnautovic has always been good at harassing opponents, when he could be bothered. Now he can do so and still remain close to goal – it’s no coincidence that it was his pressure on Joe Lolley that led to West Ham’s equaliser at Huddersfield.

That’s one huge plus in David Moyes’ column. A second positive move has been Adrián for Joe Hart. Not much discussion to be had here, really. Except for one brilliant performance against Crystal Palace, Hart had been ordinary. Adrián, when in form, is a better keeper. Simple – but think of all the managers over the years who stuck with a big-name keeper longer than was wise.

A third change has received less scrutiny, but has also improved the side. Moyes has settled on a three-man back line, with Angelo Ogbonna in the middle. The three is part of his natural conservatism, and was a logical choice for a side allowing more than two goals a game.

But the Ogbonna move was particularly shrewd. The Italian has genuine talents: he’s fast, a good marker, and excellent at anticipating opponents’ passes. His greatest fault has always been to go wandering. But in the middle of a three, he can’t wander as much, and as a result he’s played some of his best football under Moyes. West Ham’s defence can still be shaky, but it’s posting better numbers under Davey than under Slav, and against tougher opponents on average.

As for Moyes’ conservatism, it’s still very much in force. All 13 of his points have been achieved with less than 50% possession. He parked the bus against Manchester City and Spurs with some success. Against Huddersfield he let the opposition have the ball, and figured the attack would come from the counter, or by breaking the Terriers’ press. In fact, Arnautovic and Lanzini were quite isolated in the first half, and at the interval, with the score 1-1, you’d have picked the hosts as likely winners. In the second half, though, it worked a treat.

West Ham are now a whopping 12/1 to get relegated. Some caution is in order, though. Early Winner rightly praised their efficient attack, but you can only ride that sort of thing for so long. Not all of Moyes’ tactical moves have paid off: pushing Cheikhou Kouyaté more into attack has been a bust. And although they have a lot more fight in them these days, the side can still look brittle, as they did in giving up a late equaliser to Bournemouth, or conceding two in eight minutes to Newcastle.

But it’s a real pleasure to see the club playing winning (or even drawing) football, and for a wonder, the owners making what for now looks like an excellent decision. One more time, let’s be clear: the credit for their current success belongs to the man behind the big desk, the man shouting orders on the touchline, the current manager of West Ham United…whoever he is.

Peter Goldstein

 


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