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Data Analysis: West Ham United’s red-hot attack

The three top sides in the Premier League are very much in a league of their own this season.

They have already forged a six-point gap to the rest of the league, and fill up all three podium places in pretty much every metric that can be used to gauge a team’s performance across a league season, be it goals scored and conceded or xG, xGA (Expected Goals Against) and consequently xGD (Expected Goal Difference).

Given their immense quality, most could have seen this coming. The surprise, though, is the side in the final UEFA Champions League spot.

Most expected this would be Manchester United, but their tumultuous time under Ole Gunnar Solksjær has left them a fair way behind.

Arsenal or Tottenham Hotspur would then be reasonably expected to profit, but it is another London-based club that has done so instead.

In fact, at the time of writing, West Ham United are the only side in the entire league apart from the top three to have a positive goal difference.

They are also the only team who have faced all of the three leaders this season and managed to come away with points on two occasions.

Both of those matches ended 3-2 in their favour — highlighting the immense quality of their attack as it powered through two of the best defences in the country.

So, let us take a closer look at just how West Ham United’s front-line is working this season and why it is so red-hot.

Firstly, we must understand the basic framework they operate in. David Moyes has been doing a superb job throughout his tenure at West Ham, and he has kept that up this season.

Although his favoured formation is a 4-2-3-1, the Scottish manager is not reluctant to mix things up when necessary. The most recent match against Chelsea was a good example, as the Hammers lined up in a 3-4-2-1.

In terms of personnel, Moyes seems to have a clear first-choice front-four.

Michail Antonio, Jarred Bowen, Pablo Fornals and Saïd Benrahma have all played over 1,100 minutes in this Premier League season, while Manuel Lanzini, Nikola Vlašić and Andriy Yarmolenko have less than 500 minutes under their belt altogether.

The double-pivot in midfield is key to everything that West Ham do. Tomáš Souček and Declan Rice have established a great partnership there having played together since the 2019/20 season and they have kept growing in importance.

Rice has featured in all of the 1350 minutes of Premier League football West Ham have played this season, while Souček has missed just 12.

The full-backs also have an integral role to play when the Hammers get forward. Aaron Cresswell has continued to be the clear favourite at left-back.

On the opposite side, Vladimír Coufal has faced serious competition from Ben Johnson, with the Czech Republic international just about playing a couple of matches more than the academy graduate.

West Ham have a reasonably fluid attacking structure that grants a lot of freedom to the players on the pitch, and they also pose a serious counter-attacking threat thanks to Antonio’s hold-up play.

Their four goals from counter-attacks are not matched by any other side in the division. Loosely, here is what their basic shape looks like in sustained possession:

The full-backs both push forward, though Cresswell is slightly the more adventurous of the two. The left-back’s movement is further facilitated by Fornals, who drifts into the left half-space and even drops deeper at times to aid with ball progression.

Since Antonio also tends to gravitate to the left, Bowen holds a more advanced position on the right from where he can also make runs in behind.

In the midfield, one of the pivots typically holds his position while the other has a more advanced role. Last season, this was Souček as he ended up as their joint top-scorer in the league, but with the dramatic improvement in Rice’s game on the ball, he has been given a more box-to-box role this season.

He often drops to the left of the centre-backs to pick the ball up, but also gets forward centrally (with Benrahma also more left-biased) and can pop up at the edge of the box.

His progressive ball-carrying is key to West Ham’s play in possession, as he often single-handedly gets them forward.

Declan Rice’s progressive carries in the 2021/22 Premier League as of 05/12/2021. (Image Credits: Vizz App)

Clearly, their attacking shape is extremely biased to the left side. Unsurprisingly, 41% of their attacks have come from there, and the majority of their ball progression through passing also takes place on that side as Cresswell, Fornals and Rice are their top-three progressive passers in the league this season.

Heatmap of West Ham United’s progressive passes in the 2021/22 Premier League as of 05/12/2021. (Image Credits: Vizz App)

The top two receivers of progressive passes are Antonio and Benrahma, who also mostly do so on the left.

Heatmap of Michail Antonio’s progressive passes received in the 2021/22 Premier League as of 05/12/2021. (Image Credits: Vizz App)
Heatmap of Saïd Benrahma’s progressive passes received in the 2021/22 Premier League as of 05/12/2021. (Image Credits: Vizz App)

Before we explore how West Ham create and convert chances, let us quickly take a look at their most important players in attack.

Unsurprisingly, the full-backs and midfielders add more xT (Expected Threat) but do relatively little at the end of moves, while the opposite is true in the case of the four forward players.

The most interesting outlier here is Benrahma, who has the lowest tally among the front four in both metrics.

There is good reason for that, though, as the ex-Brentford man’s primary role is to circulate possession in the final third after getting into good positions and receiving progressive passes, as we saw previously.

Therefore, although he completes a lot of passes in the final third, few of those are key passes. But, he does average having an involvement in the build-up in 75% of his side’s goals this season, so his role certainly is crucial.

Saïd Benrahma’s passing in the attacking third in the 2021/22 Premier League as of 05/12/2021. (Image Credits: Vizz App)

Of the remaining trio, Fornals is of the most creative disposition, as he opens up opposition defences from deeper areas.

Pablo Fornals’ creative passing in the 2021/22 Premier League as of 05/12/2021. (Image Credits: Vizz App)

With that being said, though, he does tend to get into good positions in and around the centre of the box after making late runs, which is why he is West Ham’s second-highest scorer in the league.

Pablo Fornals’ shooting in the 2021/22 Premier League as of 05/12/2021. (Image Credits: Vizz App)

Bowen’s role is more of a finisher than of a creator even though he has more assists than goals, as is proven by the fact that his xG tally of 4.7 is almost twice of what he has managed in terms of xA (2.4).

His shots typically come in two ways – either from counter-attacking situations where his quick ball-carrying and smart movement proves very useful…

Jarrod Bowen’s shot-ending progressive carries in the 2021/22 Premier League as of 05/12/2021. (Image Credits: Vizz App)

…or when he finds himself on the end of far-post crosses, cut-backs or through balls after the attack has developed down the left.

Jarrod Bowen’s shooting in the 2021/22 Premier League as of 05/12/2021. (Image Credits: Vizz App)

Without question, though, the star of West Ham’s attacking show is their striker, Michail Antonio. Not only is he the most important player in transition thanks to his hold-up play and pace, his movement and link-up play in the final third has been devastating this season.

The Jamaican international has truly evolved into a complete centre-forward for West Ham. His shooting is superb both in terms of volume and chance quality, as he has more shots than any of his teammates this season and averages a very respectable 0.12 npxG/shot (Non-penalty Expected Goals per Shot, which is a metric used to measure the quality of chances a player gets).

Michail Antonio’s shooting in the 2021/22 Premier League as of 05/12/2021. (Image Credits: Vizz App)

Antonio has also created all sorts of chances – be it through balls from deep, crosses and cut-backs after drifting out to a wing (especially the left) or lay-offs in the box).

Michail Antonio’s key passes in the 2021/22 Premier League as of 05/12/2021. (Image Credits: Vizz App)

Unsurprisingly, therefore, none of his teammates perform better than him as far as goals, assists, xG or xA are concerned.

Finally, the Hammers pose a sizeable threat from set-pieces too. Their centre-backs and midfield duo are all very strong in the air, while Pablo Fornals, Aaron Cresswell and Jarrod Bowen are all great options as far as set-piece takers go.

This is why they have the joint fourth-most goals from such situations in the league with six, while their xG tally of 4.8 from set-pieces is good enough for fifth in the division.

West Ham’s attack is firing on all cylinders. There have only been two matches in the Premier League this season where they have failed to score (the draw against Southampton and loss to Wolverhampton Wanderers), and just one more (the defeat to Manchester City) where they were restricted to generating less than 1.0 xG.

With a reasonably favourable run of fixtures upcoming, don’t be shocked to see West Ham United nail down a European spot for themselves once again this season.

Stats courtesy StatsBomb via Fbref, Stats Perform via WhoScored and The Analyst, Vizz App and Smarterscout.

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