David Moyes’ recent switch to 4-4-2 has generated some much-improved performances across the pitch, but exactly how can West Ham succeed when using this formation?
Since Manuel Pellegrini was sacked at the back-end of December 2019, the Hammers have found it difficult to accumulate points under Moyes, which has placed them among a tough relegation battle – the likes of Aston Villa, Watford, Bournemouth, Brighton & Hove Albion and even Norwich City still remain in with a chance of survival.
Once the Scottish manager arrived at London Stadium for his second stint in east London, it was imperative he got the Hammers firing on all cylinders immediately to avoid a relegation scrap. His first game in charge was exactly that as West Ham put four past Bournemouth – the club’s widest margin of victory in the Premier League since moving to Stratford – to ease the tension among the claret and blue faithful.
However, Moyes’ side would then fail to pick up a victory until the end of February – a crucial 3-1 win against Southampton at London Stadium eased the pressure on the Scot once again, but it was a pivotal moment.
Prior to that fixture against the Saints, Moyes was happy to deploy a more typical 4-2-3-1 system, with either Michail Antonio or Sebastien Haller operating as the single striker. Following an encouraging performance at Anfield, the Hammers fans were crying out for the pair to play together in a more old-school, 4-2-2 style. Moyes obliged and with that came an exciting, attacking performance.
Haller was brought to the club because of his outstanding record in the Bundesliga – netting 15 times and registering nine assists in 29 league appearances for Eintracht Frankfurt – but there was a crucial piece to the puzzle that made the Frenchman tick; that piece was Luka Jovic. Haller often operated with Jovic as his strike partner and having a player to support him was fundamental to his success.
And to everyone’s surprise (in a sarcastic voice) Haller thrived against Southampton when partnered with Antonio, getting on the scoresheet and providing a different dimension to the Hammers attack. The willingness and off-ball movement from his partner helped create space for Haller in the box – industry plus physicality equals a recipe for success.
Not only did West Ham have a strike partnership, but a goalscoring winger who makes darting runs in behind defences to create different diversions and problems – that man is Jarrod Bowen. On his first start for the Hammers against the Saints, Bowen proved to all just how good he is. The 23-year-old scored the opening goal of the game with a delightful chip, and his performance only elevated from then on.
On the other side of the pitch, we had Pablo Fornals. This may be controversial as the Spanish playmaker had an outstanding game – contributing with two excellent assists – but for the 4-4-2 system to work, Fornals simply cannot operate as the left midfielder. West Ham’s following encounter against Arsenal was both encouraging and frustrating; the Hammers did everything but put the ball in the back of the net and paid the price.
However, it was also clear to see that in a 4-4-2 system, Fornals does not have the attributes required to operate on the left – you only have to compare him with Bowen to see this.
That’s not to say that Fornals should not be starting, because he works hard, has the creative spark we often lack and deserves his spot. However, using a more natural winger in Felipe Anderson, who has the pace to utilise and glide past defenders, would be more beneficial in this system. That then leaves the midfield pairing of Declan Rice and one other, which is where either Fornals or January signing Tomas Soucek should operate.
Mark Noble simply cannot perform in a 4-4-2. We need energy, robustness and someone who can go up and down a football pitch for 90 minutes, which is exactly what Soucek was signed for, and either the Czech Republic midfielder or Fornals should partner Rice to make this succeed.