David Moyes and Unai Emery share a unique past accolade of succeeding two of the greatest managers English football has ever seen. Moyes took over from Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United, and Emery from Arsene Wenger at Arsenal. Now at West Ham and Aston Villa respectively, each has found a home where they have found great success.
With both teams in good form heading into Sunday’s matchup in Birmingham, all eyes were pointed towards the dugout and how each team would set up. The 4-1 Villa win that followed was troubling for West Ham and their traveling fans, and exhilarating for the Villa Park faithful.
How did Unai Emery get the best of Moyes and West Ham on Sunday?
At the heart of all of West Ham’s troubles on Sunday was the balance, or lack thereof, in the midfield. All season long the roles of James Ward-Prowse, Edson Alvarez, and Tomas Soucek have been clearly defined and suited to each individual; Sunday was a different story.
Soucek sat in front of Ward-Prowse and Alvarez acting as a number 10 of sorts, with the majority of the pressing and picking up of runners being tasked to the Englishman and the Mexican. However, Emery’s utilization of John McGinn neutralized what had been an effective system for Moyes and West Ham.
From kickoff, McGinn’s engine was on full display and he was making himself a nuisance all afternoon long. Whether it was harrying Ward-Prowse or Alvarez or bursting past Soucek, the West Ham midfield looked all out of sorts and could not stop McGinn.
While Ward-Prowse’s start to life at West Ham has been superb due to his goal output, a performance like today was a bit worrying. With Moyes committed to keeping Soucek further forward, Ward-Prowse was left to pick up McGinn as well as Boubacar Kamara and Douglas Luiz with just Alvarez beside him. Ward-Prowse is an excellent player, but he isn’t the quickest and looked out of his depth trying to manage the defensive midfield position.
As a result of the mess in midfield, West Ham’s counter-attacking style found it extremely difficult to get any fluidity going. So far this season, West Ham have broken with pace and directness en route to troubling almost every team they have played. On Sunday, however, no such threat was posed.
Lucas Paqueta has been extremely effective so far this year, but against Villa the Brazilian struggled to find enough space to influence the game. It’s not fair to put all the blame on Soucek, but since the Czech midfielder was so far advanced, he essentially took himself out of the game, leaving Paqueta to be consistently swarmed by multiple Villa players.
Without Paqueta’s influence and creativity, the Villa high-line implemented by Emery was easily able to deal with the physical presence of Michail Antonio. Jarrod Bowen was the best West Ham player on the pitch, he capped his performance with a fifth straight away goal, but the Englishman’s lone efforts were not enough to trouble a steady Villa backline.
As West Ham’s counter-attack faltered, more and more pressure was put on the likes of Alvarez and Ward-Prowse in midfield as wave after wave of Villa attack forced them to put in some hard yards. For the first 20 or so minutes, West Ham were able to bend but not break, but that changed with Luiz’s strike in the 30th minute.
Luis was offered far too much space just outside the 18-yard box, and Soucek was nowhere to be seen as Ward-Prowse and Alvarez scrambled to defend Luiz’s long-range effort.
When Aston Villa fell 5-1 away at Newcastle on the opening day of the season, many questioned the consistent intensity and high-line implemented by Emery. However, Sunday’s game was a clinic on how effective that tactic can be.
A sloppy giveaway early in the second half led to a penalty for Villa which Luiz converted, but it was forced by the pressure in midfield caused by Villa’s structure. West Ham managed to get one back through Bowen in the 56th minute, but Villa exploited the hole in West Ham’s midfield 18 minutes later as Ollie Watkins reestablished Villa’s two-goal lead.
John McGinn picked up the ball in midfield and like he was all game, Ward-Prowse was just a step or two late to pick the Scottish midfielder up. This allowed McGinn to spring Watkins through on goal where he finished with great composure.
At this point the game was done and dusted, so the fourth goal is a bit irrelevant, but nonetheless it’s a worrying side for Moyes and West Ham to be conceding four goals to a rival in the table.
The moral of the story is this; Moyes’ system works great when the low block and steady midfield is able to get close to the opposition and force turnovers to quickly counter. However, when a midfield like Villa’s is able to take the likes of Ward-Prowse and Soucek out of the game, the system becomes extremely flawed. All of a sudden players like Alvarez and Ward-Prowse look like they need more support, and the attack becomes far too detached from the midfield to be effective.
Moyes now faces a serious dilemma on whether he brings Mohammed Kudus into the starting XI. The Ghanaian seemingly could play through the middle instead of Antonio, or at the number 10 for Soucek. If Moyes wants to play a number 10 ahead of Ward-Prowse and Alvarez, there is no question Kudus is more effective than Soucek. If Moyes wants that third central player to drop deeper, then it makes sense that a physical player like Soucek would keep his place.
Moyes got the midfield wrong on Sunday, and Emery and Villa capitalized in devastating fashion. There is no need to panic if you are West Ham, but now more than ever, Kudus needs a starting place in the team after a very disappointing weekend in the midlands.
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