There’s a magic to the FA Cup. It’s in the air as you pretend not to care about it, adolescence reborn in a half-eye glance up at ‘The Man’ to say, with the disdain and rising intonation that signals you should not be spoken to again, “I only care about the league”. It’s there in the welders, the drivers, the e-candlestick makers who make up the small handful of non-league teams still in the draw.
And so, naturally, the 3rd round opens at the Olympic (London, whatever) Stadium, West Ham taking on Manchester City.
West Ham’s early tactical changes
West Ham cycled through several set-ups in the opening stages of the game. They started off in a 4-2-3-1, but with the apparent primary goal of playing long balls up to Carroll to flick on to one of Antonio or Feghouli, who’d be running on beyond him. In fairness to West Ham, this led to their best chance of the match shortly after City’s first goal, Antonio collecting a flick-on and shooting, with Feghouli peculiarly missing the rebound.
However, with the two wide players so high up in preparation for any flick-ons, this seriously hurt West Ham’s chances to build up when they got possession of the ball, particularly when deep in their own half. The midfield line were too horizontal, with few decent angles created, and the forward line too far away for a pass to be possible.
Pretty quickly though, things were changed and West Ham retreated into a fairly low block, in a more conventional 4-5-1.
This seemed to be, and worked well as, a period of regrouping for West Ham. City were doing funny magical Pep things, and playing low and compact gave them chance to absorb some pressure and work out how their opponents were playing. They dropped away from pressuring the City back line in this period, which they’d been doing for the first few minutes of the game.
Just before the 20-minute mark, the Hammers changed again. During the 4-5-1, Andy Carroll had been offering token pressure up the pitch, never really trying to press the City centre-backs but at least giving them something to think about so they couldn’t dwell on the ball too long. Now, Lanzini joined him in the first line of defence, the midfield four behind them fairly compact and trying, as much as possible, to force City wide instead of going through the centre.
The Hammers’ failing high pressure
However, they quickly decided to try and apply even more pressure to City higher up the pitch, reverting back to their original formation with Lanzini occasionally filling in as part of the first line for one of the wide players. It worked intermittently, but when it failed, City looked dangerous.
[Example of City beating West Ham’s press, 26th minute. 1) With Carroll pressing Caballero, and no-one stepping up from the midfield line, Toure is free to be passed to, via Otamendi. 2) West Ham’s midfield rush up and in, but Toure plays a pass through them to the dropping Aguero, who plays it off to Sagna. 3) Aguero gets the ball back from Sagna and turns, rolling his man with space to run at a defence a) used to retreating b) distracted by the run of Sterling]
When West Ham’s high pressure did work, it was because the subsequent lines of their defence pushed up and picked up the free men of City. However, it could be undermined and collapse when players, particularly as the game went on and fatigue kicked in, failed to adequately cover the City players lurking behind them. Obiang particularly was at fault for this, with Feghouli also a name to put on the list (although he should be put on *the list* for a general lack of defensive enthusiasm anyway).
Having three men in the first line of defence didn’t seem to make much of a positive
difference to having two, and it served to increase the chances of a City player getting free behind them in midfield. West Ham are also a side not particularly suited or used to using a high press, and their defence seemed naturally more comfortable when deeper. Pressing high also meant more gaps between the lines, which City exploited.
[Example, 14th minute: After having the ball high up the pitch, City move the ball backwards to a deep (relative to where they had been a few seconds before) position, to draw West Ham out. 1) Toure plays the ball out to Clichy 2) Silva makes a quick run through the midfield line, and De Bruyne is already that side of the midfield line, to offer a pass to Clichy while Aguero pulls Reid out of that space. Feghouli jogs back, as does Fernandes, though the latter at least starts to run once the pass is played. Reid steps back up from Aguero to tackle Silva, but it highlights the gaps City are able to exploit and the lack of defensive sense or will to work in West Ham’s midfield]
West Ham on the ball
On the ball – as well as the poor connections early in the game which was partly due to Antonio and Feghouli being high, but was partly just due to a poor midfield – West Ham had more problems. They often found themselves bunched on the left hand side of the pitch, Feghouli, nominally on the right wing, liking to drift centrally or completely to the left on (what felt like) countless occasions.
[Dramatisation of the left-side pack problem]
This would have been fine if it had been used to overload the left side, then switch quickly to the right and exploit the spaces they had created centrally and in the right half-space. However, the West Ham players either weren’t able to see the possibilities or simply refused to pass the ball to Havard Nordtveit (poor Harvard Nerdfight). It may have been a deliberate tactic to primarily play on the left, preferring Cresswell’s crossing to Nordtveit’s and the option of Antonio cutting inside to shoot, but it was a little overused and hindered their attack.
Part of this problem was solved, or at least lessened, partway through the first half. Presumably Slavan Bilic, his technical area closest to his side’s right wing, yelled in Feghouli’s ear and told him to stay wider, because Feghouli’s positional discipline was better for the rest of the game and it improved the Hammers’ shape and connections.
[Feghouli touches for the first half hour(ish) and the rest of the game, is more consistently closer to the wing – touches in his own wing go up from 35% to 45% of his total touches (note: this only shows on-ball actions, were it to show his entire movement I imagine that the pattern may be more clear)]
In the second half, West Ham moved back to a variation of their defensive 4-5-1 seen in the first half, but seemingly Bilic had hammered into his wingers at half-time the need to fulfil their defensive duties even more than he had pre-match. As the half opened, West Ham were in their low block again, with the wide players almost as deep as wing-backs would have been. Against Manchester City, this would perhaps be an overly passive formation unless you were defending a lead. West Ham were already 3-0 down.
Wait. 50 minutes. Make that 4-0. The substitutions that came just before the hour mark altered things with each change, more or less, so we’ll come back to the final 30 minutes after a look at how City set up.
City’s central fluidity
The key feature of City’s set-up was the fluidity of their midfield. While the back four was conventional, David Silva, Kevin de Bruyne, Yaya Toure, and Pablo Zabaleta played more or less interchangeably in the middle of the pitch, though with some individual quirks. Silva played higher on average than the rest, operating as a mix between an 8 and a 10 while Toure was the opposite, generally an 8 or a 6. Zabaleta could move very wide to the right, with Clichy on the left the more attacking full-back than his teammate Sagna on the right.
In front of them, Sterling and Aguero kept up the theme of fluidity, Aguero dropping deep into holes between the lines with Sterling milling around to the striker’s right or left or making runs behind the opposition defensive line.
The middle four seemed to understand each other very well, knowing when to switch and when to try and force passes to probe through West Ham. The full-backs, Clichy particularly but Sagna shouldn’t be overlooked, were useful wide options for City, often found with sweeping passes by Toure. As West Ham’s defensive and midfield lines were often very horizontally compact, the middle could become quite congested, and this left the full-backs space to be dangerous high and wide.
De Bruyne as left-back
In the second half (for reasons I’m not sure of, possibly Guardiola wanted to try things out for future matches given that his side were already 3-0 up, maybe it had a better or more obvious reason), City occasionally used De Bruyne at left-back to confuse the Hammers.
With Clichy pushing up, often drawing an opponent close to him in the process, De Bruyne would drop into the space he vacated. This would either increase the chance of a pass into the halfspace to Silva, or a longer pass down the channel for Sterling or Aguero to run onto.
[Example, 47th minute: De Bruyne in the left-back area. Fernandes, presumably seeing a dangerous player on the ball rather than a left-back, hurries out to close him down 1) Silva drifts in Fernandes’ blind side to receive an easy pass, then 2) plays a 1-2 with Clichy to get past Feghouli, who had previously been covering the left-back (dotted line = Silva run)]
The subs, and play thereafter
After City’s fourth goal on 50 minutes, West Ham pushed Fernandes a little higher, looking more like a 4-1-4-1 than a 4-2-3-1. The Hammers also restarted their attempts to pressure City higher up the pitch after their brief foray into what had almost been a 6-3-1, though their attempts were as successful as they had been in the first half ie not very, and irregularly. City had stepped off the gas a little, and the Hammers weren’t pressuring quite as high or often as in the first half, so they were able to keep a bit of a better shape out of possession.
Just before the hour, Silva came off for Nolito, and Lanzini and Carroll were replaced by Noble and Payet. For City, it was more or less business as usual, although Nolito was less prepared/less instructed to come deep than Silva had been, and so City moved more towards a 4-3-3. West Ham moved definitively to a 4-1-4-1, Noble at the base, Fernandes and Obiang just ahead, Payet and Feghouli on the left and right respectively with Antonio moving to Carroll’s role.
City really were easing off by this point though, only really making an attacking move when an easy opening appeared or when they needed to bypass some West Ham pressure.
[City’s touch maps from the start of the game until their fourth goal, and from their fourth goal to full-time (shooting to the left of the image); the bulk of their touches moves backwards fairly noticeably]
City lowering their own intensity on the ball allowed West Ham to come back into the game a little more, but not in any significant way, the main result being a few decent crosses from Feghouli.
In the 68th minute, De Bruyne was subbed off for Alex Garcia, and City’s formation switched to something like a 4-1-2-3-0, with all of the furthest forward line willing to drop back and operate in an attacking midfield area. Garcia primarily acted as a defensive midfielder, splitting the centre-backs and generally helping City to recycle and retain possession for the rest of the game.
In the 72nd and 75th minutes, West Ham and City respectively made a tactically like-for-like sub, first with Ashley Fletcher coming on for Antonio, and then Fabian Delph on for Yaya Toure.
For this later period of the game, City’s pressing and counterpressing was much less intense than it had been earlier in the game. However, they stepped up the pace and pounced if the Hammers made a mistake – opportunistic pressing, perhaps (NB: this may already be a ‘thing’ that tactics people know about and go on about, and is certainly already a trigger in some pressing systems already).
John Stones scored from a corner in the 84th minute, and in truth by this point a combination of the scoreline and the energy already expended by the players meant that it was a very dull close to the game, eventually culminating with Mark Clattenberg blowing for full-time with pitch invaders on the field, before the allotted number of minutes added on was even close to elapsing. No-one needed to play the full amount.
Individual errors were definitely a large part in many City’s goals. For the first (31’), West Ham failed to prevent passes first to Silva and then the onrushing Zabaleta. Ogbonna rushed across, looking as if he thought he could get the ball, and then couldn’t slow himself down enough to avoid clumsily colliding with the Argentinian. Penalty given, penalty converted, 1-0.
The second (41’) was a case of good interchange on City’s right wing bypassing several members of the West Ham team, crucially left-back Aaron Cresswell, and their relatively high pressure. Cresswell taken out by a give and go with Aguero, Sagna either outran Ogbonna or Ogbonna didn’t think the threat was great enough to push himself further to close the full-back down. It was a magnificent cross from Sagna, hard to deal with for Havard Nordtveit, and he unfortunately bundled it into his own net for an own goal.
On the replay, it feels like Nordtveit should have done something better. Sterling started on the inside of him before moving to the outside – perhaps Nordtveit’s positioning could have been better to meet the cross, perhaps he could have used his body to force Sterling into a less threatening area, which then might have allowed him to leave the cross instead of try and stop it. This feels a little harsh though; it was just one of those things that happens.
The third goal (43’) was perhaps the worst failure of West Ham’s system. City broke West Ham’s high pressure through finding Sagna on the right, and then a dropping Aguero with a pass down the sideline. Sterling received a pass infield, finding himself in acres of space between the lines, the midfielders responsible for that area, Obiang and Fernandes, still jogging back.
Due to Aguero drifting back and to the right, Ogbonna was drawn with him and had now switched positions with West Ham’s left-back Cresswell. Those two, as well as Reid, were drawn in to Sterling, Reid going to challenge the Englishman who played a give and go with Aguero and was released into a 2 v 1 – he and Silva versus Havard Nordtveit.
Now, there were several things the defensive line could have done differently. Reid could have left challenging Sterling to Cresswell, the temporary situational left centre-back, as Sterling was essentially on Cresswell’s side. Upon seeing Reid go in to challenge him, Cresswell could have started dropping off to free himself from the clump of West Ham defenders. The fact that Cresswell and Ogbonna had had to switch positions may have contributed to these poor decisions though.
Finally, Nordtveit’s positioning could probably have been better to prevent Sterling’s square ball to Silva, although it was a terrible situation for a defender to find themselves in. But this is the thing – at no point during the match did Nordtveit look comfortable at right-back. While he played around 75% of his starting minutes in the back line last season for Borussia Mönchengladbach, in the 3 seasons before that only 3% (THREE PERCENT) of his starting minutes had been in defence. He was, quite clearly, a fill-in defender at Gladbach and quite clearly a fill-in defender at West Ham too.
City’s fourth (50’) came following a corner, City well set up to retain possession from these set pieces with both Toure and Zabaleta lurking outside the area in case it popped out to them. West Ham failed to adequately spread themselves across their 18 yard-box, meaning that there was no-one in a position to close down or block Yaya Toure’s shot once the ball had rolled out to him. Aguero, standing just in front of the keeper (onside), flicked and killed the ball in one deft movement, a poacher’s goal at its finest.
And finally, City’s fifth (84’) was for John Stones, a header from a corner that Mark Noble was unable to clear before it crossed the line. A human referee might have taken pity on the Hammers and given them the benefit of the doubt, but goal-line technology has no such heart.
One tweet summary: City fun rotating box, West Ham should stay deeper + wider. Individual mistakes and City skill killed them. KDP at LB, dull last half hour.
FT: West Ham 0 – Manchester City 5 (Toure 33’; Nordtveit (og) 41’; Silva 43’; Aguero 50’; Stones 84’)