West Ham United started their summer business by selling captain Declan Rice to Arsenal for a club-record fee. After a rapid flurry of action before the transfer window slammed shut, the Hammers have reasons to believe their midfield unit is the best it has ever been.
David Moyes’ side have made a fast start to the Premier League season, rising to seventh in the standings with wins over Chelsea, Brighton & Hove Albion, and Luton Town. The Hammers narrowly edged Lincoln City 1-0 to move onto the fourth round of the EFL Cup before closing out September with a 2-0 win against Sheffield United, following that up with a second straight Europa League win and a 2-2 draw against Newcastle, taking the lead within eight minutes and drawing level in the 89th minute via Mohammed Kudus’ first-ever Premier League goal.
Apart from Kudus and Konstantinos Mavropanos, who played the full 90 in both of their Europa League matches, two summer arrivals who have proven instrumental early on are Edson Álvarez and James Ward-Prowse. The midfield duo arrived at the London Stadium to replace Rice by committee, have been integral to West Ham’s early season form and will play crucial roles if the Hammers are to replicate their recent success.
Unlike last season, when he scrambled to implement a more progressive style of play, Moyes has stuck to his bread and butter to open the campaign, instructing his players to sit in a mid-block before charging upfield on the counterattack. To date, Moyes-ball has proven effective against two of the most highly-regarded tacticians in the league and even caused Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City a headache or two on their latest visit to Stratford.
For the first time in 58 years, West Ham have won a major European trophy after beating Fiorentina 2-1 in the UEFA Europa Conference League Final.
Today, we’re shedding light on some of the heroes behind the Hammers’ epic European campaign: pic.twitter.com/1VJBPNw3XF
— Breaking The Lines (@BTLvid) June 7, 2023
With that in mind, a closer inspection of West Ham’s midfield is required. Why did the East London outfit part with mountains of cash for a pair of un-flashy talents? And how has that decision paid dividends in the first weeks of the season?
Álvarez has been completely unfazed by the trials and tribulations of life in the Premier League in his first month with West Ham. The Mexican midfielder has been an assured performer whenever called upon by Moyes and is already a popular figure in the London Stadium locker room.
“Edson is more defensive but he is an animal, he works so hard,” full-back Emerson Palmieri recently told The Athletic. “Sometimes when you just watch the game, you can’t see him every time with the ball, but without the ball he is unbelievable. He runs for everyone.”
Emerson’s analysis of his new teammate is especially insightful after West Ham’s 3-1 loss to Manchester City, a fixture that Álvarez left in the 68th minute due to a muscular injury. Saïd Benrhama replaced the 25-year-old and Pep Guardiola’s squad capitalised by scoring twice to break the tie and clinch an important win in East London.
Asked if West Ham missed Álvarez after his substitution, Moyes answered: “Hugely.” The Hammers operated somewhere between a 4-2-3-1 and a 4-3-3 versus Manchester City, with Czech international Tomáš Souček partnering Álvarez at the base of Moyes’ midfield.
However, the Mexican was positioned much deeper than Souček on both sides of the transition, often dropping between Nayef Aguerd and Kurt Zouma when West Ham were in possession. When Manchester City attacked, he was crucial to limiting their threat down the right flank and was sorely missed in the 81st minute, when Erling Haaland evaded Ward-Prowse’s recovery run and arrived in the penalty unopposed to test Alphonse Areola.
With Álvarez anchoring their midfield, it is no coincidence that West Ham sit 19th in the Premier League’s PPDA (passes per defensive action) table. The former Ajax man, so adept at absorbing pressure in crucial defensive zones, affords the Hammers a more comfortable ride in their mid-block and will be crucial for them in matches when the field is heavily tilted in their opponent’s favour.
Ward-Prowse is one of the best set-piece takers in Premier League history. Period. But there is much more to the former Southampton captain’s appeal than his ability to convert dead balls into goal contributions. He is underrated in open play and Moyes has exploited this proficiency off the bat.
With Álvarez in the No. 4 role, Ward-Prowse typically partners Paquetá in central midfield, with Jarrod Bowen and some combination of Benrhama, Pablo Fornals, and Mohamed Kudus ahead of them on the flanks. In a matter of weeks, the 28-year-old has underscored his box-to-box midfielder credentials by accomplishing intelligent plays at both ends of the field, with his header versus Manchester City a perfect illustration of his effectiveness under Moyes.
Manchester City turn over possession in the middle third, with Vladimír Coufal pinching the ball and quickly playing into the feet of Jarrod Bowen. Bowen, shown inside by Joško Gvardiol, slips a neat through pass to Coufal, who broke beyond Jeremy Doku after the initial turnover.
With a positional advantage over Doku, Coufal drives into the Manchester City half and lifts his head as he approaches the penalty area – his options are Michail Antonio or James-Ward Prowse. Antonio occupies both centre-backs at the near post, allowing Ward-Prowse to jump into the half-space between Kyle Walker and Rúben Dias. Coufal’s delivery is inch-perfect, allowing Ward-Prowse to head home.
Ward-Prowse’s arrival has also restored West Ham as one of the most threatening set-piece squads in Europe. After their effectiveness from still balls faded last term, the accuracy of his deliveries has already been a difference-maker and saw him tally assists versus Luton and Chelsea.
West Ham’s set-piece routines are relatively unsophisticated by modern standards, with Moyes preferring variations of the ‘bus stop’ – where offensive players are stacked around the penalty spot before sprinting towards each post – to shorter, more technical plays designed to create scoring chances on the second phase. Moyes’ approach has already proven fruitful this season, as shown by Ward-Prowse’s helpers against Luton and Chelsea.
If Ward-Prowse sustains his current levels of production, West Ham will enjoy plenty of success this term.
Despite their Europa Conference League triumph, West Ham‘s regression last term was clear. They were ineffective on the transition, mediocre in possession, and weak in defence. They lost Rice to a nearby neighbour but have somehow, after rumours of internal division over their recruitment plans, and have reinforced their squad for another tilt at European qualification.
Could West Ham be ‘best of the rest’ and outduel Aston Villa and Brighton to a place in the top seven? They are at least back in the conversation. Even so, Moyes still has areas of need and must address them in the months ahead. Michail Antonio is not a long-term solution at centre-forward, while question marks continue to hover awkwardly over the form of defender Nayef Aguerd.
Regardless, the Hammers are heading in the right direction once again — and deserve enormous credit for taking the departure of Rice in their stride. Signing Álvarez and Ward-Prowse was the right play at the right time for Moyes & Co.
By: Luke James / @LukeJames_32
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Bradley Collyer – PA Images / Rob Newell – CameraSport
Luke James (@LukeJames_32) is a freelance sports writer from London, England. In addition to his work for Breaking The Lines, he reports on ice hockey for British Ice Hockey and The Hockey Writers. He is currently the marketing and communications officer for a professional women’s football club.