It’s rare for David Moyes to allow his excitement to spill into celebration, at least throughout his 25-year career in the dugout. And that’s why, in the moments after his West Ham United side triumphed in the Europa Conference League final, his cheesy grin and swinging arms were as loud as any words he said throughout the season. Moyes raced onto the pitch, let out a wild scream, and was quickly mobbed by his players and backroom staff.
There is plenty to glean from the 60-year-old’s celebration – after years of shrewd management at the helm of Everton, his career was dismantled after he took the impossible assignment of replacing Sir Alex Fergusson at Manchester United. Victory in Prague – versus possession-savvy ACF Fiorentina – signifies a major milestone in his career and an epoch-shifting moment in the history of his current club.
When Moyes returned to the London Stadium, he was tasked with keeping the Hammers in the Premier League. Four years later, he joins Ron Greenwood and John Lyall on the list of West Ham managers to deliver major silverware to the East End. And, in the aftermath of a drab domestic campaign, he did it his way – smothering Vincenzo Italiano’s Fiorentina with an elite defensive performance at Fortuna Arena.
Nominally, West Ham started the match in a 4-2-3-1 formation but mainly defended in two narrow blocks of four as the match advanced. Although Fiorentina owned 67.7 percent of the possession count, the Hammers limited their Serie A opponent to only four shots on target and 1.3 expected goals (xG).
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
West Ham benefited from a handful of standout individual performances, notably from full-back Emerson Palmieri, but ultimately prospered because they were able to slam the door shut on an opponent that neatly moves possession through the lines before feeding their forwards with crosses from the flanks.
In this clip, taken from the fifth minute of the final, the Hammers set a deep line of engagement, with striker Michail Antonio and advanced midfielder Lucas Paquetá parked on the halfway line, blocking the passing lanes into central midfield:
Fiorentina quickly cycle the ball through midfield, only to be met by a stubborn midblock anchored by West Ham’s pivot of Declan Rice and Tomáš Souček. Frustrated, midfielder Rolando Mandragora pulls into the backline and lofts an ambitious pass into the final third and out of touch for a goal kick.
West Ham repeated this approach – dubbed ‘dinosaur tactics’ by Football Italia – for the rest of the match and reaped their rewards in the final minute when Jarrod Bowen raced into the final third to net a sucker-punch winner. While Bowen’s offensive influence dominate the headlines, his defensive contributions were crucial as West Ham absorbed wave after wave of attack from Fiorentina.
The 26-year-old provided exceptional coverage along the right flank, working in tandem with right-back Vladimír Coufal to block crosses and stymie tricky attacker Christian Kouamé. In this clip, taken from the 14th minute, Bowen forces Giacomo Bonaventura to play a weak-side pass to Mandragora:
Bowen rapidly turns his attention to Mandragora, blocking the 25-year-old’s cross into touch. In this clip, taken from the second half, Fiorentina switch the point of attack with a series of quick passes across midfield:
Bowen, temporarily stationed at centre forward, presses each ball-carrier before knocking Bonaventura’s delivery out of bounds, nullifying another Fiorentina attack. The Hammers hardly dazzled offensively – but made their impact felt with opportunistic play in game-changing moments.
Just before the 60-minute mark, Coufal caught Fiorentina napping with a quickly-taken throw, launching the ball into the penalty with a 30-yard lob. Bowen controlled the delivery with his chest, but was dispossessed by the hand of Cristiano Biraghi. Saïd Benrahma dispatched the following penalty – advantage West Ham. Bonaventura replied with a strike of his own five minutes later, setting the scene for a dramatic conclusion in Prague:
While there isn’t a wealth of tactical detail to extract from the sequence that saw West Ham clinch their first major honour since the 1980 FA Cup, three moments stand out in the context of the final.
- The Hammers won first- and second-contact on a long ball from Fiorentina goalkeeper Pietro Terracciano.
- Paquetá immediately played a low-percentage vertical pass, anticipating a forward run from Bowen.
- Bowen outpaced the Fiorentina defence, forcing Terracciano to rush beyond the spot by the time the shot is taken.
In other words, West Ham’s ruthlessness (and newly-acquired individual quality) in transitional moments proved crucial to the final outcome on both of their goals against Fiorentina.
And that is why David Moyes walks away from a disappointing season – which saw West Ham finish fourteenth as they stumbled through and eventually reversed a playing style shift – with silverware won in his vision. The Hammers frustrated possession-heavy Fiorentina with a textbook counter-attacking performance and will return to the Europa League as a result. Hence the cheesy grins and swinging arms from those dressed in claret and blue.
By: Luke James / @LukeJames_32
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Glyn Kirk – AFP