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Three Things That Went Wrong Against West Ham

What the heck happened?

Tottenham Hotspur v West Ham United - Premier League Photo by Matt Dunham - Pool/Getty Images

Tottenham Hotspur has been on bit of a high ever since the Everton game (we don’t talk about Newcastle), and in classic Spurs fashion any talk of strolling into Top 4, or even winning the league (you know who you are) has been brought to an abrupt halt. It’s hard to understand how a Jose Mourinho team, after almost a year of his leadership, can go ten games without a clean sheet - the most recent example being a total collapse in the span of 9 minutes against West Ham. After watching the game back, there were signs that West Ham might be able to conjure something, specially in the second half.

Defensive Left Side Got Exposed Too Often

Spurs best signing of the season - so far, put away your pitchforks - has to be Pierre Emile Hojbjerg. He has utterly transformed Spurs’ midfield, making both Sissoko and Ndombele look better than last season. More importantly, and despite their defensive record, he’s been a phenomenal protector of Tottenham’s back 4. For the entirety of the 1st half, Hojbjerg and Sissoko did well to completely neutralize West Ham’s attacks down the center.

West Ham work the ball to Bowen on the right side, who drifts inward. Reguilon presses the ball carrier high, as Mourinho instructs the fullbacks to do so, and Soucek moves into Spurs’ now open left flank. Sanchez is dragged towards Soucek, opening a gap between himself and fellow centerback Alderweireld. Fornals makes a blindside run on Hojbjerg, but Sissoko’s positioning blocks off the possibility of a pass.

Both Hojbjerg and Sissoko are industrious midfielders - the way they press and quickly shift across the field to cover any potential threat has been one of the biggest reasons Spurs so few shots on goal this season compared to last.

With the central channel closed, West Ham shifted their focus down Tottenham’s right. Although Coufal found himself in good crossing positions, West Ham started to find the most joy down the left with Masuaku, Cresswell, and Antonio linking up well.

Both Sanchez and Alderweireld were instructed to play tight against Antonio. After the first 20 minutes of the game, Antonio began to use Spurs’ tight marking against them. Antonio collects a pass with his back towards goal, lays it off to Masuaku and runs into the space vacated by Alderweireld. The move finishes with Fornals missing a clear chance at goal.
Masuaku became an important driver of West Ham’s build up. Here Antonio drops deep again and brings Alderweireld out just enough for Bowen to make a run into the channel and progress the play.

Presumably, another reason that West Ham attacked down the left was to drag out Aldwerweireld as much as possible - not just to create space, but to ensure that he was not settled or positioned well when a cross came in. As we saw with Sanchez’ performance, he is not as good defending crosses as his Belgian counterpart.

Indeed, crossing and attacking from the left became West Ham’s main attacking method. They attempted 22 crosses during the match (averaging 15.65/90, 5th highest in the league.)

West Ham’s offense overwhelmingly traveled through the left side.
Map of West Ham’s passing combinations. Cresswell, Masuaku, and Rice were the three players involved in the most amount of passing combinations. Cresswell, positionally playing as a left sided centerback, often underlapped Masuaku to exploit the space between Aurier and Alderweireld.

It’d be easy for Spurs fans to dismiss all of this, but West Ham’s efforts were creating some chances of note. By the 60th minute, they had matched Tottenham’s xG - a full 20 minutes before the first goal that started their comeback was scored. It’s incredibly difficult to suggest what Spurs could have done better here as they did keep a good defensive shape for the most part of the game. That said, with Antonio dropping deep to drag defenders out of position, and Masuaku/Cresswell et al combining so well on the left flank, perhaps the most obvious thing would have been to not give the opposition more chances to cross the ball into the box than necessary. That, however, is exactly what Spurs did.

Unnecessary Fouls

Tottenham’s players on the right side were not intelligent ****s. Sanchez gave up a foul through the back of Antonio in the beginning of the match which seemed to set the tone for how West Ham could pick up easy set pieces from the flanks. This played to their strategy extremely well as their main method of attack was crossing in the first place.

Committed fouls - West Ham’s are represented by the blue dots, Tottenham’s orange. Notice the cluster of four fouls on West Ham’s left side. Two of these fouls resulted in goals for the Hammers.

Spurs defenders played so tight to their marker that they sometimes either opened up space behind them or fouled them in an area that West Ham could use to attack the 18 yard box.

The takeaway here is simple: when playing against an opponent who is looking to cross the ball into the box through open play as often as possible, don’t foul them in positions that might enable them to accurately cross the ball towards their tallest players.

The more pessimistic among you might reduce that to ‘don’t foul players’ - but even then, it’s still accurate. It was an unnecessary foul led to West Ham’s first goal.

No clear West ham threat here - the West Ham player is being forced back by Sissoko, and both Aurier/Bale’s presence complicated any sort of build up play for the Hammers. The only real option is a pass back to Masuaku to recycle the ball - yet Sissoko still pushes the West Ham player. This is the definition of an unnecessary foul.

Gareth Bale Substitution

This might be a surprise but bear with me. I have to admit - I was excited to see Gareth Bale come on for his second debut for Spurs. Three goals up against London rivals, ten or so minutes to go, what could go wrong?

As Mourinho said in his post match presser, “this is football” - referring to the chance, the unpredictability of the game. It made me think how a manager’s job is often just mitigating risk; whether that be player injuries or on-pitch results.

It made me wonder, however, if subbing in Gareth Bale was the right decision. Even during the match, it was clear that West Ham were focusing their attacks down the left. For 30 minutes in the second half, they dominated possession as well.

West Ham had the majority of the ball during the second half.

The fact that this is all planned by Mourinho (“counterattacking side”) is all fine and good, yet surely there’s something to be said for balancing your defensive output with your offensive. As in, there is a certain logic to bringing on Bale to run at tired defenders and score on a counterattack (if Bale had scored his chance would I even be writing this?) but surely that argument does not outweigh bolstering your defense, specially when you’re already three goals ahead?

As much as I don’t want this to sound as hindsight piece, I know it does. But I can’t help but wonder why Son didn’t stay on so that Mourinho could have substituted Bergwjin for Lucas. The Brazilian can be clumsy in build up, sure, but he puts in an absolute shift defensively. Given that Bale had no defensive contributions whatsoever, Lucas might have been the better option to keep West Ham’s left side quiet.

Make no mistake, Spurs still look very good. They were absolutely lethal in the first half hour, and it took some soft fouls and an unstoppable goal for them to get a point at the last second. Tottenham won’t be winning the league but they have a great opportunity to finish high up the table - and, more importantly for some of you, the depth for some silverware.