David Moyes sparks West Ham revival as tactical shift offers new blueprint for run-in

Fighting back: David Moyes has engineered a potentially pivotal tactical shift as he battles to keep West Ham job (AP)
Fighting back: David Moyes has engineered a potentially pivotal tactical shift as he battles to keep West Ham job (AP)

A week often seems to make a fair difference in the helter-skelter world of West Ham — and this last one has been no different.

At half-time in the draw with Burnley eight days ago, at 2-0 down, David Moyes’s side were booed off at the London Stadium, familiar tensions bubbling over once more.

At the final whistle of Sunday’s meeting with Aston Villa, the noise was the same. This time, though, all dissent was aimed at referee Jarred Gillett and his VAR colleagues, the twin thorns which denied the Hammers the feel-good surge of a second crucial victory in four days when correctly, but laboriously, chalking off a would-be winner from Tomas Soucek in stoppage time.

Still, between the comeback 2-2 draw against Burnley, a 5-0 thrashing of Freiburg and now the relative hard-luck story of a 1-1 draw with a strong Villa side, a season that looked in danger of petering out has been revived heading into its final pause.

The upturn has been sparked by a tactical shift, one born of necessity when trailing at half-time against the division’s bottom side, but that has since made a strong case to become the blueprint for the run-in.

Wedded to a 4-3-3 for most of the season, Moyes has flipped to a 4-2-3-1 formation, allowing for the inclusion of a focal point at centre-forward in Michail Antonio, as well as the potent trio of Jarrod Bowen, Lucas Paqueta and Mohammed Kudus, who had previously operated as a front-three.

Between first making the change at half-time against Burnley and withdrawing Antonio for Ben Johnson in a bid to see out victory against Villa on Sunday, Moyes watched his side score eight times without reply.

Above the numbers, there has been a notable change in energy at West Ham

Above the numbers, though, has been a notable change in energy, one that perhaps vindicates those Hammers supporters who have continually found grievance with the style of football played under Moyes even when it has produced excellent results.

Out of possession, West Ham are no longer retreating towards halfway nor relying on the honourable but often ill-judged lone chasing of Antonio. They have learned to hunt in packs, pressing in sync and then, when stealing possession, committing men into the attack.

The opening goal here came at the end of a sustained spell of pressure, Paqueta winning the ball back in Villa territory at the start of the move that eventually saw Vladimir Coufal found out wide, with four men in the box to aim at and two more on the edge waiting for cut-backs. In the event, he chose Antonio, who dived to head his first goal since August.

Nicolo Zaniolo’s equaliser off the bench proved the second-half’s headline, at least until the longest VAR check in Premier League history brought stoppage-time drama. In the short-term, however, it was the yellow card received by Edson Alvarez late on that might cause Moyes most headache when it comes to trying to replicate this first-half display.

Michail Antonio is one of the major beneficiaries of West Ham’s new system (Getty Images)
Michail Antonio is one of the major beneficiaries of West Ham’s new system (Getty Images)

The summer signing’s 10th booking of the season means he will miss matches against Newcastle and Tottenham when the League campaign resumes, while he is already suspended for the first leg of the European quarter-final against Bayer Leverkusen.

Much has been made recently of West Ham’s abysmal record without Paqueta, but the statistics when it comes to Alvarez are similarly bleak: since making his full debut in August, the midfielder has started all but four league matches and the Hammers have not won any of those where he has been benched or out.

Moyes has options, but neither Kalvin Phillips or James Ward-Prowse looks capable of replacing Alvarez’s athleticism, and a midfield-two without him feels in danger of being exposed.

Before that, Moyes must hope the international break does not prove too taxing, having seen Bowen, Antonio and Kudus all come back from duty with injuries this season. Paqueta is not entirely over his calf problems, but is back in the Brazil squad for the first time all term.