This fixture sees West Ham come to Goodison Park for the Toffees’ first home game in almost a month. Everton are reeling from a frustrating loss against Burnley, while West Ham have squeezed out a pair of consecutive 1-0 victories after starting the season with just one win in seven.
West Ham overview
Last year was an impressive one for West Ham, though it came with a few analytical caveats: namely, that they (1) had a super high scoring percentage, especially in the early going, and (2) likewise outperformed expected goals by a large margin. They were still pretty good though and 7th place is nothing to sneeze at, especially since underlying numbers suggest that they improved as the season went on.
Entering this season it was hard to know exactly what to expect from them. Scoring percentages and finishing performance tend to regress to the mean over time, so they couldn’t reasonably count on those things continuing. On the other hand, they clearly have quality in the side (I’ll get to Dmitri Payet later) and they got a brand new stadium basically for free, which is nice. A good primer on where the Hammers stood entering this season can be found here.
So far this year things have been...mixed. Erratic might even be a better word. They were solid against Bournemouth, were probably unlucky to draw Boro, and were decent if not great against Sunderland. On the other hand, they had two absolutely batty 2-4 losses against Watford and West Brom of all teams (I really can’t overstate how hard it is to concede four goals to a Pulis side), and were totally dismantled by Southampton at home. So it’s kind of hard to say which West Ham team will show up on a given day.
This actually follows a trend from last year: in the Statsbomb articles linked above, Mohamed notes that West Ham games tend to be high-event and high-variance. They led the league last year in total shots per game (taken and conceded) and are fourth so far this season. This helps explain why West Ham’s results can look weird next to each other—helter skelter games tend to produce strange results more often than contained Mourinho/Pulis affairs—but there is still a bit of mystery as to why this team is so inconsistent.
Another trend that West Ham are continuing from last year is their efficiency and directness in attack. They currently top the table in shots per minute of possession, and were fourth last year. In other words, when they get the ball they are less focused on keeping it and more on getting it towards the goal. This is not necessarily a good thing on its own (Man City are arguably the league’s best attacking team and are mid-table in shot tempo) but it generally helps, especially for teams who don’t necessarily have the personnel for a possession-based offense.
Unfortunately for the Hammers, their chance quality has dipped significantly from last year, from .103 to .076 expected goals per shot. In other words, they’re still doing a good job at getting shots off but they have been poor at making sure those shots are taken in high-percentage scenarios.
In short West Ham have been a bit hit or miss so far this year, winning small and losing big. Their fairly direct style has produced some open games, and they’ve struggled to control play on a consistent basis. It’s fair to say they’re playing below their potential, but it’s also unclear exactly how high that potential is.
What immediately sticks out from the table is that West Ham have conceded more goals than every other Premier League team except Hull. Considering they are 13th in expected goals against and and 9th in shots against, you might argue they’ve been a bit unlucky to concede so many. However, only Liverpool and Swansea rank worse in chance quality allowed (expected goals per shot against). This suggests that while West Ham are doing okay volume-wise in terms of restricting chances, when the opposition gets an attacking opportunity it tends to be a pretty good one.
Part of the problem is just dumb mistakes. Against Watford they conceded the below equalizer after being up 2-0 in the first half. I cannot over-stress how dumb this goal is, please watch it on repeat for at least a few minutes.
In the following game against West Brom, left back Arthur Masuaku committed one of the strangest handballs you’ll see this season and gifted Albion an early penalty:
West Ham’s next game was against Southampton, whose second goal came from a silly giveaway in the midfield by Cheikhou Kouyaté:
In addition to mental errors, the Hammers have also struggled to find a consistent structure at the back. In their most recent two league matches, Slaven Bilić has deployed a back three/five. Crystal Palace was able to use long balls, good hold up play, and through balls to oncoming runners to break through West Ham’s back line on a few occasions:
In the first clip, notice how Aaron Cresswell is sucked into the middle by the movement of Andros Townsend. Townsend shoots here because that’s what Townsend does, but Wilfried Zaha was wide open and in fact remains wide open following the blocked shot. The second clip also starts with a long ball, this time with Benteke knocking it down to Jason Puncheon, who slides in for the oncoming Zaha. In both cases there was significant confusion in West Ham’s back line as to who was marking whom and what lines they were meant to maintain. Both clips also feature wingers/wing backs who don’t adequately track back, perhaps because they are unaware of their role in the system. From a West Ham perspective you’d hope that a team in its second season with its manager would have its act together a bit more in this regard.
A one-man team?
Going forward West Ham have been dangerous at times this season and last, but nearly all of their productivity in this department comes from one Dmitri Payet. The Frenchman is a phenomenal player who went absolutely supernova last season and looks to be on a similar path this year, but no player should be solely relied upon to carry a team’s attack. Unfortunately this increasingly seems to be the case:
He is more than just the hub of West Ham’s attack, he pretty much is their attack. He’s caught fire yet again as well, assisting or scoring 6 of West Ham’s last 8 goals in all competitions (5 assists and 1 goal). He catches the headlines for things like this (and why not?):
But he’s almost more impressive for the little stuff. In the below clip watch how he slows his run, sneaks into that central area just outside the box, and makes himself available for the pass. Southampton should be intently tracking his movement but he is so clever that often it is difficult to do so. You ask yourself how Soton could leave him so unmarked but finding space in dangerous areas is what the best players do.
Manuel Lanzini is a perfectly capable attacker and Michail Antonio is one of the better target men in the league, but make no mistake: this team lives and dives with Payet in the final third right now.
West Ham have been somewhat unlucky this year, yes, but they’ve also performed as less than the sum of their parts. This has to in some sense reflect the manager, and I think more than anything Bilić needs to engender some kind of consistency in this side, especially on the defensive end. They’ve struggled against both direct teams (West Brom, Watford, Palace) and possession-oriented teams (Man City, Southampton) despite trying a few different defensive shapes.
Everton meanwhile have a sputtering offense and a defense that looked a bit too vulnerable against one of the league’s worst attacks in Burnley. They will again likely have the greater share of possession here, and on the bright side they are unlikely to be facing a low block of the sort Sean Dyche’s men employed. In theory there should be space for the likes of Romelu Lukaku and Bolasie/Deulofeu/Mirallas to run into, but do the Toffees have the right man in Ross Barkley to be playing the corresponding through balls? Certainly Barkley was more involved against Burnley then in previous weeks but his skill as a creator is a perpetually developing question. In any case, West Ham are a hard team to predict at the moment but I think it’s at least fair to expect Everton to get chances in front of goal in this one.
All expected goals figures are courtesy of Michael Caley.