Considering West Ham were down to ten men for 23 minutes against Aston Villa last night, following Arthur Masuaku‘s sending off, the Hammers looked pretty comfortable and barely gave their opponents a sight on goal.
Tremendous credit must go to the defence which has improved vastly over the past two games. In their first three matches of the season, Manuel Pellegrini’s side conceded 46 shots on goal. In the past two league fixtures, that has gone down to just 15.
A key part of the improvement is that the Irons have settled on their back four. At the start of the season, Pellegrini opted for Fabian Balbuena and Issa Diop as his centre-back pairing. Earlier this week, the Chilean admitted that was a mistake, citing the fact that Angelo Ogbonna had regularly partnered Diop in pre-season:
“The reason was that Fabian Balbuena couldn’t work too much in the pre-season. He arrived from his national squad late and he played just one [full] game. That was my mistake to play with him in the first game because I trusted too much in what he can do, but it was too soon for him.”
“Now he is trying to return to his normal performance, working hard. Angelo worked with Diop the complete pre-season and now they are the two centre-backs who must play.”
Against Villa, in particular, Ogbonna played a vital role in keeping a clean sheet. In eight one-on-one defensive duels last night, he won seven of them (88%). That is a very high percentage and important when you have one less man on the pitch to defend your goal.
Diop wasn’t as impressive in one-on-one battles, having won 60%, but he was commanding in the air when called upon, winning 100% of his three aerial duels during the 90 minutes. That is particularly important when opponents play with a target man upfront, as Villa do with Wesley Moraes.
Having aerial superiority from one centre-half while his partner covers and win challenges is the perfect combination in a centre-back partnership. It is best not to get too far ahead of ourselves as after all, we are talking about two newly promoted sides in Norwich and Aston Villa, but it does feel that a corner has been turned in terms of the defensive issues.
Ogbonna, in particular, isn’t perfect and he can have his off nights. Many fans would have had their hearts in their mouths when he miscued a headed clearance wide of his own goal in the latter stages of the match yesterday evening.
Still, it does appear that Pellegrini is beginning to get the balance right. Something that the Hammers boss says he has been striving for. The next game will be a sterner test with United at home but if they keep their discipline at the back, they will be able to frustrate the Red Devils who have not looked that creative going forward so far this season.
If they can do that, it will provide the perfect foundation for the talented attacking unit to get stuck into their opponents next Sunday.