Cause for Concern on Both Flanks
Author: Emily Pulham. Published: 4 August 2019 at 8:46pm
Written by : @benfleet_hammer
Even the most cynical West Ham supporter would struggle not to take the positives from this transfer window. Deadwood has been cleared, including players who have wanted away for a long time. Our squad, which has often seemed imbalanced with players who were evidently not going to maintain a consistent challenge for first team spots, has been trimmed. Of the four signings we have made, two appear to be players of genuine quality who will immediately threaten the first team. Yet for many fans, a glaring weakness from last season has failed to be addressed, and has even been evident again in pre-season games. Our full backs continue to be exploited time and again, regardless of the standard of opposition.
Due to Pellegrini’s defensive strategy of adopting a high line and setting an offside trap, this is a particularly concerning area of weakness. Attacking wingers or overlapping full backs are all too frequently able to take up positions where they are behind the offside trap and able to drive a cross into our penalty area. This causes our centre backs to have to defend facing their own goal or drop back rapidly, each leading to their own problems. This particular issue has led to many of the goals we have conceded since Pellegrini took charge, and so it would seem obvious that changes need to be made.
In the left-back position, it would seem that Pellegrini has spent two pre-seasons and a league campaign trying to determine whether he prefers Cresswell or Masuaku. Masuaku started 19 league games, just one more start than Cresswell over the season. Masuaku appears to be the preferred choice, particularly as he has had his contract extended until 2024 this week, yet this was a decision Pellegrini only really seemed to reach after a significant chunk of the 2018/19 season. At times, he is scintillating going forward, with close control and attacking drive which seems out of keeping with a traditionally defensive position. In terms of protecting his own goal and forming an effective part of a defensive unit, he has always been found lacking. Admittedly, he has improved, but these improvements come at the expense of his attacking talent. When he does appear to defend more solidly, he also seems to be shackled and reluctant to commit himself forward. With Cresswell, he just cannot seem to rediscover his form – either offensively or defensively. It is a real shame to see a loyal servant underperform so consistently, but it seems that he is incapable of forming a productive partnership such as the one he had with Dimitri Payet, and he no longer appears to be as resolute as he was in his first two seasons at the club. Although Masuaku had taken the driving seat by the end of last season, it is very much a position which is up for grabs, particularly as his attendance at the African Cup of Nations has restricted his pre-season.
On the other flank, Zabaleta and Fredericks have experienced a similar season of uncertainty and Pellegrini’s deliberation over which option he prefers. Zabaleta started 23 games; Fredericks started 12 after returning from injury midway through the season. It is indisputable that Zabaleta is by far the better player, and would have the position locked down comfortably if not for his age. Even despite him being past his prime, Zabaleta still continues to prove the doubters wrong by producing solid performances against the trickiest of wingers – in the last season, for example, he kept Zaha and Hazard quiet in superb home performances. It is hard to believe he is 34 years old when you see him making yet another lung-busting run up the right hand side in the final few minutes of games. Unfortunately, there are increasingly noticeable occasions where his lack of pace is successfully targeted by other teams, and he is struggling to keep up with the rigours of a Premier League season which can sometimes see three games in the space of seven days. As such, Fredericks has been given significantly more game time towards the end of last season. He has demonstrated his potential, particularly as an attacking outlet with his blistering pace. It is that same pace which he relies on too heavily when he is defending, often attempting to make up for his poor defensive positioning with a sprint back to hold up an attacker. He was unfortunate to pick up a couple of injuries early on in his West Ham career, and we may well see the best of him yet, but he has not convinced that he can take the right back slot from Zabaleta.
In amongst all of these seasoned professionals, we’ve also witnessed the emergence of a young prospect from our academy in Ben Johnson. Not only did he make his debut against some of the most potent wingers in the league at Man City, he came out of the game with credit and has gone from strength to strength since. Pellegrini has reportedly made his opinions clear about the youngster who will undoubtedly get chances this season – particularly as he is confident enough to play either on the left or the right. It wouldn’t be surprising at all if he started the first game of the season, such is the impression he has made.
Many fans have called for us to sign another wingback, or potentially even a wingback on each side. However, the emergence of Ben Johnson has given Pellegrini food for thought and led to a reevaluation of our priorities. With Masuaku, Cresswell, Zabaleta and Fredericks, we have enough to get us through the season – especially if two of them can stamp their name on their position and become part of a consistent backline. You would assume that a season under the coaching of Pellegrini will improve each and every one of them. Having Johnson around now means that we have cover, without paying a transfer fee for a player who would either have been unknown or overpriced. It means Pellegrini can afford to spend another season trying to solve the problem with what he has, and allocate any potential funds elsewhere.
Pellegrini’s primary solution to addressing the weaknesses on the flanks lies in the defensive discipline of the wingers. Anderson’s lacklustre tracking back in the early part of the season last year was quickly addressed and noticeably improved as the season went on. Pellegrini will doubtless have spent the summer drilling all of his wingers to do exactly the same thing when their fullback is in danger of being overrun. He may even potentially be considering wingers to sign ahead of fullbacks, but specifically the identikit of a hard-working winger who will accept his defensive responsibility as well as the attacking expectations.
Pellegrini commands the necessary respect to get Anderson, Yarmolenko, Lanzini and co working hard for the benefit of their defensive partners. We’ve already seen him have an instant impact on individuals and the team as a collective in his first season. With many of the first team faces unchanged from last season, we can expect to see that they continue to buy into the approach Pellegrini demands and this will solidify the defence over time. Although it may appear to be an area of the squad which needs to be developed, in reality Pellegrini may well feel that he has all the tools at his disposal already to eradicate the problem.
One thing is for sure, in Pellegrini we trust.
Come on you Irons!