A terse, simmering match was played out here, as West Ham outlasted Sunderland 1-0.
Sam Allardyce was late getting to the pitch for this match, and as such his reception was muted, with the contest already in swing. He wouldn’t have missed much; just as the Hammers supportership have been unrestrained in expressing their relief that he’s no longer their manager, so too has Allardyce been open in his criticism of the West Ham fans in the lead up to this tie. There was never going to be a warm welcome and, in the end, there was hardly a welcome, warm or otherwise, at all.
Still, Allardyce’s team showed the requisite spirit here, as well as chance-creation, to survive the drop, despite the result. Slaven Bilic’s lot were not at their best, though they too created more than enough chances to have won the game more comfortably. Michail Antonio’s intelligent finish was, by the end, the one outstanding moment of quality in a match that was desperately short of it otherwise. Had Jack Rodwell not been so Jack Rodwell-ish in his finishing, Sunderland would have claimed at least a point. A bitterly disappointing result it was in the end for Big Sam, on multiple levels, as his former club rise, if only for the moment, up to fifth place in the league.
Team News and Formations
Sam Byram returned at right back, having missed out on the Cup match last week, cup-tied as he is. James Collins and Gabriel Ogbonna started in the centre of defence, as they did against Blackburn. Manuel Lanzini started the match, deemed fit enough to face the might of Lee Cattermole and Yann M’Vila in the midfield maw. Payet and Antonio were placed on the wings, Payet, one presumed, only as a nominal wide man. Finally, Emmanuel Emenike began his first Premier League match as the starting striker, fresh from his FA Cup brace.
Sunderland began with Jan Kirchhoff in defensive midfield, with Cattermole and M’Vila ahead. New signing Khazri retained his midfield spot, and Jermaine Defoe started, as expected, up front. Fabio Borini was poised to make an impact off the bench. The formation, with Kirchhoff, gave Cattermole the license to push forward, and defend from the front.
Lanzini and Noble’s dual-receiver duties.
In Manuel Lanzini’s absence, largely it’s been Dimitri Payet and Mark Noble providing the creativity from midfield. The running power and directness of Antonio, Moses, Emenike, as well as the overlapping runs of Aaron Cresswell, need finding. With Payet stationed in the final third, and Noble in the middle, there was a clearly constructed creative artery; from the defence to Noble, from Noble to Payet, from Payet to the goal. But this route, a single strand, is susceptible to disruption. The path was narrow, and blocked easily by an obdurate opponent.
But here, with Noble and Lanzini both in deeper midfield, a beautiful tandem act emerged, with Noble and Lanzini taking clear turns to drop and collect from the centre backs. With Lanzini very much a threat when in possession, this actively drew attention away from Payet as well, allowing him to drift with more freedom to find those sweet vacant pockets of space between the lines. The system was now a dual-artery model which, obviously, is twice as difficult to deal with. As such, West Ham were able to, coherently and without much effort, shuttle the ball into the final third despite the defensive formation Sunderland had in place.
Defoe: a specifically needy lone striker
Jermaine Defoe does only a few things well, and those few things he does very well indeed. But, to add to his specificity, he also relies on some particular things to happen for him to do his few things well. He can play, to great effect, as a lone striker, despite his diminutive stature, not to mention his age. But he needs a very certain type of support; nothing but direct, speared, along-the-ground passes will do, anything aerial, or bobbling, Defoe will not abide. On top of that, if the opposition goalkeeper has the legs – which Adrian does – an added degree of difficulty is applied, and even if the right type of pass is played forward, the weight of it must now also be inch-perfect.
Fact: Andy Carroll (23) touched the ball more times in his 30 minute cameo than Jermain Defoe (20) did all game. pic.twitter.com/d4dStK5f4y
— West Ham Central (@WestHam_Central) 27 February 2016
It’s a very precise formula, and Sunderland found it hard to mix here. Only in the latter portion of the second half did Sunderland’s crosshairs align themselves, but by that time they were a goal down with time slipping away. It took until the last five minutes for Allardyce to send N’Doye up to partner Defoe. All of Sunderland’s chances came from surging runs from other players; Defoe didn’t register a single shot on target.
Cattermole’s disappointing advanced role.
Lee Cattermole is usually seen scurrying with intent in between his own box and the halfway line. He has built his reputation on being a sort of roving, studs-up, miniature dreadnought, one that conducts business almost exclusively in this area. But here that area was occupied by a rather large German, Jan Kirchhoff, and Cattermole found himself pushed further forward. Sam Allardyce presumably wanted Cattermole to apply pressure to West Ham’s centre backs and deep-lying midfielders, but Cattermole found the going tough. Thanks to Manuel Lanzini’s inclusion, alongside Mark Noble, in the Hammers midfield, Cattermole was forced to stretch himself between the Argentinian and the Englishman. As a result, he wasn’t particularly effective, completing one of four tackles, with a 42% pass success rate.
Furthermore, all but one of his passes towards goal were unsuccessful. As Cattermole was removed after 65 minutes, he may have gazed wistfully at Kirchhoff – who played very well, as it happened – and the part of the pitch he filled. Cattermole suffered a severe case of altitude sickness here; he belongs further down the pitch, and his ineffectiveness here was proof of this.
Antonio v van Aanholt: a crucial battle.
In the midst of Sunderland’s early season woe, there was a sight that, if not warmed the hearts of the supporters, at least got them thawing slightly. Patrick van Aanholt was often seen flying up the wing, much in the manner a modern full back does these days, with reckless abandon. Now, as much as reckless wing-flying enraptures an audience, it isn’t really the sort of thing a full back on a shambolic team should do. So, when Sam Allardyce took over – defensively minded manager that he is – he will have had a chat with young Patrick. Van Aanholt is very good going forward, but isn’t as comfortable when defending a winger as eager to charge as he is.
Michail Antonio is one such winger. He has, with every game, improved as a West Ham player, to the point where he is now the clear first-choice on the right side of the attack. His willingness to hustle, to barge his way forwards, is frightening indeed for any full back, let alone one who might actually be better as a winger.
So then, in a game of fine margins, it was a moment between Antonio and van Aanholt that decided it. A long ball forward should have been cleared by the Dutchman, but his weak pass outwards was picked up by the West Ham winger. Relatively neutered out by the touchline, Antonio, through sheer tyranny of will, basically ran through van Aaholt, whose dangling excuse for a tackle needs no further mentioning. Suddenly a chance was born, and Antonio took it in some style, curling the ball inside the far post. The match up was no coincidence; during the game, Antonio wasn’t seen once on the left wing, even when West Ham’s attack was sputtering. A weak point, which Bilic identified and exploited.