West Ham outshine and outrun title-chasers Spurs, 1-0 at the Boleyn.
Spurs had the opportunity, following Leicester City’s draw yesterday, to go top of the league with a win. They have been the best defensive side in the division, but conceded here to a neatly converted corner, delivered by Dimitri Payet and nodded home by Michail Antonio. Antonio has been something of a goal-machine lately, scoring his third goal in five matches. Slaven Bilic fielded an unusual formation, with three centre backs, and two defensive midfielders. This solidity served his team well, as they saw out a narrow win, under pressure.
Spurs, thrown off by the obdurate system in front of them, found the going tough. Harry Kane was off-form, spurning his two clear chances, and was largely marshaled into obscurity by the Hammers defenders. Christian Eriksen flitted in and out of the match, and Eric Lamela was back to his flaky worst. They sorely missed Dele Alli and Moussa Dembélé in midfield, and were spluttering until the final stages.
Bilic started what appeared, at first, to be his normal formation – he has played Cheikhou Kouyate as an auxiliary winger before. But it soon became clear that he intended Kouyate to act as a third centre back, a shock to all, in truth. Manuel Lanzini started his second straight game, with Dimitri Payet alongside him. Michail Antonio started a right-back, with the added security of Kouyate beside him, with Cresswell taking his usual spot on the left.
Spurs placed Mason and Dier in the midfield, with Nacer Chadli attempting to replace Dele Alli further forward. The injured Jan Vertonghen was replaced by Kevin Wimmer, and Ben Davies stepped in for Danny Rose. Thom Carroll and Alli were on the bench, to be used if necessary.
Bilic gazumps with three-at-the-back.
According to the starting XI graphic, as displayed by Fox Sports, Cheikhou Kouyate was to be stationed on the pitch in largely the area a No. 10 might occupy. In actual fact, the Senegalese would take up a position as a third centre back, a role he has a history playing in. This allowed Michail Antonio, who was at right back, to morph threateningly into a right-wing back, with Cresswell on the other side doing the same. Slaven Bilic has never played a formation like this in the Premier League, and so it’s no surprise it fooled those in charge of the television graphics, not to mention the opposing manager Mauricio Pochettino.
It was a crucial adjustment. With the added height and strength of Kouyate around him, Kane was swamped in the first half. Meanwhile, with the added security behind them, Noble and Obiang were able to be aggressive in the extreme with their tackling, largely nullifying Eriksen and Lamela. Then, naturally, the wing backs were able to push on, with Cresswell particularly advanced. It was an inside-out system; the ball was won in the middle, with Hammers’ defensive midfielders and centre backs converging, forcing a turnover. The ball was then funneled either straight out to Payet or Lanzini on the wings, or up to Emenike for him to hold it up, waiting for onrushing wide players to flick out to.
Even when James Collins came off injured, with young Reece Oxford replacing him, the defence refused to wilt, staunch until the end. With only a slender lead to protect, the previous 85 minutes of defending had sharpened their senses, and this unusually-arranged band of Hammers saw out the victory.
Alli and Dembele missing for Spurs.
Pochettino was unfortunate to have his first-choice midfield pairing out, with Dembele due to return for the North London Derby, and Dele Alli deemed fit enough only to make the bench after injuring his foot last weekend. This, when intact, is a midfield with an invigourating ability to surge through the centre, with and without the ball. Alli has seduced the Premier League with his Lampard-esque – steady, hype machine – late runs into the box, as well as his remarkable shooting technique. Dembele, having been an enigmatic talent in England for some years now, is reaching new heights this season at Spurs, providing his patented va-va-voom dribbling style, all swash-buckle, shoulder-swerve and on-the-ball strength.
But, as said, both were absent from the starting XI here. In an attempt to make up for this deficit in midfield incision, Pochettino placed Nacer Chadli, a powerful, direct runner, in the No.10 role. With Eriksen and Lamela beside him, and Kane in front, Chadli failed to have the effect anticipated by his manager in the first half, with West Ham tigerish in midfield, and with a spare centre back to come out and meet him before he could generate any real forward momentum. Chadli was substituted for Alli after an hour, a failed experiment.
Alli, even half fit, was immediately a threat, drifting with menace, always showing a preternatural ability to anticipate the bounce of the ball. But, with half an hour to go when he came on, his touch needed warming up, and his first step was a little sluggish. Spurs were simply lukewarm until the final furlong, by which time West Ham were happy simply to defend their lead.
Payet’s set piece delivery yet another attacking prong.
In the first half, with the crowd roaring as one, West Ham were enjoying themselves. The Hammers had less possession than their opponents, but were applying far more pressure, thanks to a series of corners and free kicks. Standing over these set pieces was Dimitri Payet, fast becoming the league’s most dangerous man in this regard. Last week, Sunderland’s Khazri wasted a half-dozen set piece opportunities; in contrast to that, Payet’s work here was essentially a masterclass.
Payet can dazzle with the ball at his feet, and his dead-ball technique is just as immaculate. His first corner drew a hectic punch from Lloris. His second led to West Ham’s opening goal, nodded inside the near post by Michail Antonio. Every set piece thereon was a threat, with each delivery as potent as it was varied; he even attempted a clipped corner straight to Mark Noble on the edge of the box. Antonio should have had his second from another Payet free kick in the second half, connecting inaccurately with a superb swooped cross. It provided the breakthrough, and kept Tottenham honest all match; yet another string to Payet’s virtuoso bow.
Well, West Ham, with Leicester and Arsenal still to play, may well have a bigger say in this title race than any of the contenders. They pegged back Spurs here, with a fiery display of committed defending and ruthless chance-taking. Here, Bilic showed his tactical ingenuity, with his adjustment, in the midst of a defensive injury glut, stumping Spurs. The visitors missed their chance to go top, adding even more mouth-watering significance to next week’s North London derby.