West Ham United 3-1 Manchester United: West Ham counter-attacks very good, opposition’s passivity proves fatal

Manchester United went into this game with an overbearing sense of uncertainty, and this match only progressed such. At the hands of West Ham United, who have recently begun to find form under Manuel Pellegrini following the international break, Manchester United suffered their third league defeat of the season, deservedly; West Ham’s organisation, counter-attacks and subsequent outwitting of United’s back three system was rather good.

West Ham started with a 4-1-4-1 formation with Marko Arnautovic making a return to the starting XI, leading the line as a lone centre-forward. Arnautovic received support from inverted wingers in Andriy Yarmalenko and Felipe Anderson.

Jose Mourinho’s United took some by surprise by returning to a back three set-up, and on this occasion playing midfielder Scott McTominay (a no.10 at academy level, used in a more defensive role by Mourinho last season) as the right-sided centre-back. McTominay offered assurance on the ball, but playing in an unfamiliar position was always to be a cause for concern, particularly against a side that counters quickly with various numbers making runs into box.

Anthony Martial replaced Alexis Sanchez, who did not even have a place on the bench.

West Ham vs Manchester United formations and shapes
Formations and general movements/shape. Rice occupied the space between the West Ham defence and United’s vulnerable first line of press. 

Counter-attacks and the influence of Arnautovic 

West Ham’s counter-attacks were spearheaded by the combinations of wide men Andriy Yarmolenko and Felipe Anderson, as well as centre-forward Marko Arnautovic. Upon regaining possession quickly, the front three aimed to exploit gaps in spaces between United’s back line, which was a common recurrence in the game due to West Ham’s forwards tending to push high up the pitch when defending against the ball in United’s half. Both Yarmolenko and Anderson were versatile in the movements they made; Yarmolenko tended to stay wide, whilst Anderson would drop slightly deeper to receive and carry possession from deeper positions. In doing so, Anderson was able to crate space for teammates. McTominay, playing out of position on the right-side of the away side’s three-man defence, struggled to force Anderson to retreat, and failed to stick tight to Anderson during the lead up to the Hammer’s first goal.

Marko Arnautovic was excellent. Obviously taking into account United’s slightly unusual choice of back line, it should not deter from any praise given to Arnautovic at all. Arnautovic’s first and West Ham’s third goal of the match was a perfect example of the aforementioned game plan against United – countering quickly after regaining the ball, a rather simple game plan, when explained like this. Mourinho argued after the match that Marcus Rashford was in fact fouled by Pablo Zabaleta, but, Mark Noble continued to bring the ball forward, taking advantage of an out-of-shape United, before passing nicely to the on-running Arnautovic, who scored past goalkeeper David de Gea in a one-on-one.

What is interesting is how you can compare Arnautovic to Wilfred Zaha when considering that both made the positional switch from winger to centre-forward, and have only continued to excel in their updated roles. Arnautovic, who was bought for in excess of £20million as a winger, struggled to find form last season until switching to play a more central, fulcrum-like role. He is now West Ham’s talisman. The Austrian’s physicality – great at holding off defenders when on the ball and audacity are key to the way in which West Ham play.

United passive in pressing West Ham in all phases of play

Unlike West Ham, Manchester United lacked the necessary intensity, particularly without the ball. For example, Declan Rice was at times given too much space in midfield which enabled the ball to be moved into United’s half quickly. This was because of United’s approach without the ball; the strikers – Romelu Lukaku and Anthony Martial were isolated from the midfield and defence when they pressed closer to Rice etc., which allowed Rice to spray to either flank, bringing the full-backs into play.  Rice was also good in playing long-passes from deep, making use of the various runs made by West Ham players further forward.

West Ham, during early stages of the match would push high up the pitch when attacking, which was made costly by United’s (lack of) press, notably when defending against the overload on West Ham’s right-side. Zabaleta may or may not have been offside, but his run was not tracked, and the full-back played a cross into Anderson who scored his first goal in the Premier League, a fine back-heel finish.

The centre-backs did not step out/push up high to close down Arnautovic. The defenders invited West Ham to control the game.

Why could Mourinho’s side not have been as intense when pressing against West Ham as they were against Tottenham Hotspur, irrespective of the 0-3 score line? Of course, the approach would not be attainable for 90 minutes, but would have been able to kill off the game against a side quite unlike Spurs. Perhaps the tighter press in midfield areas, runs in behind the defensive line and distinct acts covering were absent due to different personnel; Marouane Fellaini lacks the energy and awareness of Ander Herrera, who actually played a centre-back/midfield role much more similar to McTominay, whilst McTominay, though tall, lacks the physique and pace of Eric Bailly – a defender by trade who would have been a better match against Arnautovic, and this United side lacked the unselfish movement and runs of Jesse Lingard.  The game against Spurs, though for a shorter period, saw a more optimistic use of a 3-5-2. This 3-5-2, aesthetically alone is very Mourinho, as far-fetched as that sounds. I think had Bailly and Lingard started, the 3-5-2 would have functioned better.

United were quite passive on the ball, also

The particular approach to the system, used could also be defined by United’s passivity on the ball. Lukaku and Martial would often drop into deeper spaces to help in build-up, or drift wide when the away side were attacking in West Ham’s half. the choice to drift wide would have been more effective had their been an extra influence such as third man runs. United lacked the runner necessary to cut open west Ham’s organised shape, which took a deeper location as United progressed further into the final-third, which made it hard for United to find space, hence why crosses from wide areas were quite useful in this match. United did try to maintain dominance after West Ham took the lead, but were quickly halted by how organised West Ham were. The lack of movement in and around the box was a huge issue. United tried to attack more upon the substitution of Marcus Rashford, which saw a switch of systems – 3-5-2, to 4-1-4-1, but it proved too little too late.

A rather reactionary take;  it is safe to say that Martial is more suited to playing on the left-side, rather than in a two-man strike partnership. Martial having more space to move into the centre and force the press back while creating space for fellow forwards is where Martial is more effective. Is Rashford is the better centre-forward, whilst Martial is the better wide player?

Fellaini’s role which had been effective in previous games, was less certain and convincing, even though this was arguably a match very much suited to him. Fellaini was key in defending against West Ham’s long balls from deeper positions, and aimed to be a nuisance when having moved forward, but, is Fellaini the player needed to be found in the 10 space to link up with forwards, for example? Fellaini, though abiding by the system, was ineffective in pressing, which was the result of the system moire than anything. The system used by Mourinho was , rightfully or not, very cautious and restricted the press from midfield, but if there was any encouragement to press, was Fellaini the right man?

The lack of wingers at Manchester United is a relevant and frustrating issue

Ashley Young was United’s biggest threat. From full-back. This was partially due to the need to cross against an organised West Ham, but there was an abandonment of balance from this United team.  There was certainly more balance to West Ham’s attacks and overall approach in this match. The use of a 3-5-2 means no room for wingers, but United would have certainly benefited from two players on each flank. Young’s crossing was a consistent threat, but Pellegrini’s defence was well organised and defended well against movement in the box, aside from Rashford’s goal, which much like the opening goal of the match, was instinctive and very clever, even if only a consolation.  Young made constant overlaps on the right-flank, almost acting as a winger, but other than this particular duel on United’s right-side, West Ham were excellent in duels all over the pitch; Rice and Noble were intelligent and efficient in midfield, while centre-back Issa Diop was composed and quick to tackle.

For more reasoning to the need for wingers, and how over-reliance on full-backs is a questionable yet necessary must, check out this previous piece.  


This game was only a continuation of the uncertainty and worry plaguing Manchester United. A sense of worry that has come and gone frequently for the past five or so seasons. Though this match presented some of the tactical issues, the current predicament at United goes far beyond tactics. But, more consistency in a tactical regard should/would be expected.

We needed quality on the ball building from the back and Scott (McTominay) has that.

Mourinho on why he used a back three and why McTominay started as the right-sided centre-back. 

United have world-class players, but there is less coherency, and balance, in both tactics and results. Even without out-an-out wingers, the 4-3-3 is still the best bet, so opting for a 3-5-2 did not help, but had 3-5-2 been applied in similar way to against Spurs, things could have been different. But, now with 7 points from a potential 9, West Ham have a game plan that looks hard to break down, and are starting to find some form under Pellegrini, who is a very good coach.


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