“I don't think it is a bad start… it is a very bad start,” Manuel Pellegrini admitted after West Ham United’s fourth successive Premier League defeat at the start of the 2018/19 campaign.
Now losing four games in a row at any point in a season is bad for any manager. But losing your first four in charge at a new club, one which allowed you to bring in a number of players for big money and choose your own director of football, is something else.
“We didn't think we'd lose six points here at home. Here at home to lose we must be very worried. But I think everyone inside the club is calm.”
Pellegrini, as time was shown, was right. West Ham United had and still have several good reasons to be calm.
As is the fact that, despite those defeats at the start of the campaign, West Ham were, barring a humbling defeat at Anfield to Liverpool, performing fairly equally to their opponents.
Taking out that opening-day, chastening 4-0 loss to Jürgen Klopp’s team, the difference between the quality of West Ham’s chances and their opponents’ wasn’t all that great in that dismal run.
In expected goals terms, the gap was just -1.14 across the three defeats to Bournemouth, Arsenal, and Wolverhampton Wanderers – not good, of course, but within still within touching distance of parity.
So things weren’t quite as bad as they seemed, then. But Pellegrini’s switch to a three-man central midfield has seen an upturn in the underlying statistics as well as the results. A happy mix.
Good defence is the best attack?
While one might expect this alteration in formation to mainly help the defence, there’s also evidence that the change of shape is helping the Hammers create better chances in attack as well.
While they’re not taking noticeably more shots per game, the ones that they are registering are better chances.
|First four games||Most recent four games|
|Open-play expected goals||3.45||6.27|
In those games against Bournemouth, Arsenal, and Wolves, their average shot from open-play was worth just 0.09 expected goals. But in their last four Premier League matches, West Ham’s chance quality from open-play has gone up to 0.18 expected goals per shot.
This means from being likely to score from one in 11 chances, the Irons are likely to find the net from better than one in six.
Good chances win matches
However, there isn't a cut and dry reason as to why the Irons have become more of a threat in front of goal.
Against Everton and Manchester United the Hammers scored early and then added a second before half time. So in the second period, they didn't have to force the game. They could be patient, waiting for the right moment to launch counter-attacks.
A similar phenomenon applied to the match against Chelsea, where a draw against Maurizio Sarri’s high-possession side felt more like a victory.
But against Brighton and Hove Albion, West Ham spent most of the game trailing and that was the match where their average expected goals value per shot was the lowest.
Yet they still created two chances that were one-in-three or better; something they didn’t do at all in their opening four league games of the season.
These high-quality chances are one of the clearest differences between the two differing runs of form.
West Ham only mustered a single one-in-three or better chance in their opening four games of the campaign, according to Football Whispers’ expected goals model. In their most recent run of games they’ve created seven.
So it seems the improved defensive base has allowed West Ham’s forwards to flourish, and the ever-increasing time that new signings have spent together will be helping, too.
Pellegrini might have had a bad start to his time at the London Stadium, but he kept calm. He knew the Hammers would get there in the end and he is being proved right.