West Ham's Mauling of Wolves Could Be Season Defining Moment for Both Teams

Sebastian Haller, Declan Rice, Tomas Soucek, Pablo Fornals
West Ham celebrate Sebastien Haller's goal | Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

The 2020/21 Premier League season has been very weird so far.

We've had goals galore, nobody can defend and Sheffield United - the team who were so hard to break down and beat last season - are plum last because they literally can't score goals.

To top it all off, West Ham smashed Wolves 4-0 at the London Stadium on Sunday night - a result that nobody, particularly those of a Hammers persuasion, would have seen coming. So, what does this all mean?

Well, very little you'd usually say at this stage - given the season is only three games old and adjustments to continued COVID-19 guidelines are still being made - but for David Moyes and Nuno Espirito Santo's sides, this result could have a significant impact on how the rest of their respective seasons pan out.

Nuno Espirito Santo
It was uncharacteristically poor display from Nuno's Wolves | Pool/Getty Images

How so?

Well for West Ham, the past few months have been filled with disruption. Survival was achieved at the back end of the 2019/20 campaign, but frustration has built as the club tiptoe around in the transfer market, afraid - or possibly unable - to pull the trigger and sanction any signings. There's also the ongoing, and very vocal, dispute between the club's supporters and owners David Sullivan, David Gold and Baroness Karren Brady.

Losing to Newcastle in abject fashion on the opening day of the season did little to boost morale and there's been a sense of manager David Moyes not really knowing what his best system is.

Wolves, on the other hand, have continued to excel in the transfer market, recently picking up Nelson Semedo from Barcelona, while also adding Fabio Silva, Ki-Jana Hoever and a third of the population of Portugal to their ranks.

Tactically, they've been as consistent as anybody in the Premier League, sticking rigidly to a system that uses three central defenders and marauding wing-backs. They have, however, lost a key spoke in their wheel, after Matt Doherty - one of the most consistent players of the past couple of seasons - opted to move on and join Tottenham.

Matt Doherty
Matt Doherty joined Tottenham earlier this summer | Alex Pantling/Getty Images

And it was his absence that perhaps played a big part in Wolves losing to the Hammers for the first time since their return to the top flight. Not only did the visitors lose in east London, they were comprehensively outwitted by Moyes' side - looking perplexed by their inability to pick up second balls, as well as being largely ineffectual down the flanks.

Doherty's absence - and the fact Semedo was making his Premier League debut with very little training under his belt - is undoubtedly a blow for Wolves, but the manor in which they capitulated and failed to really create anything of substance - against a side they'd beaten four times on the spin by an aggregate score of 8-0 - will be a big takeaway for Nuno.

Is this what Premier League sides should have been doing all along to quell the threat of Adama Traore and co? It's too early to definitively answer that, but you do wonder why more sides haven't opted to counter Wolves' threat by playing them at their own game.

As luck would have it, West Ham have been looking to find a formation that really suits them. A 4-2-3-1, lacking any real pace and incisiveness, is what we've become accustomed to from Moyes over the past few months, but the Scot would be the first to admit that his side look lackadaisical at times - particularly against opposition who they're expected to do well against.

Here, the Hammers opted to play three central defenders - Fabian Balbuena, Angelo Ogbonna and Aaron Cresswell - and continued to deploy Ryan Fredericks and Arthur Masuaku as wing backs, like they did against Arsenal. Against the Gunners, they were impressive and deserved to get something out of the game, but this was a performance of real quality.

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Inventive, intricate and diversifying their style of play, West Ham again veered away from simply lumping the ball up to Michail Antonio - they did occasionally but not all the time - to see what happens, and were far better at playing through the lines. With this slightly more fluid approach, they were able to push Wolves back and despite allowing the visitors the lion's share of the possession.

Tomas Soucek - playing the role of Everton favourite Marouane Fellaini from a decade ago - provided able support to Antonio, and Jarrod Bowen and Pablo Fornals were able to drift inside because of the width provided by Fredericks and Masuaku.

That small detail gave the Hammers a much better balance, and seemed to stretch Wolves' defensive shape out of kilter.

Often they outnumber teams in the middle of the park - Ruben Neves, Joao Moutinho and Leander Dendoncker the chief operators - but that wasn't the case at the London Stadium. Instead, central defensive trio Conor Coady, Willy Boly and Romain Saiss were more accessible because Semedo and Ruben Vinagre needed additional help on the flanks because of West Ham's overlaps.

That allowed Antonio to isolate any one of the trio one-on-one, while Soucek looked to run through from deep. Rarely do we see Wolves all over the place, but here they were a shadow of their usual selves.

From West Ham's perspective, the win was huge as they have a difficult run of fixtures coming up - on paper, anyway. Not only will they take confidence away from this result, they now appear to have a system that allows things to be tightened up at the back, while also freeing things up creatively.

As for Wolves, it's not a time to panic after losing two out of their first three games. But it is perhaps a warning to Nuno that more teams will look to match his side's formation going forward, and on this evidence, they're going to come unstuck more often than we thought they might.

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