West Ham quicker to the second balls in 3-0 victory over Fulham

September 1, 2012

This game’s main story was always going to involve the debut of Andy Carroll. 24 hours after confirmation of his loan from Liverpool, he went straight into Sam Allardyce’s first XI.

That came as little surprise – new signings often need time to settle in, but any doubt about his tactical role was unlikely. As with all Allardyce sides, it was long balls towards the big man straight away – and West Ham went ahead within a minute.

But it wasn’t Carroll’s aerial threat that directly threatened the Fulham defence. In Brede Hangeland the away side had a strong centre-back that relishes physical confrontations, and although Carroll won the majority of his aerial duels (9 from 15, 60%), he didn’t have any headed attempts on goal. His only shot was hit from outside the penalty area, and was blocked.

Indeed, Fulham competed well in the air throughout the game, despite this being West Ham’s main quality going forward. There were 36 aerial confrontations, with the sides evenly-matched in their success rate.

But where West Ham excelled was their old-fashioned, sterotypically English determination to pick up the second balls; regardless of whether it was Carroll or a Fulham defender that won the initial header, West Ham got numbers forward from midfield into the final third. The difference was quite noticeable – West Ham were simply quicker to the loose balls time and time again.

This was crucial in both the first and third goals. For the first, Carroll flicked the ball into the path of Ricardo Vaz Te, who squared for Kevin Nolan to convert. Nolan had a great relationship with Carroll at Newcastle, always getting himself into positions to collect knock-downs, and that partnership will be a prominent feature of West Ham’s gameplan this season.

For the third goal, it was even more obvious. Carroll didn’t win the initial header, with Hangeland meeting the ball – but his poor header was only to the edge of the box. As a trio of Fulham players stood like statues, Matt Taylor reacted first and thumped the ball into the net.

The stats back up this observation. On each of the six occasions a Fulham player made a headed clearance, the ball was picked up by West Ham player. In stark contrast, 71% of West Ham’s headed clearances were successful (ie were cleared into touch, or a teammate collected the ball).

This effect was also obvious when looking at all clearances (which includes the headed clearances depicted above). West Ham’s clearances were successful 74% of the time, Fulham’s just 24%.

It’s not often the game’s key feature can be summed up by looking at clearances – but this was very noticeable, very effective, and very Allardyce.

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