West Ham United have had a contrasting start to this Premier League season compared to the last, having lost four of their opening five games in an arguably softer run of fixtures.
Though results have been poor, the club could point to external factors as the main reason for their stumbling start. Things such as injuries, the oft-awkward transition to a new stadium and the additional burden of European football early in the season might be blamed. However, the latter can be ruled out as a genuine cause, as the club faced a similar schedule in the previous campaign and burst out of the blocks with some very impressive league performances.
Of these, the factor that I am most interested in is the impact of injuries on the squad. I am particularly interested in key man Dimitri Payet, who has very much been a bit part player up until now and has only started the last two games, where he has made an instant impact. Ignoring the club’s current defensive limitations, which are another story completely, I wanted to take a look at just how much Payet’s involvement means to West Ham from an attacking point of view. I will be using StrataData to reinforce the points made.
To look at things simply, West Ham have started three games without Payet this season and without him on the pitch they have managed to score just two goals. In the two games he has started, he has either directly or indirectly created every goal for, with three genuine assists for Michail Antonio, as well as winning the penalty for Manuel Lanzini against West Bromwich Albion. Amazingly, his sheer presence on the pitch nearly doubles their attacking output in terms of chance creation. For reference I am including every chance that has been registered during our data collection process, which will be broken down further in the piece:
Even though the club have actually lost both games that he’s been involved in this season (against Watford and West Brom), their much-improved attacking threat with him in the side does not seem to be a coincidence.
There have, of course, been injuries to other attacking players at the start of this season and it is undoubtedly the zone where they have been hit hardest. This in itself is somewhat troubling, given their recent generosity to opponents in terms of allowing chances against. However, none of the other missing players have left such a notable hole as Payet. Andre Ayew broke down half an hour into his debut, whilst Andy Carroll only started the first game of the season before succumbing to yet another injury. Ultimately, neither have featured enough to make any significant impact on the team, though their absences are felt both with and without Payet in the team.
So could Payet’s influence on the side merely be seen as one player enjoying an enormously positive run of form at the start of the season? The answer here is a clear and resounding “no”, and to give clarity we need to briefly look back to last season.
Payet got injured early in November, missing the rest of that month in addition to the whole of December. During that stretch he missed seven league games in all and in those matches the club scored just five goals, drawing a blank three times and winning only once. Over the course of the rest of the campaign with Payet on the pitch, the team were averaging just shy of two goals a game. This correlates nicely with what has already been seen so early this season too:
Almost all teams will have one player that they consider to be their “star”, but it appears that there is a growing and unyielding reliance from West Ham on Payet to deliver more than ever. Scoring over a goal a game more when he is on the pitch is testament to just how important he is to them, but also to how much worse off they would be without him.
This data is key when considering a trade on West Ham in the Total Goals Market, as it effectively shows that without Payet in the starting eleven, the expected goals figure for them is more than halved. Slaven Bilic was understandably cagey about rushing his key player back after his summer exploits at Euro 2016 and they are now seeing the rewards for this. Still, the defensive side of the team is not pulling its weight to translate the team’s improved attacking output into points.
However, more interesting than the number of chances created with and without Payet is the quality of those chances:
As the table above shows, the frequency of chances does go up when he is on the pitch, but surprisingly the quality of chances remains fairly similar. In total there are just five in the Very Good-Superb categories with him and three without him.
The fact that the number of Poor Chances created increases by over three times is quite interesting, though, and the probable cause of this is the desire to allow Payet opportunities to shoot from range or to take on direct free kicks, from which we know he can be incredibly potent. Without him the team has to be more patient and measured in its approach, placing less emphasis on taking shots of lower quality. This could be due to the other players feeling that with Payet on the pitch another chance will likely come along sooner rather than later, whereas they feel they need to make every play count when he is not present.
Ultimately Bilic’s side seem to be playing something of a numbers game in assuming that the more shots they take the more likely they are to score, which of course does have value. However, what this also shows is that when Payet is present the team are spending more time on the front foot to get into these shooting positions in the first place.
Indeed, it is only in games where Payet hasn’t featured that West Ham have not been the dominant side in terms of possession. However, given that their opponents here were Bournemouth, Chelsea and Manchester City, all of whom are possession based teams, this is not a big surprise. The two games that Payet has started have seen West Ham enjoying an average of 62% of the ball, though in contrast to the sides mentioned above, neither Watford nor West Brom are exactly known for their ball retention. This could perhaps be disregarded somewhat in that case, but it is another small indication that they have a better handle on games when Payet plays.
Obviously, football is a team sport and it takes much more than the actions of one influential attacking player to get consistent results, but having to depend so heavily on one man is a massive risk to West Ham’s prospects this term. Should he get injured, or suffer a drop in form, the above trends in terms of chances and goals should be hugely concerning for the club. The mercurial talent that is Dimitri Payet is a blessing to Bilic, but he can also be a curse when considering just how much the manager leans on him. To say West Ham’s fortunes this season hinge on Payet alone may be a little steep overall, but ultimately it may not be too far from the truth.
If the manager improves the defensive issues that have dogged his team so far this season there should be little concern about a rise up the table for West Ham, provided that Payet remains fit and on form. It seems that they could be involved in a few more high scoring games until then, while they simply look to out-shoot opponents in an attempt to pick up quick wins.
Alec Payne (@payney3)