In a preview of West Ham United’s 2020/21 season published on 1 September 2020, the respected analytics website StatsBomb forecast that ‘there is a route for this team to create a stable and safe outcome’ and predicted a finish of ‘about 12th’.
It turned out to be arguably the understatement of the season, as David Moyes’ side exceeded all expectations to finish sixth with a record points haul of 65 and winning a record 19 matches by playing an entertaining and fast-paced brand of football.
Underpinning it all, though, was a defensive resilience that saw the Irons bend but seldom break.
West Ham may have conceded 47 goals in their 38 Premier League matches, but they were beaten by more than one goal just four times and conceded three goals in a game on just six occasions – drawing two of those matches.
Hammers goalkeepers kept eleven clean sheets – Łukasz Fabiański ten and Darren Randolph one in the New Year’s Day victory at Everton.
The versatile Aaron Cresswell, who featured at both left-back and left centre-back throughout West Ham’s successful season, started all eleven clean sheets, while Czech Republic right-back or wing-back Vladimír Coufal started ten.
In between them, the partnership of Angelo Ogbonna and Craig Dawson was a rock on which much of West Ham’s success in the second half of the season was built.
The experienced duo, aged 33 and 31 respectively, completed eleven Premier League games together. In those eleven games, West Ham registered seven victories, kept five clean sheets and conceded just nine goals.
Prior to Dawson’s introduction at Southampton just after Christmas – where he and Ogbonna kept a clean sheet – Fabián Balbuena forged an effective partnership of his own with the Italian, helping the Hammers keep clean sheets in impressive victories over Wolverhampton Wanderers, Leicester City, Fulham and Sheffield United, as well as helping slow Leeds United in a 2-1 win at Elland Road.
And it was Balbuena who led the Hammers in clearances per game, making 4.4. However, Ogbonna (4.1) and Dawson (4.0) were not far behind, while Ogbonna made the most total clearances, with 116.
Blocks-wise, Dawson led the way with 22 blocked shots. Issa Drop also made 22, which was impressive when you consider he made just 18 appearances.
You might expect defenders to make a lot of tackles, but it is in fact midfielders who usually put in by far the most challenges, with Tomáš Souček leading the way with 127. Coufal ranks second with 110, followed by Pablo Fornals on 106.
Of the centre-backs, Ogbonna has attempted the most tackles, but with just 34.
And ahead of the defence, whether it was a back four or back five, an invaluable shield was provided by Declan Rice.
Manager David Moyes believes Rice makes a huge difference to the way his team plays, both defensively and offensively, and his absence from the side late in the season was keenly felt.
In the six matches the 22-year-old missed in April and early May with the knee injury he suffered in England’s 2022 FIFA World Cup qualifying win over Poland, West Ham conceded ten goals and suffered defeats by Newcastle United, Chelsea and Everton.
An influential player, Rice also led by example, captaining the Irons on 23 of his 32 Premier League appearances this season, organising, motivating and urging his team to give their all for the whole 90 minutes.
All in all, West Ham worked well as a defensive unit, providing the team’s attacking players with a foundation on which to break records.