An entertaining match, and a fascinating tactical battle between two sides with contrasting styles, West Ham narrowly beat Brighton to go 2nd in the Championship.
Allardyce opts for muscle
Brighton had much the better of the game. They were easily the more creative of the two teams and dominated possession and territory, but the Hammers left the Amex Stadium with all three points. It was a defensive 4-5-1 formation for Sam Allardyce. A classical defensive formation which has come to the fore during the development of the Premier League, particularly around the turn of the millennium, 4-5-1 has been favoured by away sides who look to defend and play for a draw, or to ‘nick a goal’ and sneak a victory, all certainly by putting defence first. As such, it might belong in the category of defensive, non-creative and outdated style which stereotypically characterises ‘Big Sam’. It’s a formation which The Observer described in 2005 as ‘safety-first football, deploying only one forward in a cautious attempt to avoid defeat... producing too much dull play, leaving fans frustrated’.  Classic Allardyce, you might think.
In terms of muscle, West Ham could not completely stop Brighton’s creativity, as the hosts had the better of the game, but their best performer was Abdoulaye Faye, who made some good interceptions and made sure Brighton were not an aerial threat. Kevin Nolan, despite scoring, also operated in a deep role to add strength and tackling ability to the midfield, and gave possibly his best performance for the club. His good effect on the game in a deep role even allowed Allardyce to make an attacking-minded change in the second half, replacing Papa Bouba Diop with Freddie Sears in the second half to try and support lone-striker John Carew.
Brighton played with a more fluid 4-3-3 formation (mostly 4-3-3: Mackail-Smith and Noone operated largely from wide positons and Sparrow stayed fairly central) with Mackail-Smith and Noone particularly dangerous. But they failed to create any clear-cut chances despite dominating the match.
West Ham pressing their opponents
It wasn’t all negative and ugly from the visitors. At first glance, the trade-off for West Ham fans upon Big Sam’s appointment was that style would be sacrificed for substance. The Guardian’s Paul Hayward tweeted during the game that the Hammers’ new style represented a ‘culture change’. ‘West Ham think Brighton can be hustled and muscled out of this game’.
Despite Hayward’s scepticism, the culture change on show tonight was a positive one rather than a negative one. It’s not that Big Sam doesn’t bring brute strength and long-ball football with him, that has been a large feature of West Ham’s play, especially at home, but West Ham fans are also being given something by their new coach that has been missing in previous seasons, namely intelligent tactics and pressure on the ball when not in possession. Particularly under Avram Grant, there was no commitment or drive in team efforts off the ball, particularly late in matches, and closing down was almost non-existent.
But here West Ham hustled and harried their opponents, closing down Brighton’s players extremely quickly, which pressured them into more speculative passes and shots as the match wore on, and also forced them into making mistakes. Kevin Nolan’s pressure, in possibly his most energetic performance of the season, led to the only goal of the game, as he forced a mistake from Liam Bridcutt before finishing well.
From this perspective, discipline, tactical awareness and closing down is something positive that Allardyce has brought to the team, particularly evident this evening, which has been gravely lacking in recent poor seasons. This element was the main contributing factor to West Ham’s win (on their part, at least), rather than any perceived brutal or traditionally defensive tactical set-up.
The pressure also led to Brighton giving away several fouls, as they chased to win back the ball they lost and became frustrated when West Ham had possession in midfield. They received four yellow cards in the match, which was also partly down to the slippery surface and wet weather.
Brighton fail to effectively exploit defensive weaknesses
Craig Mackail Smith was Brighton’s most dangerous player, showing some good movement off the ball on the right wing, and providing the hosts with their two best chances. But, overall, for all Brighton’s possession (62% in the match) and territory, they created few clear-cut chances, and Manuel Almunia was only forced into making two saves.
At the start of the game, West Ham had looked susceptible from the left side, and right-back Joey O’Brien was beaten with worrying ease by Craig Noone twice in the first ten minutes. So it seemed strange that, especially as the game went on, Gus Poyet did not consider switching the dangerous Mackail-Smith to West Ham’s weaker flank.
Allardyce had been animated on the touchline early in the game, shouting at his midfield as Brighton bypassed it too easily in the first half. After half-time, West Ham dealt with Brighton’s attack far better, allowing them less space between defence and midfield, particularly as defending the lead became more important later in the game, and Brighton’s 62% vs. 2 shots on target points both to a lack of lethal touch on the hosts’ part, and an effective defensive unit from the visitors, particularly in the second half.
West Ham nerves late on?
Known for late nerves and conceding late goals, this looked like a fairly comfortable conclusion to the game for West Ham. Brighton ran out of steam, and ideas, towards the end, having created few clear chances throughout the match. But, in typical Hammers fashion, they did try to make it a little harder for themselves. They were reluctant to keep the ball late on, playing several long balls and conceding possession.
Conclusion: A contextual defence of Big Sam
Any praise of Allardyce and his tactics must be measured, given that some of their other displays this season have not only reverted to stereotypes of the manager’s style, but also typical West Ham stories of calamitous defending, lack of attacking penetration and late capitulations. But West Ham won today because of some of the positive elements of Allardyce’s style rather than the negative ones, namely working hard as a team, and putting pressure on the ball. It can't be stressed enough how desperately this has been missing at Upton Park in recent years. It was not a pretty win, however, and Brighton provided most of the game’s entertainment.
That said, West Ham winning this match was as much down to their strengths as Brighton’s weaknesses. A deciding factor in the game was not necessarily, as Hayward suggests, that West Ham rightly thought Brighton ‘can be hustled and muscled out of this game’, rather that Brighton could have overcome this disadvantage with some more intelligent attacking and some better concentration at the back.
This West Ham side, with plenty of Premier League experience both in terms of players and staff, punished Brighton’s mistakes, in both areas of the pitch, and earned an admirable 1-0 away win for their efforts.