West Ham scraped their first win of the season this past Monday night, putting two past recently promoted Huddersfield at the London Stadium.
Pundits and fans alike were in general consensus that it was a lucky win for the Hammers.
Huddersfield barely turned up to play, in a weird turn of events from the Terriers—a club who have taken to the rigours of the Premier League brilliantly.
The Terriers set up to defend and gave West Ham far too much respect for a team yet to win a match this season. It wasn’t until the 72nd minute that Huddersfield’s resolve crumbled, with a wicked deflection off of a Pedro Obiang shot proving their undoing.
Five minutes later, the Hammers struck again, this time from a corner as Andre Ayew poked home a goalmouth scramble.
Man of the Match
Man of the Match could have gone to a few players.
Michail Antonio was outstanding in his play—taking players on, driving forward and producing some nice bits of trickery to get the London Stadium on its feet.
Andy Carroll was also exceptional in bringing others into play and doing what he does best, providing a focal point for West Ham’s attacks and winning balls in the air.
The accolade could have also gone to Andre Ayew for his goal and assist, although both were scrappy, to say the least.
But it was Pablo Zabaleta, West Ham’s Argentinian right-back, who subtly stole the show.
Arguably the most underrated footballer in the Premier League era, he has rarely made headlines for being a supremely talented player, but he is well-known by all that have followed Manchester City’s meteoric (and highly financed) rise—by being an integral part of the Citizens’ title-winning campaigns.
He does simple brilliantly.
A no-nonsense defender akin to his teammate and fan favourite, James Collins.
But Zabaleta isn’t just a bruiser and solid defender—he’s tactically and technically astute and competent.
His tactical nuance and reading of the game is unrivalled and has been crafted through years of experience in the Premier League, La Liga and Primero Division, not to mention his years playing for La Albiceleste.
He is a leader on the pitch and can control a game through his pressing of space—something that makes him invaluable to the West Ham side.
Zabaleta is the best kind of fullback. He’s more comfortable when tracking back and defending, but his technical ability and tactical mind make him just as capable as a marauding winger. It’s always better to have a defensive-minded fullback who can go forward than an attacking fullback who reluctantly tracks back.
Like a fine wine
Slaven Bilic deployed the Argentine on the right of a midfield, in a 3-4-3 formation against Huddersfield.
In the previous match, away at Newcastle United, Zabaleta played in a more traditional fullback role—on the right of a straight back four.
He covered an impressive amount of ground against the Magpies—something that shut critics up, who questioned whether Zabaleta’s aging legs made him a poor acquisition for West Ham.
The Hammers were woeful in that game, though, and Zabaleta’s work rate and tenacity came to nothing.
Against Huddersfield, however, he was given freer rein to get forward and occupy space as he had three solid defenders behind him in Winston Reid, James Collins, and Jose Fonte.
With the three sat behind him, he could advance up the pitch and also drift into the midfield and show off his passing range. Additionally, if he did get caught out higher up the pitch, he had a lot more protection.
He will likely work better with someone in front of him who can cross perfectly—Zabaleta has a poor cross accuracy of only 17% in the Premier League—as he does favour shorter passes into the midfield to create space for his wingers.
One thing he can definitely bring to the side, playing as a wingback, is his incessant pressing of the opposition in their own half—if only the rest of the squad worked as hard as him, West Ham could have a team capable of challenging Liverpool to the title of Gegenpressing kings.
Although he won’t light the pitch up in the same way Manuel Lanzini or Javier Hernandez are likely to, he will still garner plaudits for his calming presence and reliability.
He is a fighter through and through; a leader. Where Arsenal lack a single leadership figure, West Ham have them in abundance with Mark Noble, James Collins, Winston Reid, Joe Hart, and now Pablo Zabaleta able to take the game by the scruff of the neck and rally the troops into seeing it out.
Pablo Zabaleta’s dogged determination is perhaps his best asset, along with his general experience and knowledge of the game. He gives stability to the side and is a calm head when things get tricky—something the Hammers will likely encounter again and again over the course of the season.
If West Ham survive, which they probably will, it will no doubt be in part down to the role of the elder statesmen of the team, the wizened Argentine especially.