Football Features

Is Julen Lopetegui the right man to take West Ham forward after David Moyes’ imminent departure was announced?

By Harry Edwards

Published: 11:03, 7 May 2024

West Ham United have been warned to be careful what they wish for after David Moyes’ departure at the end of the season was announced.

Moyes has split opinion at West Ham over his two spells in charge of the club, but led the Hammers to European glory last season as they lifted the Europa Conference League. That victory came despite West Ham struggling in the Premier League, finishing 14th — just six points above the relegation zone.

This season the Hammers reached the quarter-finals of the Europa League before losing to Bayer Leverkusen, which is nothing to be sniffed at. And they were in a good position to return to the competition next season, sitting sixth in the Premier League at the start of January.

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But West Ham suffered a blip. The Hammers have won just three of their 17 league games in 2024, which has seen them drop down to ninth, now seven points behind sixth-placed Newcastle with just two games left to play. They’re winless in their past four, including a 5-0 thrashing at the hands of Chelsea at the weekend.

Moyes’ future had been in doubt for some time, but that appears to have been the final nail in the coffin. West Ham have announced that Moyes will leave the club at the end of the season, when his contract is up.

The Hammers have already been linked to a few names, including Ruben Amorim, but Julen Lopetegui appears to be the man to take over, with reports suggesting terms have been agreed though not just finalised.

Looking to build a squad to contend for the future, not everyone agrees with West Ham’s decision to let Moyes leave.

“West Ham have got to be careful what they wish for. Moyes has pulled up trees there, won a European trophy. Solid seventh, eighth, ninth, top half of the table again,” Paul Merson said in his Sky Sports column.

“I’m not saying it’ll happen overnight, what happened to Charlton, but I remember many years ago when I played their fans were asking to get rid of Alan Curbishley, saying it was boring, middle of the table, they wanted to kick on.

“They’ve never been seen since. This manager is top, top drawer. They won a European trophy! It’s just madness. I wouldn’t have got rid of him in a month of Sundays. You’ll get West Ham fans coming back, saying this and that, throwing every stat in the world. But I’ll just throw you the biggest stat of them all. He. Won. You. A. Trophy.

“I don’t care all about this entertaining football, we don’t play that well, we should be doing better with these players. They won a trophy! You look at Arsenal, they’re unbelievable and they could end up with nothing.”

But can Lopetegui be the man to prove Merson wrong?

If we look at his history in the Premier League, the answer is perhaps not. Lopetegui took charge of Wolves for 23 games in the Premier League in the 2022/23 season, officially being appointed in November and leaving just days before the start of the 2023/24 campaign.

During Lopetegui’s 23-game reign, Wolves scored 23 goals in the Premier League, with their goal-a-game average among the lowest in the division — only Bournemouth (0.83) and Chelsea (0.88) averaged fewer goals per game. They also had the second-fewest shots (10.22) and shots on target (3.3) per game, with their shots off target (3.96) ranking well but only because they were taking fewer shots than practically everyone else.

Wolves also ranked bottom of xG per game (0.97) and Expected Goals on Target (0.81) in the Premier League during Lopetegui’s time in charge. Defensively, Wolves were ranked 18th for shots conceded from outside the box per game (5.83) and 15th for shots conceded from inside the box (9.7). They were a team constantly under the cosh, averaging 28.61 possessions won in the defensive third, the third-highest in the Premier League. At the same time, they ranked 17th and 16th for possessions won in the attacking and middle third per game respectively. They were also among the dirtiest teams, averaging 2.39 yellow cards per game.

However, there were some positive signs. Wolves averaged 631 touches per game under Lopetegui, the ninth-best in the Premier League during his stint. They were also ninth for passes attempted and completed, as well as third for long passes attempted and fifth for long passes completed. It is worth noting that they were low for final third passes attempted and completed.

There were also different circumstances at Wolves, given a team looking destined for relegation. He did what was needed to keep them in the Premier League.

It’s better to look at Lopetegui’s time with Sevilla to truly see what he could bring to West Ham.

Lopetegui look charge of 121 league games for Sevilla between the start of the 2019/20 season and October 6th 2022, when he was sacked after a terrible start to the 2022/23 campaign — though given Sevilla’s struggles since, that may have been bigger than just the manager.

During his time in charge of Sevilla, the Andalusian side averaged 1.38 goals per game in La Liga the seventh-most in the competition during that time. They ranked fifth for shots per game, at 4.04, sixth for big chances created with 9.58. However, they were very high for shots off target with only two teams averaging more than Sevilla’s 5.5 per game in La Liga.

Sevilla also ranked seventh for xG at 1.37 per game, and xGOT with 1.22 per match. What really impressed was Sevilla’s defence under Lopetegui. They averaged 0.42 clean sheets per game under Lopetegui, the second-best in La Liga, and 0.91 goals conceded (the third-best). It’s the same when looking at Expected Goals Against, with Sevilla facing an xGA of 1.08 and xGOT conceded of 0.93 per game — the fourth and third-best tallies in La Liga.

But Sevilla did dominate on the ball. Their passes attempted and completed ranked third in La Liga during Lopetegui’s reign, with no team completing more long passes than their 37.73 per game. The most important difference between Lopetegui’s Sevilla and Wolves was the final third passes. In La Liga, Sevilla averaged 134.84 final third passes attempted per game and 100.06 final third passes completed, the fourth and third-best records. They also ranked third for touches per game at 717.91.

If given time and backing, Lopetegui could have West Ham challenging for Europe once more.