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David Moyes’ best teams have always been built around strong partnerships between their full-backs and wingers.

So before the Europa Conference League final against Fiorentina last night, the West Ham manager’s decision to switch both full-backs from the semi-final second-leg win away to AZ Alkmaar raised more than a few eyebrows.

Emerson came in for Aaron Creswell at left-back, and Vladimir Coufal replaced Thilo Kehrer on the right. It was a back four that had only started together twice previously, in last month’s 4-1 round of 16 second-leg win over Gent and the 4-3 loss away to Crystal Palace in the Premier League just over a week later.

But in the end, it was a brave decision that worked for Moyes. West Ham’s wide men won the game. Right-winger Jarrod Bowen’s smart positioning led to him winning the penalty for their first goal, which Said Benrahma converted — making him six out of six from the spot this season.

Bowen then popped up with a historic winner in the 90th minute, racing onto Lucas Paqueta’s through ball and keeping his composure one-v-one to win West Ham their first major honour since the 1980 FA Cup and sparking scenes of total joy.

That Bowen was able to win the game owed heavily to his and Benrahma’s defensive involvements throughout. Fiorentina, the top scorers in the competition, had completed 80 crosses into the box in their 14 matches en route to the final, more than double any other team’s total, while attempting 374 crosses, which was almost 120 more than next-best Gent (255).

On paper, the shapes looked similar, both nominally playing a 4-3-3, but most of the first half was spent with Fiorentina rotating their midfield against West Ham’s zonal 4-4-2 mid-block — that is, Moyes’ midfielders would not tightly follow opponents across the pitch but instead defended spaces.

Benrahma’s role was to deal with right-back Dodo, who would often invert — as would right-winger Nicolas Gonzalez. Fiorentina were slightly more structured on the other side, but there were occasions when left-back Cristiano Biraghi would play inside of left-winger Christian Kouame.

Defensive midfielder Sofyan Amrabat acted as a quarterback, giving Fiorentina a three-v-two against Michail Antonio and Paqueta in the first line of build-up.

It took Fiorentina the entire first half to unpick West Ham’s approach out wide. They couldn’t create overloads and ended the game having played just 18 crosses, fewer than in six of their eight other knockout games, despite this being their highest match for possession (68 per cent).

Here, left centre-back Luca Ranieri steps forward — neither Antonio nor Paqueta press — and tries a diagonal switch out to Gonzalez…

…but the pass is overhit and goes out for a West Ham throw-in.

Here is a similar pattern, from the Italians’ previous attack. Bowen is screening the pass into Kouame, with Tomas Soucek as cover, ready to pounce on a pass to Biraghi. Again, Ranieri tries to go over the West Ham block…

… and again the pass is overhit. Goal kick.

Fiorentina’s territorial dominance is evident in the advanced positioning of right centre-back Nikola Milenkovic as he crosses in our next example, but West Ham were compact and able to frustrate. Benrahma playing deep to cover Dodo allowed Emerson and the midfield to concentrate on Gonzalez.

Milenkovic tries a cross from deep here, but it is overhit once more and sails through to goalkeeper Alphonse Areola.

Fiorentina’s first-line overload meant the centre-backs could consistently step forward with the ball, past Paqueta or Antonio, as Amrabat was covering, but West Ham’s midfield would come to life when the Serie A side tried to play through.

Here, Benrahma jumps onto central midfielder Giacomo Bonaventura.

He prevents Bonaventura from turning and playing out to the right.

Then, when Fiorentina attack the other side and left-back Biraghi — his team’s top assister and crosser coming into the final — gets into a promising position, Bowen recovers to block the cross. This allowed West Ham to defend with the entire back four in the box — essential to manning up the bodies Fiorentina would commit forward.

Individually, these actions are not match-winning, but add them up over a full 90 minutes and it largely nullified the best attack in the competition. Collectively, just six of the 52 touches by Bowen and Benrahma came in the opposition box, with both heavily involved in the midfield and their own half.

On the stroke of half-time, Benrahma — who has been criticised this season for his defensive positioning and lack of tracking back — stayed with Dodo as he made a run inside, with the Algerian eventually blocking Gonzalez’s pass out for a corner.

It took Fiorentina until first-half stoppage time to create a chance from a cross, which ended up in the net but was ruled out for offside.

Benrahma is pinned inside by Bonaventura, and he sprints to recover to Gonzalez, as the winger receives high and wide from Milenkovic.

Benrahma gets there but fails to decelerate quickly enough as the Argentinian cuts inside, and crosses to Kouame. His header hit the post and Luka Jovic was offside as he poked in the rebound. Fine margins.

This meant that, despite having 69 per cent possession and seven shots, Fiorentina ended the first half without a shot on target.

There were only two significant chances for the Italians from crosses in the second half. The first was their equaliser. Benrahma is moving towards Dodo as Amrabat plays long to Gonzalez, with Fiorentina having been panicked into going more direct by West Ham taking the lead.

Gonzalez beats Emerson in the air, and Benrahma is in no position to affect the play when Bonaventura half-volleys into the far corner.

“We started the XI that gave us the right balance, as we allowed barely anything from West Ham,” said Fiorentina head coach Vincenzo Italiano afterwards.

“We played the way you need to play a final: running few risks and controlling the game.”

But, as Jose Mourinho famously said, finals are for winning, not for playing.

West Ham became the seventh team ever to win a European trophy while finishing outside the top 10 in their domestic league that season.

Having such a strong defensive base underpinned West Ham’s success; Moyes’ side won this tournament without suffering a single defeat and conceded just 10 goals in 15 games — four in seven when you isolate the knockouts, and never more than once in those games.

A 43-year trophy drought ended via two goals from West Ham’s wingers. But it was Bowen’s and Benrahma’s defensive application that really won the game.

(Photo: Joe Giddens/PA Images via Getty Images)



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