West Ham United – Chelsea: Hammers Smash Through Tuchel’s Blue Wall (3-2)
In case beating one title contender, 3-2, wasn’t enough, West Ham pushed Chelsea’s immovable defense to its limit. Adjustments made by Moyes proved crucial, as access through the center was gained and mistakes from opponents were punished.
Tactical analysis and match report by Joel Parker.
Having cracked the Liverpool code, West Ham United’s season had begun to mellow after incredible early season form. One point from three matches is not desirable, but the uncreative performances from those three games have sent early alarm bells. Once in free-scoring form, Michail Antonio went into this match having not scored in his previous five matches. Moyes’ men had looked comfortable in the top four, but sticky form going into the festive period had reopened the door for the usual suspects.
Chelsea had recently exploded in their attacking output, but performances in their last two had not been so attractive. Man United was able to force Tuchel’s team wide, but despite their dominance, creating clear cut chances proved to be difficult. This led to a less flattering win over Watford, a team much changed but a game in which their opponents outshot and equally controlled the proceedings. Nevertheless, Chelsea still went into December as the league’s top dogs and in great form.
David Moyes made two changes to the team that drew 1-1 at home to Brighton. This involved a change to the 3-4-2-1 system, from their usual 4-2-3-1 formation. Issa Diop made his first Premier League appearance of the season, added as a third center-back, with Manuel Lanzini also coming into the team. Pablo Fornals and Saïd Benrahma were the players changed.
Thomas Tuchel made four changes to the team that beat Watford. Reece James returned, having recovered from an ankle problem, whilst Thiago Silva, Jorginho and Hakim Ziyech all came back into the starting eleven. Trevoh Chalobah suffered a hamstring injury, whilst César Azpilicueta, Saúl Ñíguez and Christian Pulisic joined the subs.
The predictable game state
One would not be surprised by how the game’s early events followed. Chelsea was authoritative in possession, as they retained a lot of the ball around the middle third, against a West Ham team who were highly organized out of possession and aimed to hit quick attacks forward.
West Ham’s defensive shape varied between a 5-2-1-2/5-2-2-1 formation, dictated by Lanzini’s positioning during these situations. The Argentine was left of Antonio and Jarrod Bowen, when they were forced to defend higher up, but would follow the play forward to stop James having better passing angles infield, without engaging Declan Rice or Tomáš Souček out on the left channel.
5th minute: Lanzini adjusted his defensive position to close James’ passing angle back inside. This enabled the double pivot to hold their central position.
Lanzini also had phases where he sat more in the ten space and occupied the center-midfielder. However, with a Chelsea defender left free, as well either Jorginho or Ruben Loftus-Cheek ahead of them, Tuchel’s team moved the ball more comfortably from deep in these phases, as one of the West Ham double pivot was encouraged forward. In these positions, the vertical pass towards one of the Chelsea forwards was left open and the visitors could progress the ball forward as a result.
In possession, Moyes’ team were forced out wide, in the limited moments that they got on the ball. Craig Dawson and Diop made the bulk of their passes outwards towards the wing-backs, whilst Lanzini and Bowen suffered from the lack of inside options to progress the ball. They still offered pressure from set-pieces and transitional moves, as Chelsea’s buildup contained a few uncharacteristic mistakes, whilst the visitors struggled to effectively move the ball into the final third, against a compact West Ham block.
Chelsea get into the groove
After a difficult opening period, Chelsea was able to move into their most creative phases of the match. To spark more dangerous attacking moves and open space for Mason Mount, Chelsea were able to disconnect Rice and Souček from the defensive line, when moving the ball from deep.
Tuchel’s team circulated a lot of the ball on the right, just inside their half. With this circulation, as well as carries from Loftus-Cheek to attract pressure, they encouraged the West Ham double pivot to sit more to the left. This created more space for Mount on the opposite side, as well as Ziyech who began to operate down this side of the field more as the game continued, with Marcos Alonso pinning Vladimír Coufal down that channel.
As well as deeper circulation, transitions could also put Chelsea into better positions of the field, with the wing-backs as well as the double pivot committed higher up the field. This enabled one of the wide forwards, including Kai Havertz who also took up positions down the right, to get into good crossing positions in the halfspaces and attempt to whip the ball in front of goal.
26th minute: Chelsea transition forward, Loftus-Cheek was able to find James just behind Rice, with a three-versus-three on the West Ham center-backs.
Chelsea was able to increase the pressure, which eventually paid off from a corner kick, as Thiago Silva headed the ball past the goalkeeper at the near post. Although a lot of these phases didn’t end in top shot quality, Tuchel’s team created good openings and got the separation needed from West Ham’s compact block. Coufal man-marked Alonso, whilst Lanzini was forced to commit to counter-pressing high up, instead of becoming the third center-midfielder.
Whether it was Antonio Rüdiger’s carries or James receiving in the right halfspace, Chelsea got the ball to Alonso, Havertz or Mount enough, but missed the penetrative runs in the center that capitalized on these openings. Their dominant period was concluded in the most bizarre of fashions, as Jorginho’s back pass opened heavy pressure to be applied on Edouard Mendy, who would bring down Bowen after messy control. Lanzini converted the penalty.
There was still time for Chelsea to make use of their transitional opportunities, and just a few moments after they had conceded, they went back in front. Following Rice’s loose pass being intercepted, Loftus-Cheek switched to Ziyech, whose cross-field pass found the feet of Mount as he executed a van Persie-esque finish, on the volley, which beat Łukasz Fabiański at his near post.
Tweaks make all the difference
Injuries before half-time forced Ben Johnson off, replaced by Arthur Masuaku, whilst Havertz was replaced by Romelu Lukaku upfront. Moyes also made a rotation to his midfield, which made both their circulation cleaner and their frontline more combative. Lanzini dropped off the left to become part of the double pivot, whilst Souček played further forward, given the license to roam across the field.
Though West Ham’s buildup wasn’t super progressive, Souček’s free role enabled more support to be made for the midfield duo when in possession. The biggest change in their passing circuit was that central options were made a lot more accessible thanks to Souček behind the midfield line and Antonio who operated more centrally, in comparison to the first half.
55th minute: Buildup to West Ham equalizer. Lanzini breaks the lines (Grey ball, first pass) to connect to Antonio whose wall pass (Black ball, second pass) put Souček on the ball and in space.
Ten minutes into the second half, these tweaks were rewarded, as West Ham grabbed their second equalizer of the game. Lanzini split the lines with a pass to Antonio, who connected to Souček, positioned on the right sideline, with a wall pass. Souček’s chipped ball into the right halfspace created an uncomfortable phase for Chelsea center-backs to deal with as Antonio, Coufal and Bowen all compressed this area to stop a clearance from being made. Bowen connected, just inside of the penalty area, to put West Ham back in the game.
Stale Chelsea eventually punished
Tuchel’s team regained control of the possession after West Ham had equalled the score. However, the flexibility and patterns we are associated with Chelsea were not delivered, as a more static team failed to break down West Ham.
With Romelu Lukaku sitting more in the striker space, in comparison to Havertz who had appeared more on the right, rotations amongst the front line weren’t seen. Chelsea’s passing structure was heavily lopsided towards the right side, with James in the halfspace and Mount who operated on the outside of Masuaku. Mount remained the most dynamic mover, who offered more horizontal movements to connect play, but they missed dynamism from elsewhere.
Callum Hudson-Odoi came on for Ziyech down the left, but his spell as the forward on the left side lastest just eight minutes, as Pulisic came on to replace Alonso, which switched their positions. As a result, Chelsea’s attacks followed very similar patterns, where they would work their way down the wider channel, without creating the same separation that they had done in the first half. Fourteen crosses into the box, in the last half hour, culminated with very little shot quality and just one on target.
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West Ham did change their shape with twenty minutes left on the clock. Kurt Zouma came off with an injury, replaced by Pablo Fornals, which had moved them back into their usual 4-2-3-1 shape. Souček had returned next to Rice, but Moyes’ team could still be combative on high balls and work central combinations from it.
This culminated in a great attacking move, with Antonio at the heart of the build, having controlled the high ball and made the vertical run-off Fornals’ wall pass. His ball back towards the far post was just too far for Bowen to get a full connection, as the best opportunity of the second half was put agonizingly wide.
Nevertheless, West Ham got their winner, in a goal that had summed up Mendy’s afternoon in East London. Masuaku’s cross from the left was hit perfectly to sail into the top corner at the front post, with Mendy’s body position making him incapable of dealing with the ball.
This was not a 3-2 game. Neither team had created enough, especially in open play, but based on adjustments and effectiveness in the final third, David Moyes’ team were well worth the three points. His style can be listed as ‘old school’, but if applied correctly, it shows that they can still hang.
Chelsea’s performances in recent fixtures may highlight a reoccurring problem. When it comes to breaking down highly organized medium-to-low blocks, and being forced into the wider channels, Manchester City and Liverpool are better at playing through than Chelsea. A small chink in the Chelsea armoury, but it may be enough to decide the title’s location.
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