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West Ham United vs Chelsea: Opposition Analysis

Chelsea face a tough test in East London tonight as West Ham seek to stop their recent slide. The Irons have taken points from Liverpool, Man City and Man Utd at the Boleyn Ground this season and any victory here will be hard won.

Jamie McDonald/Getty Images

The Season So Far

This has been a season of huge ups and downs for West Ham fans. After a summer of lavish spending it seemed Sam Allardyce was readying his side for a European push and performances throughout the first half of the season suggested the Irons would fulfil their potential. However, their form has collapsed and after only one win in their last ten games – and the annual voluntary exit from the FA Cup – the pressure is starting to mount on Big Sam for what feels like the umpteenth year running.

His side’s fall down the table is so hard to take because they looked more than good enough to sustain their early season form. The starting eleven had genuine quality in key positions, they had loads of options on the bench and their diamond formation meant that they should have been flexible enough in attack and defence to outmanoeuvre most Premier League teams.

If they looked good on paper, they were even better on grass. Allardyce is used to getting shock victories against big sides but usually as the result of backs-to-the-wall efforts in defence and lucky goals from set pieces. That changed this season.

When West Ham beat Liverpool in September and Manchester City in October, they dismantled them. It was absolutely not David fluking his way past Goliath. There seemed to be no reason that they couldn’t keep winning like that. Except we were wrong: there were plenty of reasons why West Ham couldn’t keep winning.

If you invest all of your hopes and dreams in Andy Carroll, you won’t keep winning. A) He’s not very good and B) he’ll miss 25 or so of your 38 league games with one serious injury or another.

If you’re relying on Stewart Downing to create all of your chances, you won’t keep winning. This is a player who has all the abstract attributes to succeed but one who far too often produces the square root of nothing. A flurry of goals and assists in the first half of the season was not Downing’s footballing resurrection but just that: a flurry. Now he’s back to his usual form, having produced one goal and two assists in his last fourteen games.

If your regular back four is Carl Jenkinson, James Tomkins, Winston Reid and Aaron Cresswell, you won’t keep winning. Even if you’re a defensive coach as good as Big Sam, those four players just don't have enough quality or consistency to form a unit that will keep clean sheets often enough to support a European push.

As we enter the business end of the season, it’s very much make or break time for Big Sam. It’s hard to shake the suspicion that he’ll happily accept ‘break’ and walk away from West Ham in May.

Tactics

Sam Allardyce will complain until he’s blue in the face that his vision of football is unfairly maligned. He’ll argue that he was one of the first managers to use statistical modelling, periodisation and player-specific dietary regimes, as well as various other modern techniques common in today’s football world but unheard of fifteen or so years ago. He’s right: he was undoubtedly a trailblazer when it came to incorporating sports science in football.

However, it’s impossible to consider Allardyce a genius when you’re watching his side’s goalkeeper punt the ball 80 yards into the other team’s penalty area, where seven of his players stand ready to rugby tackle their opponents out of the way and bundle it into the net. Not only is this obviously not the result of football genius, it’s arguably not even football at all.

Setting aside all subjective and purist rejections of Allardyce’s philosophy for a moment, it’s hard to deny the effectiveness of and logic in his methods.

Given that he has almost exclusively managed teams fighting for life towards the bottom of the table, he has to put defence first, and it helps that he’s one of the best organisers of a back four around. He understands that if you’re going to secure your own goal by having a flat-ish back four and two or three holding midfielders in front of it, then your attacks will be necessarily direct, fast and short in duration.

Your best bets will be set pieces – the only times you’ll be able to get the ball close to the opposition goal and put several bodies in the box to get it over the line. The easiest way to attack in open play is to turn every open play situation into a set piece of some kind by rehearsing scenarios on the training ground, like an NFL team running through its plays.

If you can incorporate a couple of attacking wildcards into the mix, like he did Jay-Jay Okocha at Bolton, David Dunn at Blackburn and El Hadji Diouf at both, you can give them a platform and let them work their magic, adding variety and unpredictability to your arsenal.

This West Ham team is much more attractive than any Big Sam has managed before, but it’s still very much an Allardyce side. The façade looks different, but on closer inspection it's still the same as it ever was.

They play with a 4-4-2 diamond formation and instead of bypassing the midfield, as past Allardyce sides have been wont to, they use it well. Alex Song sits at the base and runs the show, while Mark Noble and the impressive Cheikhou Kouyaté play as box-to-box midfielders. Full-backs Jenkinson and Cresswell are adventurous and productive, supporting the narrow midfield and firing crosses into the mixer at will.

Up front, they have a couple of real threats in Diafra Sakho and Enner Valencia. The latter is probably the more talented of the two, but the former has been by far the more prolific so far this season. Both will cause the Chelsea defence real problems with their strength in the air and their intelligent movement in the box.

Strengths

As one would expect from any Allardyce side, they’re really good in the air: no team creates more chances via crosses than West Ham’s 3.3 per game and they also lead the pack in headed shots on goal with 3.4 per game. At the other end of the pitch, Tomkins and Reid win pretty much every ball that goes into their box. As much anything, this is due to Allardyce’s coaching and the amount of protection they get, but they’re good at the relatively easy job they have.

West Ham are also very selective about where they shoot from - which is unsurprising given that Allardyce has often ranted about how pointless long shots are. Only three teams take fewer shots from distance and no side has had more shots from inside the six-yard box than their 1.4 per game. In short, they're good at getting the ball as close to the goal as they can before they shoot.

One thing that Chelsea will have to be especially careful of is the West Ham offside trap: only Everton have caught their opponents offside more often this season. Against a side that looks to use transitions as much as Mourinho’s Chelsea, this could prove very frustrating.

Weaknesses

If you’ve got the ball, West Ham won’t do much to win it back. They don’t press hard or make that many interceptions, preferring instead to simply keep their shape and defend their penalty area. They’re fairly good at shutting teams out and tempting them into making bad attacking decisions, but players like Eden Hazard, Cesc Fàbregas and Oscar should be able to find a way through. While some strikers are muscled or bullied out of games by their centre-backs, Diego Costa will match Tomkins and Reid all the way.

Curiously, for a side with such a good defensive record West Ham give away a lot of shots on their goal. They rely heavily on goalkeeper Adrián to bail them out: only two clubs’ goalkeepers make more saves per game than Adrian’s 3.6 and fully half of those saves are from shots taken inside the penalty area. It’s not like he’s padding his stats by catching speculative efforts from 35 yards: West Ham are giving their opponents a lot of clear cut chances.

While Alex Song is by far West Ham’s most talented player, he’s prone to lapses of concentration and moments of total lunacy. His man of the match display in the Irons’ victory over Manchester City in October showed that he can stay switched on for an entire game, but the nagging suspicion is that he’ll either go to sleep for just long enough to allow someone to get a decisive run on him, or headbutt Diego Costa and end up taking an early bath.

Likely XIs

Due to the suspension of Nemanja Matić and the proximity of this match to Sunday’s League Cup final, Chelsea’s line-up and system is hard to predict. It could be that Kurt Zouma continues in midfield, while the possibilities for rotation are numerous.

By contrast, West Ham’s starting eleven is fairly settled and this is a big game, so any changes would have to be forced by late injury news. There’s an outside chance Big Sam could start Kevin Nolan, but it’s more likely that he’ll avoid annoying his own team’s fans before a game of this magnitude.

WHUCHE

Prediction

Chelsea have to be favourites but it all depends on the starting line-ups and the system José Mourinho elects to use. It’s a fine line between resting key players and sending out a reserve eleven and if Mourinho crosses it, he could consign his team to defeat and breathe new life into the title race.

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