Change has come to Stamford Bridge. Chelsea spent last season bouncing from early meltdown over Jose Mourinho to Guus Hiddink’s stumbling hangover, and you might have been forgiven for thinking that the arrivals of Michy Batshuayi and N’Golo Kante weren’t going to be enough to turn things around. But skimming the Blues transfer dealings don’t give the full feeling of the change that’s hit the club this summer. Antonio Conte is here, and Antonio Conte isn’t going to take the sort of crap we’ve been accustomed to for an answer.
It would have been easy for the Blues, pegged back to 1-1 late after an impressive if slightly stolid performance, to throw in the towel and the two points to start the year. They’d have had every right to think a win deserved and a draw unjust, and it’s not difficult to imagine a press conference in which the team is praised and bad luck bemoaned. But the thing about excuses is that winners never have to make them. Rather than indulge in self-pity after a setback, Chelsea struck late to claim the spoils.
The first change was on the teamsheet. Cesc Fabregas, hero of the 2014/15 title charge, was benched in favour of a more recent vintage. Kante’s part in leading Leicester City to the least probable Premier League title ever cannot be overstated, but he fulfills a very different role to the man he replaced in the lineup. This year’s Chelsea will value defensive stability over flamboyance, and they’ll probably be better off for it.
Kante endured a slightly nervy start, taking a soft yellow card for a foul on Andy Carroll in the third minute. Pointing out that James Collins got away with a warning for a slightly meatier tackle on Diego Costa is probably necessary to foreshadow the spectre of an inconsistent refereeing performance, but upon reflection pointing out that the man in question is the professionally ambivalent Anthony Taylor does that job just as well.
Much like Kante, the Blues got off to a slowish start, but everyone managed to gel before too long. It was particularly important for Chelsea to establish a presence in midfield, where Kante was flanked by Nemanja Matic and Oscar in a 4-3-3. Both are players with something to prove this year — Matic’s revival will be particularly important if a real top-four challenge is to materialise — and they can be very pleased with their performances on the night. The Dmitri Payet-less Hammers could barely get a touch in central areas without being run off the ball by a blue shirt, and unlike previous incarnations of this Chelsea squad it felt as though someone was always going to be at the end of a loose ball.
But although the visitors were being shut out of dangerous areas entirely, Chelsea had to pay a price for dropping Fabregas. Shorn of the most creative passer in the squad, the Blues were stodgy going forward, with only Eden Hazard causing any real problems for West Ham’s back line. One particularly intrepid run from the Belgian —which ended with a shot bent just wide of Adrian’s far post — actually left Andre Ayew injured trying in vain to chase him down, and Hazard’s willingness to take players on recalled the glories of the 2014/15 campaign. If he’s returning to top form, Chelsea fans can take real heart.
We would have had more to celebrate in the first half had Taylor given us what seemed in real time to be a straightforward spot kick. Oscar, struggling to open up the Hammers while in possession, decided to create via his defending instead. Poaching the ball off a criminally sloppy Mark Noble 25 yards out, the Brazilian charged into the box before going down under contact from the wrong-footed Winston Reid. It would have been a slightly soft call and Oscar went down theatrically, but even on replay it looked as though he’d been impeded. But no penalty was given, and the only consequence of the whole affair was Diego Costa taking a yellow card for complaining about it.
Complaints about the penalty decision were, however, banished early after the interval. Some bizarre defending from the Hammers let Costa behind the line, and although his tight angle shot was blocked by Adrian the visitors failed to get the ball to safety, eventually halting play via the not-particularly-expedient method of barging Cesar Azpilicueta over in the box. Right back Michail Antonio was the culprit, and he didn’t last long following the foul — a rightly furious Slaven Bilic hauled him off as punishment, putting on 22-year-old Sam Byram in his place.
By the time that substitution was made Chelsea were of course a goal to the good thanks to the penalty. Last year was an embarrassing one for spot kicks (and almost everything else), so you might not have been blamed for worrying slightly more than usual as Hazard stood over the ball. He ignored the tension, however, and blasted into the roof of the net to make it 1-0.
West Ham were reeling and now the chances began to arrive in earnest. Hazard should have made it 2-0 from Willian’s cutback, but the pass was to his lead foot and the opening was gone before he could adjust. John Terry had a free header from a corner go wide. Oscar and Willian had shots go behind for corners. The Hammers were offering nothing, but for as long as we were looking at a one-goal game there was danger.
And with Payet warming on the touchline that danger felt more and more real with every wasted chance. Bilic made his changes, finally committing his star 67 minutes in. Set pieces began to feel rather more threatening as soon as Payet arrived, and before long one had turned the game smartly on its head.
There was an element of suspicious refereeing in the ten minutes that elapsed between Payet’s introduction and the West Ham equaliser. Costa was inexplicably allowed to remain on the pitch after taking out both of Adrian’s ankles with a wild and hilarious challenge — we’ll have to add that one to Costa’s long criminal record -- but the decisions weren’t all going Chelsea’s way.
Azpilicueta deciding to thump the ball clear from the vicinity of Andy Carroll’s skull was probably ill-advised, but contact, if any, was minimal. Carroll’s dive, on the other hand, was exquisite, and Taylor wasted no time in booking the right back and awarding a close-range free kick. The wall did its job that time, turning Payet’s shot behind for a corner, but that merely postponed the inevitable.
James Collins bizarre fact interlude
James Collins has nine career Premier League goals. They go as follows:
- Dec. 26, 2005 vs. Portsmouth
- Apr. 9, 2006 vs. Chelsea
- Oct. 17, 2009 vs. Chelsea
- Nov. 10, 2010 vs. Blackpool
- Jan. 16, 2011 vs. Birmingham
- Apr. 10, 2011 vs. Newcastle
- Mar. 31, 2012 vs. Chelsea
- Feb. 11, 2014 vs. Norwich
- Aug. 15, 2016 vs. Chelsea
Your guess is as good as mine.
/James Collins bizarre fact interlude
There wasn’t much that Thibaut Courtois or anyone else could have done about the goal. Corners ideally shouldn’t turn into games of Heisenburg’s uncertainty pinball, but this one did and by the time anyone had got their bearings James Collins was performing double duty in both diligently prosecuting a handball claim and smashing a sweet half-volley beyond the keeper and in. It was a strange and silly goal to concede, and considering it made it 1-1 in the 77th minute, an infuriating one at that.
And then came the changes. Conte had saved all three substitutions for this eventuality, and he used them to good effect. Off came Oscar, Hazard and Willian. Out went the 4-3-3. In its place, a 4-4-1-1, with debutant Michy Batshuayi behind Costa, flanked by Victor Moses(!) and Pedro.
Chelsea were perhaps a little lucky to have the opportunity to look for a winner with 11 players after Kante, already on a booking, scythed down Payet in the centre circle, but the ways of Anthony Taylor are both inconsistent and inscrutable and this time He smiled upon us, giving the France international a stern talking to and no more.
Had Kante been dismissed, all the momentum would have fallen out of the charge. Instead, the new shape put West Ham on the back foot. Reid was forced into a last-gasp header to prevent Batshuayi getting onto a neat cross from Moses, and seconds later Pedro whistled a volley wide of the far post.
When it arrived -- and it took its time — the goal came as a direct result of the two-striker set. A Matic long ball found Batshuayi, whose flick was picked up by Costa just outside the box. The vistors’ defence was slow to adjust, giving him just enough room to shape for a shot and fire into the bottom corner.
Cue Antonio Conte losing his [funning] [ship].
Cue our first win of the season.