With either of Manchester City and Manchester United guaranteed to drop points in their match tomorrow, Chelsea only had one job to do: beat West Ham!
However, our East London rivals had different plans. Thanks to an early goal from Marko Arnautovic and Chelsea's own poor effort at breaking down West Ham's massed ranks, the Blues failed to bring home three points, falling to a first defeat in nine Premier League games.
Despite sitting in the relegation zone, West Ham held runaway league leaders Manchester City for 45 minutes last weekend before eventually succumbing to their relentless attack for what was City’s record-equalling 13th win in a row. Seeing that outcome, Conte picked an almost entirely first-choice team in the now-standard 3-5-2 formation, with the exception of Victor Moses who rotated out for Davide Zappacosta at right wing-back.
Despite that statement of intent from the Chelsea head coach, it was the home side who started on the front foot, new manager David Moyes’s 3-4-3 pressing Chelsea effectively and creating havoc in all sectors. It wasn’t all their doing of course — Chelsea were guilty of plenty of sloppy play as has been the trend early in games for some time now — but the Hammers made their early superiority pay with a long-overdue goal from record-signing Marko Arnautovic.
The lovely interchange to free the former Stoke City man involved all of West Ham’s attackers plus veteran right wing-back Pablo Zabaleta, who today played like a man half his age in countering Marcos Alonso. The former Manchester City stalwart fed the tireless Michail Antonio, whose pass forward to Arnautovic was quickly turned into a one-two between him and the quietly effective Manuel Lanzini. From the return pass, Arnautovic found space between Christensen and Azpilicueta, using the latter to screen his shot, which curled agonizingly past the diving Courtois into the low corner. Barely six minutes had gone and West Ham were ahead.
Chelsea didn’t exactly spring to life after the conceded goal, but did slowly improve. Trouble was, the hosts could now sit back, stay compact, foul strategically, and clear their lines with increasing aplomb. Chelsea made surprisingly little use of the wings and insisted on trying to twist through the massed ranks in the middle. Unsurprisingly, there was little space to be found there. Dreadful first half showings from Tiemoué Bakayoko (again) and Davide Zappacosta (again) were rather unhelpful.
It might be unfair to single those two out however. Bar N'Golo Kanté, who was tireless not only in defending but also trying to pull a few attacking strings, none of Chelsea’s players put in a good shift. Eden Hazard was a shadow of his self seen against Newcastle and Atlético Madrid over the past week. Álvaro Morata was handled easily, both on the ground and in the air by former Juventus teammate Angelo Ogbonna — Morata did have a decent claim for a penalty after a tug on his shirt by Winston Reid, but the offense happened well out of sight of the referee and Morata made a meal of the actual fall. Even Cesc Fàbregas, even when finding space and time, was rather uninspired with his passing.
The few chances that Chelsea created were far from good and West Ham were not breaking too much sweat in keeping themselves tightly organized. Referee Anthony Taylor's whistle to mark the end of the first half even came after a string of "olés" from the home crowd as the Hammers played with confidence not seen all season.
With a rare half-time change, Conte took off whatever Bakayoko is these days and brought on Pedro to play the third, shuttling midfielder in the 3-5-2. Ten minutes later, Moses followed for Marcos Alonso, who had picked up an early booking, while not ten minutes after that, Willian was on for Zappacosta as Chelsea shifted to a 3-4-3. None of that was having any tangible effect on the shape of the game.
Leaving behind all pretense of pressing or proactive play, West Ham concentrated on protecting their 1-0 lead, sitting deep and lumping the ball forward to Antonio on occasion (Chelsea dealt with those half-hearted counter attempts well.) But even as Chelsea pushed everyone forward and maintained vast superiority in possession and passing, the breakthrough would not come.
Credit should be given to the home side for their organized effort, but the Blues did themselves no favors with uninspired passing patterns, lack of invention, and, later, visible frustration with the proceedings and each other. West Ham brought on Sakho and Ayew to replace their runners up top, but it was clear otherwise that their game plan was working perfectly.
Even so, Chelsea should’ve had an equalizer from Morata, who fired wide from eight yards out with the entire goal to aim at, and perhaps a winner soon after from Hazard who shaped his shot just wide of the top corner. Those two chances were rather rare blips on the attacking radar unfortunately — Chelsea took 19 shots but put only 2 on target. Neither side created any actual clear goal-scoring opportunities, and that’s perhaps the greatest indictment of Chelsea’s attacking efforts (West Ham lead the Premier League in goals conceded!).
Needless to say, we can rule Chelsea out of any sort of title race this season. Focus must be maintained for a top-four finish (Liverpool and Arsenal both play tomorrow, in addition to the Manchester Derby), as well as progression in the League Cup (quarterfinal in 10 days), the FA Cup (begins in January), and the Champions League (quarterfinal draw on Monday).
This loss stinks. We move on.
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