Chelsea’s 3-4-3 has looked as close to invincible as it gets in the Premier League these days. When the pundits look back on the season, they’ll say the first time it ran into any trouble was at White Hart Lane. This is not entirely true. The first team to bloody our new shape was West Ham United, who beat the Blues 2-1 way back in October.
Granted, the side that got dumped out of the League Cup by the Hammers was not exactly a first-choice lineup, but that loss nevertheless gave us an element of revenge for this match. In fact, there was one for West Ham as well: we dealt them a last-gasp 2-1 loss in our opening game of the season, and getting humiliated by Diego Costa is not something teams tend to forget in a hurry.
Costa got the winning goal this time too, striking shortly after the break to give the Blues a 2-0 lead. Eden Hazard, the other Chelsea goalscorer from the reverse fixture, also found the net, opening the scoring after a ferocious counterattack. But despite the superficial similarities (even the score ended up identical) to the match at Stamford Bridge, the overall tone of this one felt very different.
Despite carving out a chance 12 seconds into the match, when David Luiz found Pedro with a long pass from kickoff only to see the ball miscontrolled for a goal kick, Chelsea were largely useless in the early going. They defended admirably, with even Cesar Azpilicueta and Victor Moses* holding their own in the air against Andy Carroll, but that they had to at all was testament to the total lack of control. To an extent that’s not totally unsurprising — this was an away match against a decent side — but it was still vaguely annoying to watch the Blues on the back foot for so long.
*Moses even managed to send Carroll to the sideline for what looked like minor cosmetic surgery after an aerial battle.
Sometimes, of course, the back foot is right where this team wants to be. West Ham earned a dangerous-looking free kick 30 yards out, prompting Manuel Lanzini to smash a rather aimless shot into the wall. The ball broke out to the right flank, where Robert Snodgrass’s attempt to play a clever pass to Sofiane Feghouli was rendered rather less clever by the presence of N’Golo Kante. Then the fun started.
Kante jumped in to intercept while Snodgrass kept going forward, hoping for a one-two that was dead on the vine. That left Hazard and Pedro charging at a thoroughly discombobulated Mark Noble, who waved ineffectually as he was bypassed. With Pedro Obiang racing back to cover, Hazard shifted possession to Pedro, who saved the pass — it was a little loose and could easily have got stuck under his feet — and provided an incisive return ball to put Hazard in on goal.
Darren Randolph stepped up to challenge and immediately regretted it. Hazard’s touch took him round the despairing goalkeeper, and his second stroked the ball goalwards, putting just enough on the ball to draw one final humiliation when Obiang slid to clear and got nowhere near it. An angry West Ham fan confronted the Chelsea players as they celebrated; he might have done better going after his own side.
The goal ended the home side’s pretensions toward attacking. Slaven Billic seemed terrified of being caught on the counterattack, but without committing bodies forward and hoping for a lucky bounce in the box, West Ham seemed to have no plan at all.
Their new, half-baked stance left them no better off defensively either, and the Blues should have doubled their lead before the break. With the ball at Gary Cahill’s feet, Hazard produced a turn that belongs in the Louvre, leaving Jose Fonte for dead and scampering onto the captain’s disguised long pass. Costa was open in the centre, but Hazard couldn’t connect with the big striker. It shouldn’t have mattered — the ball ran free to Moses, who looked in great position to score but had his shot saved by Aaron Cresswell before Randolph denied Pedro on the rebound.
An aside: I’m not sure what the atmosphere was like for the lucky fans who got to see this match from inside the Olympic Stadium, but from my vantage point through the t.v. cameras, everything seemed, well, dead. The first half was deeply tedious to sit through, especially compared to the tense games we’ve endured when travelling to play the Hammers before. And it’s not like they play any more tediously these days.
Unlike at Liverpool and Burnley, Chelsea would end up adding to their lead. Again, a West Ham set piece provided the impetus, although this time we didn’t score directly from the break. Which was a real shame: after Thibaut Courtois smuggled the ball to Cesc Fabregas, Hazard produced an otherworldly flick off his black to release Kante. The counterattack led to a corner, which Obiang flicked into Costa’s path. The result was inevitable.
At 2-0, the match felt pretty much over. Costa came close to adding to it with a majestic turn and shot that came after fine work by Hazard (he was at the centre of everything good today, a welcome change after an up-and-down two months), but Randolph matched his effort with a fingertip stop that diverted the ball just beyond the post.
Antonio Conte decided to shut up shop, going to 3-5-2 and swapping Pedro for Nemanja Matic and introducing Kurt Zouma for Victor Moses. Chelsea were totally content with a 2-0 lead, and looked set to claim their first clean sheet since mid-January as time bled away.
But in the third minute of injury time,
disaster a minor annoyance struck. Azpilicueta, moved to right wingback to accommodate Zouma, played a hospital ball into Fabregas In truth, it was only the latest in a string of absurdly sloppy passes from the Blues, but this time we were made to pay. The retreating defenders were outnumbered, and neither Cahill, Matic nor David Luiz could do much to prevent Lanzini from slotting the ball home.
Courtois, understandably, was incensed at conceding so late and so stupidly, directing a blistering tirade at his teammates for ruining his evening. But while the error set up a plausible Thibaut-Courtois-as-supervillain origin story, it couldn’t really spoil our fun. The three points were safe, and the title one step closer to returning to the Bridge.