The start of the game saw Michail Antonio staying close to David Luiz when Chelsea had the ball, allowing Jorginho and Rudiger space to have the ball and play forward.
Thanks to this approach, unlike other opponents, West Ham could keep their backline protected by flooding midfield and outnumbering Chelsea around the player receiving the ball. The wingers would move inside in support of the central midfielders defensively and allow the fullbacks to stay in positions from time to time, rather than always stepping out to follow. Rice was always moving to get tight and protect the backline, and in doing so allowed the central defenders to stay back and not have to move forward to engage; thus the team limited the amount of attacks to defend on their last line of defence.
Even with longer passes to the feet of the frontline — West Ham’s central midfielders being higher meant more space open behind them — and even when Chelsea were able to combine and find a player in space to the side of Rice, West Ham’s backline would stay tight and narrow on the edge of their box. They only engaged with the ball when it was absolutely necessary, to prevent a high amount of free long shots or opening space behind them, and in doing so.
West Ham’s approach worked and meant that:
- Chelsea would lose the speed of their attack in the final third
- Willian and Hazard were narrow and West Ham were compact, leaving space wide
- The space left on the wings was occupied by Chelsea’s less creative players, so West Ham reduced the influence of Chelsea’s most creative attackers in the game
- Slowing down play would allow West Ham’s remaining midfielders to get back from longer passes
- Keeping the backline as high as they could on the edge of the box provided few opportunities for crosses to Giroud inside the box
(Ed.note: Sarri touched on a few of these issues in his post-match comments as well: “Today it was very difficult to play inside. They were cutting out very well every pass for Giroud, so we needed two wingers, I think. Hazard in the last 25 minutes did very well, more on the right than the left, but it was very difficult for the striker and the two wingers.”)
Although West Ham were able to narrow Chelsea’s attacks played to feet in the middle and deal with them well, leaving Jorginho free on the ball in midfield and attempting to maintain compact lines was always going to provide him with the opportunity to play quality passes behind the defence (and set a new Premier League record for touches and passes attempted). Chelsea had a couple of opportunities from these, but missed Pedro’s quality in these situations.
After holding off Chelsea for most of the first half, West Ham began to build momentum towards the end of the half. The game became more open and they created a couple of good chances from counter attacks. With Chelsea pressing in numbers around the ball, West Ham kept the ball well under pressure and used switches to find players in space to begin the attacks. With both fullbacks moving forward and the advanced central midfielders joining the wings, they had options on the ball even when Chelsea successfully delayed the counters.
Quick counters when Chelsea had fewer men back would showcase the quality of West Ham’s front three. Yarmolenko would go past defenders and cut inside onto his left foot; Antonio continued to play off David Luiz to try to create a speed mismatch (as well as rotating position with Yarmolenko); Felipe Anderson, being the most creative, showed his dribbling and physical qualities to keep the ball and constantly cause Azpilicueta problems, going past him and playing crosses into dangerous areas.
The second half saw more play from Hazard and Willian from the wings. Willian drew a few fouls in his attempts to go on the outside of the right wing to put crosses into the box, but most of the time he needed support from runners as he received the ball. Azpilicueta overlapped on a couple of occasions, while Kanté’s runs behind from the inside were either not used or were made with bad timing. When Willian moved inside from the right he could find Hazard running behind from the middle, which created one good opportunity, but the best option here would have been for Fàbregas to make the runs behind from the inside had it not been for the Rüdiger injury.
Willian from the left did a better job of getting behind with his speed and putting the ball into the box, while Hazard had mostly moved inside or played passes back inside, rather than taking Zabaleta down the line. From the right, however, Hazard could get behind Masuaku and play balls into the box, as well as move and combine better going inside with the ball from the wing. The problem with the crosses into the box for Chelsea in this game was that the chances fell to Kanté to shoot first time with his left foot or to compete for the ball in the air from a cross — Hazard being another attacking crosses in the air at the far post.
Morata had a good initial impact with his involvement in the game, with a chance to score, but this was short lived. Barkley offered more of a final third threat to create or score than Kovačić had in the game, with good dribbling, quick play, quality long passes and the one shot from distance. But, West Ham were able to hold on against Chelsea’s late push for a goal.
West Ham’s defence was strong and prevented Chelsea from creating chances as freely as they have been able to in recent games. They took a different approach to allow Jorginho to have the ball more freely (rather than trying to prevent the ball reaching him) and look to defend around the forward passes, while also posing a threat on counters. Chelsea had chances in the second half with attacks from the wings and set pieces, but couldn’t find a way past Fabianski.