West Ham were playing with their eyes toward their midweek Europa League semifinal against Eintracht Frankfurt, which remains their best route to the Champions League next season. They duly rested a few starters but that mattered minimally as the game was far tighter than it needed to be.
Set up with essentially a five-man deep block, David Moyes’ efforts to frustrate our attack worked tremendously well in the first half. There was no pace in our play and the slow buildup and lack of any true transitional speed allowed them to set themselves defensively and prevent any registered shots of quality. In an entirely forgettable first 45 minutes, only Kai Havertz would manage to get a shot from inside their box (1 of our 5 in that half), albeit with an extremely low 0.07 xG. That was all we could muster with 73% possession and being firmly entrenched in their half, with over 40% of the play being in their final third.
A goal-scoring attack-minded midfielder is something this team has been missing for quite some time: someone who is comfortable taking a shot from distance — but who can also thread a pass, and has the ability to arrive late into the opposition box. However, N’Golo Kanté taking such shots cannot be part of our game plan. It likely wasn’t but no other avenue was bearing much fruit.
Although many shots would end up being taken by the end, nearly half of them would be from outside their box, where shooting lanes were often blocked. Of the 26 registered shots, only a measly 5 were on target. Ruben Loftus-Cheek ended up being the only field player without a shot, including the three subs, although he did impact the game plenty from his wingback role. Mount took 6 shots, Werner took 5, and Kanté himself finished with 4.
Because we do not pass vertically nor quickly, we often have ball retention through slow, wide, and horizontal passing, opting to progress the ball down the flanks. Far too often it is simply recycled back the same flank and across the back line or through Jorginho to the other flank, only to find it impassable, too. The speed at which that switch of attacking direction comes is far too slow, so teams can shift to cover and adapt, and there is virtually no penetration into their box with the ball.
With the exception of Kanté and Loftus-Cheek or Chalobah and Loftus-Cheek, the most completed passes were between our three centre backs, to each another. Jorginho had both a surprisingly low number of touches and passes considering his typical role in the team, but of his 79 credited passes, 78 were considered simple passes (less than 10 metres) and only 6 of those 79 passes ended in the West Ham box.
Crosses were too slow to come on the occasion that they did (Alonso and Loftus-Cheek each were credited with 5) and there were too few targets at which to aim. The varying degree of success we have had through wide play has often been due to a quick shift from one side to the other via a direct pass catching out an unprepared and unsettled defensive structure. That was nonexistent against West Ham.
The second half offered quite a bit more in terms of expansive play, and from the 46th to the 75th minute, the game was much more open and possession much more even, Chelsea only managing to possess 60% of the ball. In particular, the 70th minute yielded two of the best open-field chances, one for each side.
After a weak back pass from Alonso nearly left Mendy in trouble, plus a few scrambled attempts to clear our lines, Havertz is caught offside and the ball is given right back to the Hammers. A quick free kick and two one-touch passes around our left-side of defense sees Andriy Yarmolenko get two chances in quick succession, both smothered outstandingly by Mendy.
On our ensuing counterattack, Timo Werner and Mason Mount would have decent opportunities from inside their 6 and 18 yard boxes, respectively.
Mount would make the play happen, taking up a great spot in the right-side half space and mobilizing Loftus-Cheek into an overlapping run. Loftus-Cheek obliges, taking it to the byline and sending a diagonal ball back towards Mount, floating unmarked inside their penalty area. The deflected pass falls kindly for Mount and he rips a one-timer that is blocked by Craig Dawson, who is also able to do just enough to put Werner off his centrally occupying position to take his shot angle down. Werner strikes into the outside of the net.
This would prompt Tuchel to make three changes in the 76th minute, as Romelu Lukaku, Christian Pulisic, and Hakim Ziyech would replace Kai Havertz, Timo Werner, and Ruben Loftus-Cheek, with the first two subs in particular affecting the outcome of the game in big ways. Ziyech does continue to prove that he can be effective at breaking down a low block, leaving one to wonder why he wasn’t on the pitch at the start.
After barely setting a foot wrong prior, Craig Dawson would want to forget the last five minutes of this game. After West Ham clear a corner, Kanté takes the ball all the way back to Mendy, who sends a long ball up field. Thiago Silva, who had stayed up after the corner, flicks the ball on beautifully into the path of Lukaku. As he bears down on net with only Lukasz Fabianski to beat, Dawson pulls him back by the arm and concedes a penalty — with VAR upgrading the yellow card to a red.
Jorginho would take a pretty awful spot kick, carrying over his penalty plight from country to club, though we should note that he has been quite successful for us.
The game became a bit stretched after that and, with West Ham in the ascendancy, buoyed by the miss. Ironically, that may have been their downfall, as they were committing numbers forward and the game opened up in our favour.
After playing a long ball that is headed down by Silva to Kanté, Kanté would turn upfield and find Mount positioned right around the midfield line. Opening his body up towards goal, Mount makes a darting run down the left flank with Alonso keeping the defense honest and wide, which is essential for the space that is afforded centrally, which Pulisic occupies.
Mount slides Alonso down the line, and with the focus of four of their defenders (the red dots) all out wide, Pulisic is in quite literally an acre of space centrally. Alonso may or may not notice this, but plays the smart, low diagonal cutback towards the penalty spot. Pulisic times his run perfectly to get onto the end of it, passing it into the corner with his non-dominant foot.
Christian Pulisic’s game by numbers vs West Ham (14 minutes played):— Statman Dave (@StatmanDave) April 24, 2022
100% shot accuracy
89% pass accuracy
11 total touches
1 chance created
1 ball recovery
Made the difference in a short space of time on the pitch. pic.twitter.com/4a0pGW2pmQ
The win would halt our three game skid and pour further misery onto Moyes’ side, who just can’t seem to buy a win in their race for the top six. Perhaps it is wise that they’re then putting all their eggs into the Europa League basket, but we were certainly the beneficiaries of that decision.
With six league games left and one FA Cup final left, it does seem the right time to both put up clean sheets and snag all available points by any means possible.