While Chelsea are still undefeated at the Bridge this season, we also have only 6 wins from our last 16. So while we should not be happy about the manner in which the three points were achieved, we can be happy about how luckily we were given them. For over an hour, our attack was as sharp as a circle. Once again, the impotence of our roundabout passing despite a dominance of possession must come under scrutiny for how very nearly we lost this game.
West Ham United came out in how most outlets are describing as a 3-4-1-2, but because of their spatial-marking system employed and a general low block due to our imposed possession, it truly played into a 4-5-1. Jarrod Bowen was dropping into that compacted midfield and leaving Michail Antonio alone up top, while Emerson and Vladimír Coufal were filling in as left and right backs.
Thomas Tuchel’s formation was wise in concept - to add bodies to the centre midfield, knowing that a majority of the game would be played there and hopefully realising the mistakes of being outplayed there in our last few outings. We were still lacking a true spine, the obvious exception the exceptional Thiago Silva, with intended iteration because so too have been his performances. Up top, Pulisic and Sterling were dropping in deep to receive the ball, certainly via Tuchel’s instruction. This is a great way to beat a low block, by dragging one of the rooted defenders out of position and ideally opening up space for a penetrating run. More often than not, our strikers’ runs were not being tracked by their defense and our midfielders were not picking up the minimal space that was being afforded either.
What has been Tuchel’s mantra - to progress through the wings and bring an overload with the wingers and wingbacks, with even positive forward runs from the defender on that side - was truly going to be the best way to get the ball forward, while crosses would be necessary to get the ball into dangerous areas. And so while we were strong on the flanks but weak in the centre of the park, even if we try to play wide and possession-based football, there is still no central presence. Tuchel has strengthened greatly on either flank, adding Koulibaly and Cucurella on the left to support an already outstanding (but returning to fitness) Ben Chilwell and Wesley Fofana on the right to support Reece James and Cesar Azpilicueta. However, in the centre we have done nothing but sell or loan midfielders and only acquired future prospects while going all-in on Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to fill the glaring gap seen below:
Tuchel has clearly been trying to play football similar to Manchester City in possession, but he has also employed much of the Liverpool gegenpress throughout his tenure. He is yet to achieve the perfect balance he spoke of seeking upon his arrival, and our metrics quite would agree with that. As you can see with our passes per defensive action below (essentially how many passes we allow outside of our defensive third before pressing), we are aggressive off the ball. Only Leeds press more quickly than we have this season. In addition, we are still third in the 10+ passes in open play, meaning we are controlling the ball comprehensively and in so doing so are essentially dictating the tempo of most games.
So, where are we falling short? In two specific places...
We have now conceded 3 times from corners and 4 times from wide set pieces this season. In all of the corners conceded, there has been a large presence in our box...either of opposition players (against Tottenham or West Ham) or of our own players (Southampton). Mendy does not seem to have the confidence of the player we first signed - he does not dictate control of his own box, we have not been comfortable playing him the ball after his newest egregious error against Leeds (to whom we also conceded a wide free kick), and there has been a drastic shift in his supporting backroom staff after losing both Petr Cech and Christophe Lollichon in the last few months.
If we turn a blind eye to the fact that Michail Antonio probably should have been shown a second yellow for one of a few tackles he made on Thiago Silva and that we had just recently added Mason Mount and Armando Broja for Christian Pulisic and Conor Gallagher (changes prior to a free kick are never ideal), our defending on the subsequent three corners that they both earned and on which they eventually capitalised was pitiful. Teams know that crowding Mendy and throwing players into the box will yield chances.
On the first, with time enough to write a song about it, Fofana instead takes a first touch clearance straight back out of play. Fair enough, this was his first Chelsea start and, likely knowing we have been shaky on set pieces, going for the outright clearance was a justifiable reason to send it errantly out of play.
On the second, Mendy did exactly what he should have also done on the third, removing the ball from any threat with a strong physical presence and powerful punch. The fact that the ever-annoying Jarrod Bowen has a tremendous volley back at him is no fault of Mendy’s, but that we have 10 of our outfield players crowding our own six and only Sterling to apply pressure on Bowen is the same issue we had against Southampton. Mendy parries Bowen’s volley wide for another corner, their first three corners coming within 2 minutes of game time.
On this third corner, miscommunication, misplacement, mismarking, and most other mis- prefixes you’d like to apply would be appropriate. We have no marking format, which eventually leaves Antonio open on the mouth of the goalline, and three players are both misplaced and lack communication while bumbling into each other while going for the same cross that is only contested by Thilo Kehrer. Mendy could have quite easily tipped this over the bar to play the safe route, conceded another corner, and fought to live another day. His indecisiveness is as equally faulted as any of the defensive problems we had. This is a major concern, even our massive possession stats won’t deny the opposition corners, and yet we look like schoolyard players while defending them. Batten down the hatches.
The second and more consistent aspect than Mendy’s recent drop in form or our set-piece shambles is the lack of a direct and central goal threat. It is noticeable in the heat map graphic above from WhoScored?, but a more telling story is evident below. Again, while having the passing consistency of the other two contesting-for-the-title clubs (disregarding current league positions), our zones of control and dominance tell a different story, and in one key area.
We have very little central occupation, and without that, we are limiting ourselves to dominance on the flanks. We have only three goals scored from crosses this season from 77 total. For obvious reasons, xG ratios fall dramatically when a shot is taken from a non-central area, and without a presence centrally, goals themselves drop dramatically, too.
Even when Broja came on, once again doing a fantastic job in the time he was given (give him more), he was often forced out wide himself to actually be able to pick up the ball - even though he did change the game when he did. This issue all falls on the centre of the park, where the other squads have players willing to carry and progress through the middle rather than recycle from wing to wing. We don’t have the dynamic of player that will pick up those pockets of space centrally, turn on the ball, and either link up with a central striker or wingers in the half-spaces or have a go at goal. Just look at these xG shot maps - it might have been more entertaining to watch the grass grow in the first half than bear witness to such a debacle.
Knowing that we only achieve success through the flanks might make it less surprising that both the equaliser and the winner were contrived through wide play and the introduction of a one Ben Chilwell, after his introduction in the 72nd minute. He also made some history to be the only defender in our history to do what he did.
The most worrying aspect of this is that we have apparently played some of the more easier games we are expected to play this season and have Champions League and a complete unhinged season with the interruption of the World Cup. Consistency on the pitch needs to be better, because, with the chaotic schedule, there will be none off of it.