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West Ham United 3-1 Chelsea, Premier League: Tactical Analysis

Why, Football Gods? Why?!

West Ham United v Chelsea FC - Premier League
My sentiments exactly
Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images

Despite David Moyes’ (previously) poor Premier League record against Mauricio Pochettino (4 draws and 1 loss), omens were ominous. Yes, in previous seasons we had won six of seven away league openers and they had lost their last four of five home openers, but we also lost 10 times away in the league last season, earning only 19 points, and have won just once in all competitions in our last 16 chances. This second-half display shot me right back to the mediocrity of last season.

And so we are left lamenting what might have been against a decimated, depleted West Ham side without a truly valid excuse as to why. Both teams fielded lineups singularly changed from their 1-1 draws on opening weekend, with Pablo Fornals being dropped for the inclusion of James Ward-Prowse and Malo Gusto replacing captain Reece James, out again with another hamstring injury.

Starting XIs pregame

For me, there are two broad scoping approaches to coaching - either adapt the style of play to the personnel available or adopt new players to fit the desired style of play. In that regard, despite the clamouring for a back four, it is not an option for Pochettino with his available and reliable centre backs. With the progressive fullbacks he is wont to play, mobility is key for the centre backs - they need to cover the vast amount of vacated space given up by attacking fullbacks. While the newer signings are capable of that but less reliable in their decision making, Thiago Silva is the only one reliable in his decisions but decidedly less mobile, and thusly continues to be undroppable. For that reason, Pochettino has remained adherent to the back three, while we all know what he truly wants is a back four. The exploratory process that occurred in this match later in the second half was not even remotely successful.

And about those progressive fullbacks, Malo Gusto needs a bit more patience and guidance. He is not Reece James, and to expect similar output from him is unreasonable. Gusto is a talented attacking fullback and did well defensively, but he is also young and fresh to the league. For what little frame of reference upon which we can extrapolate, Reece James had 73 touches in 75 minutes against a full-strength Liverpool prior to his substitution, adding 2 shot creating actions, 0.3 xAG, and 7 progressive passes with 5 progressive carries. Our offense quite often ran directly through him. Gusto had 70 touches in 82 minutes (around 15 of those minutes against 10 men) with 1 shot creating action, nought xAG, with 3 progressive passes and also 5 progressive carries. Both games were played with an emphasis on the right side, so the statistics indicate he is an ample replacement. James is a monster offensively, and is one of many injuries that are more conducive to this result than anything else.

A high priority ought to have been “do not give away free kicks or corners” because the delivery that Ward-Prowse is able to provide is exemplary, whether it be to assist or to score himself. And yet, in the first 7 minutes, we conceded two corners. Apparently we would learn from that mistake, because after allowing the goal, we did not concede another corner the rest of the first half. The damage had already been done by then.

Both corners, both threatening. Where is our back post marking?

This is why zonal marking is a horrendous decision at the top level and something that has doomed us with each manager who has used it. In both images above you can see we have a concentration of players on the near side but few at the back post. Especially with their runs starting from the 18, the zonal marking pattern is worthless. Both deliveries were to the back post and even the first one very nearly resulted in a goal. Why Axel Disasi was challenging at the back post for the first but not the second is certainly a big part of why they scored. This cannot be the way forward, this is a screen capture of our ‘marking’ prior to the goal.

Marking space is worthless, pick up a man and track their run

After conceding, Chelsea grew even more into the game via possession and even more threatening as the half wore on, but aside from Carney Chukwuemeka’s brilliant effort and Raheem Sterling’s relentless running (12 attempted take-ons but only 6 won), there is little to be happy about by the halftime whistle.

And this is quite obviously ignoring the glaring fact about the two penalties in this match and the Chelsea midfielders involved in them.

After the rise of expectations from the Liverpool match, they plummeted in this second half. Our passes against Liverpool were crisp and precise, completing 645 of 755. Against West Ham, again noting that a half hour of this game was played against ten men, we accomplished only 661 of 773. The amazing person at McLachBot (who happens to be a Chelsea fan) has updated his site to include passing statistics per minute, and so I have modified them for the 60th minute onward. Bear in mind that at this point, Levi Colwill was our left back and we had shifted to a back four, so while this chart still indicates there to be wingbacks, you can see the shape of our back four with Moisés Caicedo as that deeper, holding role. You can also see how we focused down the right, but the lack of connected passes to or amongst the front line is embarrassing.

Little passing to and virtually no passing between our front line

Pochettino praised his team for 50 final third entries after the game, but I both do not see from where he is getting that statistic nor does it truly matter. That is blind optimism, since not only was the last half hour (there were 7 minutes added on) played against 10 men, but as many of those final third entries came in the first 67 minutes as after, so we did not up our tempo with the advantage. FBRef has us with 44 passes and 33 carries into the final third and 13 passes into and 49 touches in the opposition box - none of which add up to 50, which is also mighty low for the circumstances surrounding our possession and their concession of space considering their numbers on the field. A statistic more interesting and certainly more concerning, Chelsea only had four shots on target the whole game and only had three shots registered after the sending off - and only Madueke’s 92 minute effort was on target.

The shape of our squad on the ball was far too timid, and while we were playing against a very low block, we were making it far too easy for them by keeping far fewer players in non-threatening areas. The screenshot below is our shape in our buildup play. This was taken shortly after Robert Sánchez had played the ball to Thiago Silva.

This image very nearly matches the pass map from above in positioning

The next image is obviously much higher up the pitch, in fact Sterling had it near the touch line moments prior, where it was turned back to Gusto, who played it to Silva as you see it here. I would like to think that, had he known that Nayef Aguerd would clumsily get himself sent off later, Pochettino would have allowed Moisés Caicedo to have his debut at home against Luton. There is no need for so many players to be so far back in addition to Caicedo dropping to receive.

This ball came from where Gusto is standing, just recycled in possession

And, if the reports are true that he wasn’t training with Brighton and living temporarily in London, the decision to bring him on was wrong. It’s easy to say that in hindsight knowing that he conceded the penalty, but he also was superfluous in this formation. Especially once West Ham dropped Michail Antonio and filled up the midfield with Pablo Fornals, we needed more forward presence and do not achieve that with his inclusion. Amazingly, despite all the money spent this summer, there were minimal attacking choices for Pochettino on the bench. Noni Madueke had just come back from injury and Mason Burstow is entirely untested in such an environment. The injuries are again wreaking havoc.

And so we wait to celebrate our 150th Premier League London derby victory, but with 6 other London-based clubs in the league this season, there are 11 other chances to do so.


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