West Ham grab surprisingly comfy 1-0 win over lacklustre Chelsea
LONDON -- Three points from Chelsea's stunning 1-0 defeat against West Ham United on Saturday at the London Stadium.
1. Chelsea awful in defeat at West Ham
On a cold, sleepy Saturday lunchtime at the London Stadium, this didn't feel like a London derby. There were no crunching challenges, no fiery atmospheres and no controversial moments: it was a 1-0 victory that would have been considered entirely routine were it not the underdog that triumphed. West Ham went ahead after six minutes through Marko Arnautovic and were then surprisingly comfortable for the remainder.
The major prematch talking point was Moyes' decision to continue with Adrian in goal after his impressive performance last weekend against Manchester City, given Joe Hart's ineligibility. Few would argue against that selection based on current form, but the goalkeeper from Spain was surprisingly underworked in the first half. Adrian was bundled to the floor by Alonso in the early stages but recovered to make comfortable saves denying both N'Golo Kante and Davide Zappacosta from the edge of the box before half-time. After the break, he was barely tested. Hart, looking on from the bench, must have been jealous at such an easy clean sheet.
West Ham's defence stood firm. Winston Reid is among the division's most commanding centre-backs when in the sanctity of his own box, Aaron Cresswell has tucked inside excellently, and Angelo Ogbonna relishes physical battles against proper centre-forwards like Alvaro Morata.
The victory might only lift West Ham from 19th to 18th, but it feels like a crucial victory. It's only their third of the season, after home wins over lowly Huddersfield and Swansea. When West Ham were at their best under Slaven Bilic two seasons ago, they boasted an enviable habit of upsetting the big boys: Saturday's result suggests that ability, and that underdog spirit, may have returned.
2. West Ham showing signs of revival?
There have been some promising signs of improvement since David Moyes took charge of West Ham -- a good atmosphere in a home draw with Leicester, a decent effort in a narrow defeat to Manchester City -- but this was the most encouraging performance so far.
Judging West Ham's attacking performance is slightly difficult considering they went ahead so early and then had license to sit deep and counter-attack. But the goal itself was excellent, a well-worked move down the flank featuring Pablo Zabaleta and Manuel Lanzini before Arnautovic curled a fine, left-footed shot past Thibaut Courtois.
Chelsea's area of weakness in this 3-5-2 system is down the flanks, where they're often undermanned, while Moyes places big emphasis upon creating overloads in those positions, with central players drifting wide to help out. The goal was excellent, and now West Ham had something to defend.
Their defending was largely good throughout the first half, too, with Zabaleta and Arthur Masuaku shuttling back into defensive positions to ensure the centre-backs weren't dragged out wide. In truth, West Ham didn't have too many attackers to cope with. Morata, seemingly only half-fit after collecting a knock in training this week, lacked his usual bursts into the channels. Eden Hazard was lively, tending to drift left as he was crowded out through the centre. Aside from sporadic bursts forward by left-wing-back Marcos Alonso, always willing to challenge in the air, West Ham were largely comfortable before half-time.
Moyes deserves credit for that, as this was squad seemed like a disorganised rabble for much of Slaven Bilic's tenure. Also worthy of praise is Mark Noble, who makes up for his increasing physical limitations with much-needed tactical pointers. When West Ham had a free-kick wide on the right, both Cresswell and Lanzini stood over the ball. No, said Noble: West Ham needed numbers back to defend the possible counter-attack through Hazard, learning from his own mistake in a very similar situation here last year.
3. Conte's changes too little, too late for Chelsea
Chelsea fell behind just six minutes in but largely wasted the first half with fruitless possession play in their own half. The onus was on Conte to change something to get the champions back into the game, but there were surprisingly few tactical alterations. As always, the former Juventus manager trusts his initial plans.
It would have been very unlike Conte to make a first-half substitution, but it was surprising he didn't at least alter his midfield shape. Throughout the first half the Chelsea player who enjoyed the most space in possession was Kante, whose touch was poor and his passes unambitious. Cesc Fabregas, by far Chelsea's most creative midfielder, spent his time shuttling forward to the right but with West Ham now parked behind the ball, he barely received the ball in space. Putting Fabregas into the deeper role, where he would have enjoyed more freedom, seemed the obvious move.
At half-time, Conte did change things. Pedro Rodriguez was summoned from the bench in place of the underwhelming Tiemoue Bakayoko and Chelsea went from 3-5-2 to the 3-4-3 of last season. Then, 10 minutes into the second half, Victor Moses was summoned in place of Alonso, with Zappacosta moving to the left. Almost immediately, Chelsea won a free-kick in classic Alonso territory but with him off, it was left to Fabregas. He tried a low pass into the box, but West Ham cleared easily. Zappacosta offered some threat from the left, flashing a good cross-shot past the far post.
With Chelsea pushing forward, West Ham had more countering opportunities. Michail Antonio slipped in Arnautovic on the break but he was narrowly offside. Arnautovic then had a penalty shout when trying to slip past Andreas Christensen. The Denmark centre-back misjudged a header and nearly let the Hammers in again.
Chelsea's system was confused at this point with Pedro deep on the left and Hazard still up front close to Morata. Conte's third change, replacing Zappacosta with Willian, made things clearer: Pedro went to left-wing-back with Willian wide on the right, Hazard on the left. In possession Chelsea had a front five: Pedro, Hazard, Morata, Willian, Moses.
For the final 25 minutes, it was all-out attack, at least in theory, yet the cavalry never arrived. Fabregas' passing radar was off, Hazard looked tired and the substitutes didn't offer the expected burst of energy. There was only one clear chance, the off-form Morata blasting narrowly wide with a quick snapshot. Shortly after that, Hazard shot over too.
Aside from that, there was nothing. This was perhaps Chelsea's poorest display under Conte, and a wasted opportunity to make up ground on the top two ahead of tomorrow's Manchester derby.
Michael Cox is the editor of zonalmarking.net and a contributor to ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Zonal_Marking.