Rafael Benitez made four changes to his starting XI for this match, compared to the Europa League game against Steaua on Thursday. Terry was replaced by Cahill with Lampard starting instead of Mikel, pushing Ramires in the deep-lying position as the covering midfielder. On the flanks Moses replaced Oscar but surprisingly he started on the left with Hazard on the right. Up front Ba started. But if we are to compare the starting XI here with the team selected in the previous league game – against WBA – there were only two changes being made. Cahill replacing Ivanovic as Luiz’ partner with Moses replacing Oscar.
All of this could be easily attributed to Benitez’ usual rotation, but there might be something else. WBA and West Ham are having more in common than in difference. So most probably the Spanish manager was pursuing to replicate certain tactical effects in both games (more on this below).
On the other side Allardyce continued with his usual 4-4-1-1 formation, making two changes to his XI. Collison started instead of Taylor and Vaz Te replaced the injured Joe Cole on the right flank. Surprisingly though it was Diame playing just off Carroll. Perhaps the idea was to have someone capable to offer both physical presence in the last third, hence putting pressure on Chelsea’s backline in tandem with Carroll. Also potential aim was to use Diame’s dribbling skills and marauding runs to help with the transitions and exploit any space on the break by being able to quickly reach Carroll and provide him with close support.
West Ham unsurprisingly unimpressive
West Ham’s strategy and general style of play is so basic and rigid that it’s hugely dependant on two major factors. To express itself successfully the team need to find a way to use their physicality both with and without the ball. If the players manage to impose their physicality on the opposition West Ham are having the potential to overrun the opponent. This is done via pressing hard in the opposition’s half and being aggressive in any physical encounter all over the pitch. This then leads to the team being capable of literately flooding the opponent with constant waves of crossing and runners coming from all angles to challenge for the ball.
But if the players fail to impose their physicality and aren’t told to press the team is too vulnerable. In attack the team fails to overload the opposition with the required numbers, hence the attacks are resembling lumping the ball to the target man for him to try and play on his own. In such scenario the set plays are becoming the team’s only decent chance to threat the opposition.
The Hammers are not the archetypical organized and well drilled defensively team. Although the team is asked to defend by forming two banks of four the players are simply lacking that defensive assertiveness and know-how to play the whole match on the back foot and completely shut up the shop, so to speak. Their best defensive weapon is the aggressive pressing with the aim to push back the opposition away. So, by not pressing West Ham are in return easily pinned back in their half and even third, allowing the opposition both time and space on the ball. If the other team is capable of possession fluency and position fluidity eventually West Ham are going to crumble and concede.
In this match this is precisely what happened. West Ham weren’t pressing, instead were focused to plug the zones in their half and third by simply having nine players behind the ball, standing-off in deep areas. This simultaneously isolated Carroll and made the team’s attacking approach in open play largely doomed to failure; but also allowed Chelsea to easily to use their passing, movement and technical expertise to overrun them all over the pitch.
As usual West Ham counted on hitting long balls to Carroll up front. But with nine players behind the ball and the huge distances between the striker and the rest of the team the attacks quickly broke down. Carroll was his usual dominating self, using his physical presence to battle in the air (9 out of 14 successful aerial duels) and on the ground (by initially managing to hold up the ball). When up against Chelsea’s centre-backs he often won the first ball. He intelligently targeted David Luiz as the Brazilian is less physically imposing as Cahill and moved to the right of the centre when receiving the ball. But without the support Carroll was easily crowded out and eventually unable to find a continuation to the attacking moves.
This being said it was strange that Diame – the supposed closest support to Carroll – often drifted to the opposite channel. This could be attributed with the fact Jarvis was West Ham’s more defensively responsible wide man so he often tried to either position deeper or track back Azpilicueta. This meant there was more space on that side of the pitch than on the opposite. So whenever West Ham tried to attack Diame predominantly came over to that side.
This largely nullified the possibility him and Carroll to combine and act as the traditional ‘big man, little man’ combo with Carroll receiving the ball and laying it off to Diame as a sort of extension of the forward moves. For the whole of the first half (during Diame’s stay in the match) both players passed to each other only once.
It wasn’t a surprise to see the first real dangerous move coming in the 26th minute when for the first time on one of the flanks (here it was Jarvis with an in-swinger from the left) provided decent ball to Carroll inside the box; his header went off target. Then it was towards the end of the first half (41st minute) when West Ham managed to break forward with the required pace, number of runners and penetration. It came off of the back of Diame stealing the ball in his own half, then running all the way towards Chelsea’s third before passing to Carroll on the right of the box. The striker then tried to cross but the ball was cleared by Cahill and rebounded to Diame whose shot was crucially blocked by Ramires.
Still, these two situations were all that West Ham managed to create in the whole of the first half. And it’s notable that both came after the opening goal in the 19th minute after which Chelsea dropped their intensity and attacking intentions. Before that the away team simply wasn’t allowed neither the space nor the ball to do anything meaningful in attack.
As soon as the starting XIs were announced it was quite easy to see what Benitez’ strategy for this match was. With West Ham always going to sit deep, trying to limit the space in their half and third, before trying to hit on the break, the onus was going to be on Chelsea to provide the required to break them down and Chelsea duly obligated.
Starting from bottom to top, it was interesting to see Chelsea’s manager again benching Terry. A case could have been made whether Terry is the person to best handle Carroll. Although the target-man twice completely destroyed Chelsea’s captain last season playing for Liverpool (the FA Cup final but especially the game at Anfield towards the end of the season), it could have been argued that Terry’s experience and all round defensive intelligence was the most suitable ‘weapon’ to minimize Carroll’s strengths. But as soon as the game started the reason behind that decision was perfectly evident.
Chelsea started the game with a freakishly defensive line – often the centre-backs were playing in and around the circle in the middle of the pitch. Most probably the Spanish manager’s aim to use high line was twofold. First, try and push Carroll away from the defensive third where his all round presence could be really dangerous. Second, by pushing so high up the pitch Chelsea would be able to really put pressure on West Ham with the majority of the expected possession used in their half and closer to their third. It was the second point, coupled with the principle insistence from West Ham to defend deep, that turned out to be the perfect springboard for the rest of the Chelsea’s team to flourish in attacking sense.
With Cahill being adequate in terms of mobility, he not only allowed the team to play with a high defensive line, but crucially allowed the freedom to David Luiz to play his more natural ball-playing role – stepping higher up the pitch, often making surging runs on and off the ball, often becoming an auxiliary midfielder. With Carroll as the only player staying higher up for West Ham when out of possession and with Cole and Azpilicueta pacey enough to handle Vaz Te and Jarvis on the break, it was less of a risk for Chelsea to keep such high defensive line.
With West Ham sitting deep and Chelsea starting their attacks from higher up the pitch, Cole and Azpilicueta benefited in that they weren’t forced to cover much ground before entering the opposition’s half and even the last third. It was only a case of them being correct with the timing of their forward runs in terms of movement off the ball to provide the needed attacking width. This was illustrated by the fact that between them there was only one attempted dribble, showing they simply didn’t need to go past opponents to join forward. Instead there was space offered tothem that they simply had to run into. This was greatly helped with the team’s front quartet already in and around the final third. Their presence higher up the pitch naturally attracted the majority of West Ham’s defensive attention, so there was space for the fullbacks to exploit and overlap almost always and completely untroubled.
Although, Chelsea’s fullbacks were higher up the pitch they provided few crosses and created few chances – between the two of them they completed one of the three attempted crosses and created three chances (all from Azpilicueta). However, their role was crucial in overloading the wide areas, taking part in constant passing triangles and helping Chelsea’s passing flow all over the pitch.
In midfield Ramires and Lampard complemented each other well. The Brazilian was again asked to play the deep-lying, covering role, compensating for Lampard’s mobility and defensive thrust. With the nature of West Ham’s tactics Chelsea wouldn’t have to worry about the opposition offering passing and technical ability. This made the need of a proper holder (Mikel) redundant.
In this game Chelsea had to first and foremost worry how to break West Ham with the secondary concern of being able to have enough mobility to cover midfield runners during the rare counter-attacking attempts from the visitors. Had Mikel played as the holding midfielder there was enough to suggest his lack of mobility and agility could have provided trouble for Chelsea. However, it could have been argued the Brazilian wouldn’t have been able to provide the required specific attacking nous to break the anticipated defensive wall from West Ham and if Mikel and Lampard were selected, Chelsea’s engine room within the midfield would have been massively lacking in mobility.
Ramires’ pace was the perfect fit for the latter; alongside the high defensive line and the additional mobility offered by the centre-backs and the fullbacks. His role when in possession was simple – help the team transform the possession higher up with simple, but effective short passes through the middle. He always stayed between the centre-backs and the rest of the team, offering that ‘in between’ link and cover.
Meanwhile, Lampard’s overall attacking nous and style of play offered the complementing role of the so called ‘midfield runner’. His job was dual, but pretty much simple and based on his strengths. Initially he was deeper, in line with Ramires, focused to keep the ball ticking over and provide that more creative presence within the double pivot. With him in that position, Chelsea’s structure was precisely how the default 4-2-3-1 is working. In transition from defence to midfield the double pivot staying deeper and relatively central, offering these additional passing angles but also allowing the front quartet to burst forward (pinning back the opposition back) and the fullback to step higher up and act as the link between the separate lines. During that period Lampard’s job was to support the build-up play, starting from passing the ball out from deep before stepping forward and taking part in another short give’s and go’s in and around the final third. Then once the team starts spreading the framework into its attacking shape the front quartet tries to overload the final third, with the fullbacks taking over the wide men to provide the attacking width. It was during that phase of play where Lampard (and additionally David Luiz) pushed on vertically to provide the additional numbers, often arriving unmarked from deep into the last third.
Lampard’s sudden forward runs breaking the lines from within the double pivot often added that additional direct attacking presence through the middle (with Luiz providing that third wave of runners from deep, effectively occupying the previous Lampard’s position and role in the build-up play). In the 19th minute it was that type of vertical run that broke down West Ham. Although in fairness a credit should go to Hazard’s brilliant chipped pass-cum-cross that simply put the ball on Lampard’s head to open the score with what was a terrific header. Not only this, but throughout the match Lampard’s run constantly provided that vertical stretching effect, resulting in him popping up in and around the box to finish the team’s attacks. Apart the opening goal he had three additional very good goal-scoring chances in the second half to not only score a hat-trick but eventually at least equalling Bobby Tambling’s record for 202 goals in Chelsea shirt.
Further forward Chelsea had the perfect blend of neat passing and dribbling capabilities, coupled with the physical presence and direct attacking presence. What was interesting though was Chelsea’s manager’s decision to start with Moses on the left and Hazard on the right flank. Wherever he plays, the Belgian is always inclined to pick up the ball and head infield. So the strange part was Benitez’ decision to play the Nigerian on the left, given he is predominantly using him on the right, but there was a logic behind that decision in as Moses would have been naturally coming inside on his stronger foot. As a result, this would have contributed to two in cutting wide players and two overlapping fullbacks down the flanks for Chelsea. This provided the home team with the perfect blend and diversity down the flanks which was to complement the team’s whole game plan of overloading West Ham all over the pitch.
In the meantime, Demba Ba provided the direct attacking presence. Throughout the match he had four of five very good chances to score, but his finishing was awful, his shots were weak or simply Jaaskelainen would pull off a great save to deny him. So, although it could be said as the main finisher and the man expected to deliver the goals, Ba largely failed, his general presence was a major benefit for his team. His ability to play with his back to goal, drop deep or pull wide and join the build-up play before turning back and heading into the penalty area was a great help to the overall Chelsea’s strategy. He forced the centre-backs to keep and eye on him, often creating space for the rest of the attacking players to sneak into promising goal-scoring positions.
Still, it was the duo of Mata and Hazard that were the main reason for the whole strategy to work so effectively. Their constant roaming, interchanging and general looking for each other provided the biggest spark. They both had the mobility coupled with passing and dribbling skills to bypass the opponents on their own (Hazard was the most prolific dribbler in the game with 6 out of 10 successful take-ons, Mata was third with 2 out of 4). But the key aspect in their game was their overly obvious intentions from both players to constantly combine with each other and use each other as an outlet.
The game started with Hazard on the right constantly looking to move infield on and off the ball, while Mata showed bias towards drifting to the right flank before cutting in on his stronger foot. This resulted in the duo constantly being close to each other, able to relate and interchange with each other on and off the ball. The passing combinations between them were not a surprise and was the most prolific in the whole games by a distance and quite possibly set a record for passes between two players for a match. Throughout the game Hazard and Moses were swapped. First in the 25 minute, then at the start of the second half when the wide men were back in their starting positions. Then when Oscar replaced Moses in the 70th minute Hazard once again was put on the left flank with the Brazilian on the right. But even with these switches the duo of Mata and Hazard always found ways to combine with each other, even given Mata continued to drift predominantly to the right flank.
The majority of Chelsea’s possession was geared up towards them, using them as the prime playmakers – the players who were expected to set the tone and lead the way how to use quick and sharp short passes, joining in passing triangles and overloading the zones all over the pitch for Chelsea to push forward. The fact both players were the ‘ busiest’ players was telling. They were top players in the following aspects: receiving and passing the ball; attacking third passes; take-ons and chances created; with Hazard topping the table for most shots on target (4 out of 5) in the game. This perfectly illustrates their general influence and how almost everything circulated around the two of them.
All of this was crucial in that it served to show the way how West Ham’s physical advantage could be easily bypassed and eventually be a completely redundant feature in the visitors’ arsenal. This was the thing that unlocked the general fluidity on and off the ball, which eventually led to Chelsea’s strategy and precise way of spreading their shape in attack proved so successful in overloading West Ham all over the pitch.
On top of all of this add the fact Chelsea were doing it with the required intensity, accuracy and cohesion and it’s not a surprise that there were periods in the game when West Ham just couldn’t stop Chelsea literately going past them. This was greatly helped by the fact that the home team was also a threat not only when build-up gradually from bottom to top. The nature of the Chelsea’s players, their technical expertise and resulted in ability to spring sudden attacks based on quick transitions with just a few touches on the ball. This approach was used whenever West Ham tried to commit more men forward, leaving more gaps in behind. So not only Chelsea were able to overrun West Ham when they were deep in their defensive shape, but as soon as the away team showed signs of being braver going forward, the home team quickly take advantage of the increased space and hit on the break.
An example of such counter-attacking move happened as early as in the 7th minute. In an situation West Ham tried to push forward Chelsea managed to steal the ball with only a couple of passes the ball reached Lampard in the centre of the pitch. He then sent a beautiful one-touch through ball for Ba to outpace Collins and go one on one against the keeper, but as noted above his finishing let him down badly as the shot was both weak and awfully lacking in accuracy.
If the opening 20 minutes were spent by Chelsea pilling forward, searching for a crucial opening goal, the period after the opening goal in the 19th minute revealed one of Benitez’ trademark in-game strategies after his team goes ahead in the score line. As soon as the goal came in, the home drastically changed their behaviour. They dropped the intensity and the directness of their passing, now focused more on ball retention. The cautious build-up play was presumably geared-up towards two main effects, with the first one being the patient passing designed to just knock the ball around and wait to calm the tempo and secure the possession. The players were now waiting for the opportunity to present itself rather trying to force the issue by pushing forward. The second was that by keeping the ball Chelsea indirectly ‘invited’ West Ham to come out of their shell in order to be dragged higher up the pitch and leave space for the home team to show cast their ability to counter attack deadly (as in the 7th minute). All of this lead to the players being much more concerned and thoughtful about the timing of their forward runs, cautious not to leave their zones too open and vulnerable on the break.
Although this rather passive behaviour from Chelsea ‘opened the can’ for West Ham to produce their best moments going forward (as noted at the start, the Carroll situation in the 26th and then Diame’s chance in the 41st minute) it was the home team the main benefactor. Not only Chelsea upped their possession dominance to 66%, but they were the more dangerous team going forward. In a few minutes spell between 35th and 39th minute Chelsea had two very good chances to score another goal and secure the win. Both situations came on the back of succession of passes in the final third, as West Ham was forced to make that needed lapses to open up a pocket of space for the killer pass to be made and release a player in goal-scoring position. The first one was Azpilicueta sending a low cross for Moses inside the box but his shot went just wide. Then it was Hazard feeding Mata on the verge of the area to again shot off target. It was the second situation that perfectly illustrated how valuable, even not being visible and overly shining, David Luiz was when he often stepped forward. Here he burst forward to help Cole overload the left flank before send a cut back to Hazard who then passed to Mata.
Then it was Ba’s turn to have two very good chances in a two minutes time towards the end of the half (42nd and 44th). Ultimately he missed them both, but they again showed Chelsea’s attacking flexibility and fluidity as for both chances it was Moses the creator and Ba the consumer.
Allardyce started the half making one change – Diame was replaced with Taylor. Although the shape seemingly was kept the same 4-4-1-1, there was two subtle tweaks apparent in the team’s behaviour. Without the ball the team started to defend with a 4-1-4-1 shape, presumably to offer more man-for-man cover against Chelsea’s 4-2-3-1. Taylor dropped deeper in the midfield four, while Collison and O’Neil rotated who to become the deepest midfielder. In possession Taylor sometimes drifted to the flanks, encouraging Vaz Te to move infield and be closer to Carroll, hence morphing the formation into 4-4-2ish.
Meanwhile Moses and Hazard returned to their starting positions – this proved to be a key change. In the 50th minute, following a throw-in and several passes between Mata, Hazard and Azpilicueta down the right flank, Mata send Hazard in a pocket of space created by the series of passes. From there the Belgian moved infield to open up an angle to shoot and score the crucial second goal. This largely undermined the rest of the clash as it was obvious West Ham were needing more than some heroics to stand a chance to even score a goal, let alone two.
Still, it was interesting how Chelsea handled the rest of the second half. As after the first half, Chelsea spent the next 15-20 minutes playing more cautious football. As in the first result this doesn’t mean the home team just dropped deep and started to time waste. They still were the dominant force, almost entirely controlling the proceeding on the pitch due to their confidence rising and the second goal made them playing without any potential nerves and pressure they could have been playing at 1-0. Although they had a couple of good chances, quickly after the goal, Chelsea spend the majority of the time just passing around the midfield zone without signs of turning into a rampaging mode and going to pursuit a big home win. The tempo quickly petered out as West Ham continue to stand-off deep in their half while Chelsea was reluctant to simply pile forward and risk needless mistakes on and off the ball.
This resulted in their least fruitful period in terms of threatening attacking moves and dangerous created chances. In fact, statistically speaking, West Ham had the higher number of registered created chances (four, against Chelsea’s three). But it was obvious West Ham’s attacks were rather sporadic and lacking intensity or conviction that they are really going to push forward and spend the rest of the half searching for a goal that might make the following minutes interesting and nervy for the home team.
Oscar’s introduction in the 70th minute, replacing Moses, served well in that it provided some much needed freshness to the overall feel of the game. This didn’t mean Chelsea suddenly started to push forward with the same intensity and purpose as before, but more often than not the long recycling process from deep after which the ball reached the final third resulted in the same creative attacking moves. Meanwhile West Ham’s body language started to resemble a feeling the game is already out of their reached, something that had negative impact in their overall efforts and importantly defensive concentration and ability to at least keep it tight at the back.
All of this resulted in the final period of 20 minutes turning out to be Chelsea’s best period in terms of created chances. For the whole first half the team created eight (all from open play though), while in the last 20 minutes the number was seven (with six of them being from open play). Not only this but these six open play chances were some of the best chances the team had in the whole match. Based on this it was a shame that the home players lacked that little bit more composure and concentration to score more goals during the period their initial hunger, fluidity on and off the ball returned and started to again threat West Ham massively.
In the 80th minute Allardyce went for a full-time 4-4-2 shape as Carlton Cole replaced Vaz Te with Taylor going on the right flank. It could be said this proved at least partly successful in that it was Cole who had West Ham’s best chance in the second half. In the 84th minute he receiving a cross from Jarvis (another good in-swinger from the left) and could have gone to score a simple tap in if it wasn’t for Cech’s sharp reflexes. But apart from that nothing else really changed and Chelsea won this game quite comfortably.
Expectedly Allardyce sent his team in the usual quite basic and rigid strategy and general tactical behaviour. So it was always going to be whether Benitez and his players would be able to offer the ‘right’ tactical medicine for that type of opposition to break them down.
As the match went on to prove that the home team had the perfect tactical platform to not only win the game, but tactically perform admirably. Benitez showed arguably the best template how to beat a typical British side, focused on sitting deep and hope the target men would do the rest on his own. The starting XI was brilliantly aligned with the general strategy to be able to overload the opposition all over the pitch and provide several attacking threats from different angles and a high defensive line to squeeze the space and pin back the opposition. Chelsea had overlapping fullbacks on both sides to provide the attacking width allowing the wide men to move infield and join the central duo from the front quartet to flood the space between the lines and cause havoc in the final third.This was all topped off with the capable ball-playing defender able to carry the ball forward and provide additional bodies in the centre of the pitch and from time to time in the final third. When all of this on theory complementing aspects and detailed patterns of play are pulled from the required quality players, and unified within the suitable strategy, it is always going to be too hard for the overly rigid team to contain all that fluid attacking waves coming at them.