Given West Ham‘s dire recent form, many would have been surprised that Manuel Pellegrini was afforded the opportunity to still be in charge of the Hammers for Saturday’s clash with Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. Winless in their last seven league appearances which have predominantly been against teams which would have been viewed as “lesser” opposition when the fixture list was published, all was set for an intense battle against their west London rivals. Chelsea, on the other hand, have enjoyed a positive start to the season, earning their new manager the Premier League Manager of the Month award for October following a month of perfect results.
A West Ham side with their manager’s job under serious pressure, against their old foe Frank Lampard in the opposite dugout, Saturday’s encounter was lined up to be a tasty affair. This tactical analysis will break down key elements of both sides tactics and explain some of the match’s most important moments in the Hammers’ 1-0 win over Chelsea.
Under pressure and underachieving, it was time for Pellegrini to make a few significant changes to his starting eleven and the tactics in which they were to be deployed. First choice goalkeeper Łukasz Fabiański managed a league ratio of one goal every 72 minutes prior to his thigh injury against Bournemouth which then saw Roberto Jiménez deputise in his place. The former Benfica and Málaga keeper has faced massive criticism from the West Ham faithful following a series of errors and has conceded on average every 42 minutes. It was, therefore, time for 33-year-old David Martin to make his Premier League debut in circumstances not even he would have imagined when he signed as a third choice keeper on a free transfer, having struggled to make an impact for Millwall. Elsewhere Fabián Balbuena came in for the suspended Issa Diop whilst Michail Antonio started up front in the place of Sébastien Haller in a 4-4-1-1 formation.
Lampard opted to line up the home side in the same formation which he played in during his finest years at Stamford Bridge, a 4-2-3-1. Top scorer Tammy Abraham was unavailable following a hip injury in midweek against Valencia which gave Olivier Giroud a rare start. Club captain César Azpilacueta and N’Golo Kanté had to settle for places on the bench in what was a much more youthful lineup than their visitors.
West Ham’s deep-lying defence
Having preferred the more defensively astute Aaron Cresswell ahead of the attacking-minded Arthur Masuaku, West Ham displayed signs of real defensive compactness when out of possession. On multiple occasions throughout both halves, West Ham’s back four often became a back six, with both full-back’s tucking in to form a narrow defensive block extended by two backtracking wingers in Robert Snodgrass and Pablo Fornals. In the image below, West Ham kept eight outfielders behind the ball, closing off any realistic outlet for a through-ball and forcing a shot from distance.
West Ham were wary of the creativity and vision of Chelsea’s midfield so sought to overload their attacking options and force them to play out wide. In this earlier passage of play, the back four and wingers retreated into their defensive third whilst Mark Noble and Declan Rice shared the responsibilities of pressing the ball. Мeanwhile the others held the shape of the second line of West Ham’s defence.
This proved to be a major improvement on West Ham’s defensive efforts in recent outings as Chelsea struggled to create clear-cut chances through the middle.
Chelsea’s wingers unable to capitalise on the break’s in West Ham’s defence
On the occasion in which West Ham’s wide defensive players either lapsed in concentration or were drawn out of position, Chelsea’s wingers were alert and ready to exploit the space generated in the final third. Early in the second half, both Ryan Fredericks and Balbuena decided to put pressure on Jorginho and relinquish their otherwise solid defensive duties inviting Christian Pulisic to run in behind the defence in the hope of lining up a shot.
Fortunately for West Ham, Fredericks had been selected over 34-year-old Pablo Zabaleta and he managed to utilise his excellent acceleration to sprint back and make a last-ditch tackle to take the ball out for a corner, much to the relief of Martin in goal.
Likewise, in the closing few minutes Jorginho’s replacement Kanté drives the ball towards the West Ham centre-halves, causing Angelo Ogbonna to come out of the defensive shape and close him down. This then caused Cresswell at fullback to indecisively shift to the right so as to close the gap left by Ogbonna at the centre. Again, Chelsea’s wingers were alert to the space created in West Ham’s defensive line, enabling Kanté to thread a ball into the path of Pulisic who was entering into the penalty area from his right-sided role.
Unfortunately, Chelsea were left to rue another missed opportunity as he was unable to hit the target. The look on his face after the shot went wide illustrated his frustration at failing to get Chelsea back into the game in a manner in which his predecessor Eden Hazard did on many an occasion from that distance.
Chelsea had likely watched clips of West Ham’s recent performances when their defenders were enticed into pressing the ball and thus leaving holes in their backline for wide strikers to exploit. On Saturday however, the visitors’ defence was atypical of their recent displays and such errors were more sporadic. This meant that despite Chelsea’s wingers’ alertness, they were not afforded enough of these breaks to convert an opportunity.
When a lone striker drifts out wide…
Another one of Pellegrini’s bold decisions was to start Michail Antonio upfront as a lone central striker. The vast majority of his West Ham career has been played on the right side of a four-man midfield or three-man attack, so to have him lead the line instead of record signing Haller was an interesting approach, to say the least. Unsurprisingly for someone with his playing style, he was often found adopting wide positions. This often left West Ham with a lack of obvious options to play the ball into the middle as Anderson was also prone to drifting wide when on the attack. Instead, the pair used intelligent combinations of runs from both deep and wide to generate space for each other against Chelsea’s back four.
As shown in this opportunity halfway through the first half, Antonio takes up a position out wide in the hope that he can try and get in behind the Chelsea full-backs to potentially play a one-two with Anderson.
Similarly, in the image below, a long ball is played forward to Anderson who is tightly marked on the right side of the attack. Antonio is slightly further forward and being eagerly followed by Tomori.
Both players do well to split their runs, with Antonio assuming the right-sided role and dragging Tomori wide with him. This creates space for Anderson to shift into a more central role and drive into Chelsea’s final third with a large and expanding space between Tomori and his central defensive partner Kurt Zouma.
The intelligent link-up play between Anderson and Antonio was of added importance given West Ham’s tactics dictated their wingers to not both take particularly high stances in fear of being exposed by a Chelsea counter-attack.
Antonio’s commendable work-rate
Antonio, in particular, should receive praise for some of his off-ball movement which displayed the effects which long, diagonal runs can have on opposition defences. In the passage of play below, the attack begins with Antonio in a wide right position and with Tomori following close behind.
Rather than try and receive the ball, he instead acknowledges that he is positioned in Snodgrass’ channel and so alters the trajectory of his run to create space out wide. By drifting into his central role later on in the attack rather than during its inception, it leaves Tomori to make a decision on whether or not to track him. Being forced into a difficult decision on which attacker to follow whilst sprinting at full speed and with a limited view can often lead to defensive errors.
Once Antonio arrives into the final third, space is created in front of Snodgrass to receive the ball from Anderson in the attacking shape which Pellegrini had intended. Upon analysis, whilst Antonio did only manage one shot on target, his effort and work-rate in the opposition half was commendable in what was otherwise a particularly defensive approach by West Ham.
Ultimately, a 0-1 away victory was a surprising result for all parties. A few impactful tweaks in the team by Pellegrini brought a more compact and solid defensive structure, enhanced by the wingers’ willingness to track back and defend. Chelsea will be frustrated at not being able to capitalise on the 66% of possession which brought them 15 shots. Although they sometimes cut isolated figures up front, the work-rate of Antonio and Anderson caused Chelsea’s defence to be alert if not worried. West Ham’s approach to stubbornly force Chelsea out wide was executed admirably, keeping a first clean sheet in over two months and giving the Martin family a fairytale afternoon to remember.