Alan O’Brien Follow @alanob2112
Statistics can be misleading. Jorginho’s 180-pass haul in this stalemate, a Premier League record, prompted plaudits from all corners of social media. West Ham United risked ridicule by gifting the ex-Napoli playmaker his freedom. But there was method to the Hammers’ madness. And, in the end, they were all the better for it.
Last week’s victory at Goodison Park was a watershed moment in Manuel Pellegrini’s London Stadium tenure. In an admission that a possession-based style was anathema to the players at his disposal, the Chilean instead opted for a compact, counterattacking style. Gung-ho Everton were duly torn apart.
The visit of Maurizio Sarri’s equally attack-minded Chelsea, therefore, required no adjustment. Save, that is, for the need to account for Marko Arnautovic’s unfortunate absence. Ruled out by a knee injury, the Austrian missed the chance to reprise his December heroics, when he settled this fixture and handed David Moyes his first win.
Arnautovic became Moyes’ first-choice striker from then on. But the man who played up top throughout that 1-0 win, Michail Antonio, would be his deputy here — much to the chagrin of David Luiz, who struggled with the 28-year-old’s hulking presence.
Alas for the Hammers, however, Antonio is not possessing of Arnautovic’s significant technical prowess. Teed up twice by a pair of breathtaking fast-breaks, the auxiliary striker fluffed his lines on both occasions. Chelsea’s full-backs, like Everton’s before them, left their centre-backs exposed. And West Ham’s pacey wide double-act, comprised of Felipe Anderson and Andriy Yarmolenko, was primed to take full advantage. Only Antonio’s finishing, and one marvelous Kepa save, let them down.
Paucity of penetration
Chelsea, meanwhile, were not finding chance-creation so easy to come by. Keeping the ball until an opportunity to play a killer vertical pass arises is a key component of Sarri’s philosophy. But the sheer compactness of West Ham’s defensive unit, particularly from side-to-side, rendered such line-breaking penetration unlikely.
Central to West Ham’s success in this regard was the performance of Mark Noble. Fielded again to Declan Rice’s right, in Eden Hazard territory, the Hammers captain had a big test on his hands. Luckily for the home crowd, however, Noble passed with flying colours, completing five tackles in the first-half alone. Hazard completed only one of four attempted dribbles, losing the ball a total of seven times. So unsuccessful were Chelsea’s left-wing forays — another keystone in the ‘Sarri-ball’ doctrine — that the Blues felt compelled to plough a right-wing furrow instead after half-time.
Switches-of-play to that right-flank were, after all, Chelsea’s only chink of attacking light in a frustrating first-half. Willian, the standout four days prior at PAOK, sparkled again, providing his side with a much-needed out-ball. Ably assisted by Cesar Azpilicueta’s overlaps, the Brazilian could have bagged an assist just before the break. The 30-year-old volleyed a Hazard switch-of-play back into the area, but N’Golo Kanté couldn’t direct his header on target.
The folly of employing Kanté, the world’s best number-six, as a number-eight was hard to overlook here. The Frenchman snatched at another Willian cross with ten minutes to go, too. And although he deserves credit for the timing of his late runs into the box, the midfield dynamo is clearly unsuited to a more advanced role. Confronted with a compact claret-and-blue wall, Kanté struggled to offer his teammates a passing option — often popping up on the right-touchline to no good end. Mateo Kovacic, although more effectual, was similarly crowded out. Only Jorginho had space and time.
Admittedly, the Italian international’s freedom, paired with Pellegrini’s customarily high defensive line, did pose an occasional threat to parity. Olivier Giroud should have done better with one lofted Jorginho through-pass on 22 minutes. And, deep in second-half injury time, Willian blazed another wide when substitute Alvaro Morata was better placed. But in the main, despite his monopolisation of the football, Jorginho was more of a minus than a plus for his side.
This quick Hammers frontline is, of course, tailor-made to evade the Sarri’s counterpress. But Jorginho, the supposed last line of protection for his centre-backs, proved particularly poor at arresting West Ham attacks. Two second-half instances particularly come to mind: the lazy manner in which he allowed Yarmolenko to cut inside and shoot on 50 minutes; and the equally pathetic attempt to stop Robert Snodgrass’ back-post cross to Yarmolenko. The Ukranian should have scored and grabbed all three points for his side. Jorginho, not for the first time, was off the hook.
Thou shalt not pass
Snodgrass’ introduction, on the left as a conventional winger, was a new departure from Pellegrini, who usually prefers to play with two inverted widemen. But it worked for West Ham, pinning back Azpilicueta whose more frequent second-half advances hinted at impending doom.
In truth, however, the hosts defended their left-side just as well as they had their right, with Pedro Obiang picking up where Noble left off. As far as those half-spaces go, it was very much a case of ‘thou shalt not pass’ for Chelsea. Especially with interception-machine Declan Rice patrolling laterally, and instigating West Ham’s breaks with some eye-catching distribution.
Behind Rice, however, problems still persist for West Ham. Despite another commanding performance from Fabien Balbuena, Pellegrini’s side proved indifferent at defending their own penalty-area. Chelsea created five shooting chances from set-pieces, for example, including the corner-kick from which a free Luiz should have nodded them ahead. Only a point-blank save from the brilliant Lukasz Fabianski prevented Morata from cashing in on another corner of the short variety.
West Ham’s offside trap had failed them again, as it did in the passage-of-play that preceded the corner, when a Willian through-ball sent Hazard to the byline. Diop cleared the Belgian’s cut-back behind, summing up an outing the player Sarri deemed “the best in Europe” will want to quickly forget. And that’s all down to West Ham, who stymied ‘Sarri-ball’ brilliantly. They move on to seek the scalp of José Mourinho’s far-less-fluid Manchester United, who visit the London Stadium next weekend. And on the basis of this performance, who would bet against them?
Follow the author, Alan O’Brien, on Twitter: Follow @alanob2112