If Premier League football was a level playing field then you wouldn’t want to see your team playing at home on the wrong side of 28%-72% possession statistics. Although we are now well past the point of believing that possession is everything in football, that is a very one-sided scenario. But football is not a level playing field and, the occasional upset apart, success follows the money including the flip side that is the financial imperative of Premier League survival. Had the Hammers made a more convincing start to the season then maybe Pellegrini could have been more adventurous against Chelsea; but with his team firmly in the recovery position the ends of a hard won, well-earned point jsutified the means of a mostly backs-to-the-wall performance. Even so, the two clearest cut goal-scoring opportunities of the game fell to West Ham and, at the end, we were left imagining what might have been.
A look at the average position of the West Ham players during the game is quite telling. Although Pellegrini has always favoured a back four, the Hammers effectively played with a back five with Declan Rice rarely venturing into the opposition half except at set pieces. Rice had another very good game, as he had at Goodison the previous week, and showed a deft touch as well as intelligent distribution. The data also showed that, on average, Pedro Obiang took up a more advanced position than Felipe Anderson although both played relatively deep on the left hand side – not surprising as Chelsea did most of their attacking down the right wing. Cover for Pablo Zabaleta on the Hammer’s right was provided mainly by Andriy Yarmolenko. The result was that West Ham found it difficult to retain possession with too few players getting forward to mount constructive or sustained attacks. For those interested in statistics, the Hammer’s most accurate passers of the afternoon were surprisingly Issa Diop, Michail Antonio and Arthur Masuaku.
For what is normally a fiercely contested London derby the match was remarkably tame as far as boot flying intensity was concerned; the matter of no added first half minutes was testament to lack of physicality. There were a smattering of fouls but mainly of the niggly variety rather than the vicious or dangerous. Referee, Mike Dean, must have been most disappointed that he was not called upon to make any game changing decisions. In fairness, Dean performed very well with the anonymity preferred in a referee – particularly when ignoring Hazard’s blatant dive on the edge of the area in the first half. There was a period around the two Antonio first half chances that West Ham (and the crowd) got the bit between their collective teeth but otherwise it was more chess match than gladiatorial battle.
Another fine set of performances from Lukasz Fabianski, Fabian Balbuena and Diop with sterling support from Zabaleta in the back line. Their day was made somewhat easier by an apparent lack of ideas and enthusiasm from the opposition. Chelsea had put all their eggs into the Hazard and Willian baskets yet looked uncertain what to do with the ball once they got into dangerous positions and the West Ham defenders were able to clear their lines at will. It was a good lesson yesterday that defence is not just about the back four or five – but is something performed as a team. Everyone did their job in limiting Chelsea to speculative strikes and in the rare event they did break through, Fabianski was more than equal to the threat.
If yesterday was a good example of defending as a team it was a less impressive one of attacking as a team. We can maybe excuse the all-hands-to-the-pumps defending in the context of the match and the season but the team must be able to collectively do more when up against lesser sides. The more creative midfield players cannot have their effectiveness blunted by too great a burden of defensive responsibility; otherwise the front man ends up isolated chasing punts from the keeper. Yarmolenko did well to track back in support of Zabaleta and also find time to miss his sitter (a shame his head is not as sweet as his left foot). Anderson, on the other, needs to step up his contribution from cameo guest appearance to the leading man that his transfer fee demands. From an attacking viewpoint it was crystal clear how much the team rely on the absent Marko Arnautovic. If the Antonio and Yarmolenko opportunities had fallen to Arnie then we may have been celebrating a famous smash and grab victory. No matter it was a point well won, another encouraging performance and several steps in the right direction of mid-table security.