Friday, October 7, 2022

Chelsea substitutes lead comeback over West Ham, but holes remain for Thomas Tuchel’s men

It looked like another disappointing result was on the way for the Blues but Ben Chilwell sparked a comeback for a 2-1 victory over West Ham United. American Christian Pulisic started the match after almost leaving Stamford Bridge during the transfer window, but it was substitute Kai Havertz whose star shined brightest of the attackers. Playing their third game in seven days, it was a stale start to the match before an electric finish saw West Ham falter with a little help from VAR. 

West Ham’s equalizer called back for a dubious foul on Chelsea keeper Edouard Mendy. The apparent foul was flagged when Jarrod Bowen’s trailing leg grazed Mendy as the West Ham attacker hurdled the keeper after Mendy went to ground to win the ball. 

West Ham’s Declan Rice took to Twitter to express his displeasure after the match. Rice tweeted, “That’s up there with one of the worst VAR decisions made since it’s come into the game. Shambles.”  He’s not wrong. The contact was minimal and Mendy put himself in a position where contact was expected as he went to ground directly in front of Bowen who was running full speed. Rice could earn himself a fine due to his comments, but it will be interesting to see if another apology is given like earlier in the season when Chelsea found themselves on the other side of the equation when Tottenham’s Cristian Romero wasn’t called for a foul when pulling Marc Cucurella’s hair on a late Harry Kane equalizer.

As for the rest of the match, Pulisic’s inclusion in the starting lineup seemed like a positive change but he was unable to impact the game, only taking one shot. In his first significant playing time of the season, this wasn’t the type of performance that will convince Thomas Tuchel to play him more. Conor Gallagher similarly struggled in midfield his return from suspension with an anonymous performance. The duo were withdrawn in the 60th minute for Armando Broja and Mason Mount, but it was West Ham that took advantage of the confusion that ensued. Following a corner kick, Michail Antonio bundled the ball across the line after Declan Rice tapped it back across the face of goal. It was an ugly chaotic goal and Chelsea’s inability to clear their lines showed more of the defensive issues that the Blues have experienced this season. 

But Ben Chilwell road to the rescue and may have won his starting spot back after entering for Marc Cucurella in the 72nd minute and immediately scoring before, only four minutes later, assisting Havertz’s first goal of the season to put Chelsea ahead.

From there, officiating took center stage as Maxwel Cornet put the ball in the back of the net in the 89th minute but the equalizer was called back after a VAR review. Chelsea keeper Edouard Mendy went to the ground, going for and winning the ball off of Jarrod Bowen, whose trailing leg grazed Mendy as he hurdled the prone keeper. The contact was minimal but the result was large for West Ham as it was the difference between one point and no points.

It’s a situation where both players were going for the ball but it seems a lot to ask of Bowen to get out of the way and avoid contact as Mendy’s dive takes him between the attackers moving legs. Going to a review things look worse in slow motion and Mendy doing the smart thing and staying on the ground sold the call.

While Chelsea secured all three points, the game was close to going the other way as the cracks still showed. In fact, by expeted goals visiting West Ham had the best of it with 1.07 to Chelsea’s 0.83, even though the hosts had eight shots to the Hammers’ six. With shots obviously in high demand, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang will help the issue after joining from Barcelona on deadline day but the ball progression issues in midfield are harder to fix.

Tuchel can be more aggressive when N’Golo Kante is healthy, but without him, Chelsea’s other deadline day signing Denis Zakaria has a big hole to fill. It was too easy for West Ham to go down the center of the pitch which is the space that Zakaria will need to protect when he comes in. He will be a more conservative passer than Kante, but if he’s alongside Chilwell, Chelsea shouldn’t have issues linking up with the attacking three.

There isn’t much time for Tuchel to determine his best lineup, but after Saturday’s match, it likely doesn’t include Pulisic. He’ll need to fight when he gets more minutes off the bench likely alongside Gallagher as the team needs to gel with the top four race in the Premier League already shaping up to be a tight one in the early going of the season.

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