West Ham United rode their luck a little with two of their goals against the league leaders, but injuries may be catching up with Chelsea.
Rumours of West Ham United’s decline may have been somewhat exaggerated. Over the course of a topsy-turvy Saturday lunchtime match against the Premier League leaders, they overcame losing a couple of players to injury to beat Chelsea on a day that Edouard Mendy will almost certainly want to forget.
For all the progress West Ham United have made over the last season and a half, there was a feeling that David Moyes still has work to do. They’re fourth in the Premier League, but their position had come to look increasingly shaky in recent weeks as Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United all showed signs of life below them. Theirs was the first match of the weekend; by the last, a failure to win here would have probably knocked them from that much-coveted Champions League qualification place.
West Ham went into this game on the back of a mini-slump, failing to win their last three matches, two of which were against teams – Wolves and Brighton – that they really should have been beating if they were serious about their ambition. But having said that, they didn’t play particular badly in any of these fixtures. They gave Manchester City a game, and there could be little accounting for Neal Maupay briefly and unexpectedly morphing into Zlatan.
Might they have been a little paying too much attention to the Europa League? They’re already through to the last 16 of that competition with a game to spare, but form started to dip and a couple of injuries hasn’t helped.
Ultimately, it’s a question of resources. Chelsea’s injury situation is far worse than West Ham’s. They’re missing Trevoh Chalobah, N’Golo Kante, Ben Chilwell and Mateo Kovacic, but they have plenty of cover. Romelu Lukaku, who cost them £97.5m in the summer, continued to warm the bench, alongside another eight household names. Small wonder they were so happy to see the rule increasing the number of substitutes being made permanent.
Early exchanges found West Ham largely pinned back into their own half, but Chelsea’s high press was coming at a cost. There were gaps at the back if West Ham could break, and Jarrod Bowen shot narrowly wide following a Thiago Silva mistake. Tomas Soucek flashed a header across the goal, while Reece James had a go at Lukasz Fabianski from distance and Kai Havertz shot into the side-netting from six yards.
Chelsea pushed and probed, but West Ham’s defensive positioning blocked them 35 yards from goal.
But after 29 minutes, Chelsea took the lead. All that absorption down the drain from a set-piece, a Silva header from a corner, with his marker Michail Antonio apparently otherwise engaged with his thoughts. West Ham tried to bite straight back, but Silva was having one of the most heroic 60 seconds of football we’ll see all season, and was in position behind Mendy to hack Vladimir Coufal’s low, angled drive away within seconds of the restart.
With five minutes of the half left to play, Chelsea offered West Ham a most unexpected lifeline when Jorginho’s lazy backpass was mis-controlled by Mendy, who then brought Bowen down as they tussled for the ball. Manuel Lanzini’s penalty kick sent Mendy the wrong way to bring the score level. On the touchline, Thomas Tuchel swiped at the bubbles released when the goal was scored, but the parity didn’t last for very long. Three minutes later, Mason Mount’s low volley beat Fabianski at his near post to restore Chelsea’s advantage.
Lukaku came on at half-time, but West Ham had reshuffled too, and 11 minutes in they were level again. Bowen’s curling low shot beat Mendy. It was the first time that Chelsea have conceded more than one goal in a Premier League game this season. Bowen turned out to be the outstanding player of the second half, a wiry, disruptive presence, linking up superbly with Antonio, who came out for the second half with more purpose than he’s shown for a little while. With 14 minutes left he stretched valiantly for a low cross that was just out of his reach, making contact with the ball, but ending up unable wrap his foot around it enough to guide it inside the post.
Chelsea were off colour for much of the second half. The decision to introduce Lukaku seemed to serve no particular purpose, and West Ham’s second-half comeback was completed with five minutes to play when Arthur Masuaku, who’d replaced the injured Ben Johnson in first-half stoppage-time, hit a cross which may been deflected. All available replay angles were inconclusive but it certainly caught Mendy out, sailing inside the near post as the keeper struggled to redistribute his weight, which had been positioned in preparation for a cross.
It’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that injuries are starting to bite for Chelsea. Their dropped points this season have usually been because of a curiously low-energy performance, but against West Ham they were more lackadaisical than usual. The penalty was conceded as a result of two defensive errors of judgement within five seconds; goalkeeper Mendy was completely flat-footed for the winning goal. And so tight are things at the top of the Premier League table that they could be down to third place in the table by the end of the weekend.
Chelsea looked, if anything, a little tired. They’ve also had a full schedule and were missing a substantial number of players to injury, and there’s little that Thomas Tuchel can do to mitigate the sort of individual errors that led to two of West Ham’s goals. With the catastrophic circumstances surrounding the penalty and whatever on earth happened to Masuaku’s cross to fool Mendy so much, West Ham rode their luck a little for this win. But their endeavours deserved it and although further injuries – this time to Johnson and Kurt Zouma – will give David Moyes a headache with the Christmas rush looming and the squad spread thin, they continue to defy those who have become persuaded that they are merely placeholders in fourth.