Last opening game of Premier League season featured two highly anticipated teams. “Chelsea Reloaded” with fresh blood, but above all, with tactical mastermind Antonio Conte. On the other side, if there was no Leicester miracle last season, Slave Bilić’s West Ham would be the story of the year. It was great tenure at Juventus where Conte was winning everything he could in Italy and exceptional run at EURO that made Conte world class tactics expert. EURO was particularly interesting as Conte missed semi finals on penalties with mediocre squad put into masterful tactical approach. Expectations and hopes are high for Chelsea and first match was highly anticipated. West Ham, on other hand, had a great season with Slaven Bilić and game against Chelsea was there to establish his foothold on new season. First quarter of an hour seemed like West Ham could play on even terms with Conte’s Chelsea, but after clock came to about 15th minute the tide turned.
Highly structured and coherent Chelsea team gave little room to West Ham who started losing balls, miss controlling passes and all the possession went over to Chelsea. In absence of Dmitri Payet, a man who can hold on to ball and look for that dangerous pass, West Ham relied more and more on long balls to their target man Andy Carroll. However, all the rebounds, second balls and challenges went Chelsea’s way and slowly they established dominance. At that point patterns started to emerge.
Conte obviously believes he has an extraordinary player in Eden Hazard. A man who is quick with the ball in his feet and can turn around any defender, winger who is equally capable of seeing a pass and executing it, a man who is able to create the difference on the pitch. To give him opportunity to have time and space on the ball in order to do what he does best, Conte ordered majority of attacks down left, Hazard’s side. To make his life easier, Chelsea manager shifted most of his players closer to him.
You can see above how left side of the pitch is crowded by four Chelsea players ready to receive the ball from Oscar. It is the set up that was seen again and again throughout the match. Conte is deliberately vacating the middle of the pitch to opposition, a thing he successfully employed in recent Italy campaigns at EURO.
Once the ball gets to left to Hazard, he has few options. Quick combination play with team mates, solo run or splitting pass to escape two wide opposition players and get on goal. However, if this doesn’t seem likely, Chelsea often opted for retaining possession, a novelty compared to Italy style during EURO.
Above is the diagram of Chelsea transition from defensive third into the middle third of the pitch. Runs from Ivanović and Willian are only a decoy while bulk of players shift to left to give support to Hazard. This move repeatedly troubled West Ham. Partly due to low work rate from Valencia who isn’t very keen on running after opposition to an extent where, by the end of first half, Bilić was forced to move more energetic Andy Carroll into his slot in order to disrupt the transition. Although it was repeated throughout the match, Chelsea didn’t hesitate to employ right side when occasion presented itself and both, Ivanović and Willian, did a great job on right.
Above you can see what happens when direct route to goal on left is closed off. There are four players attracted to Hazard and another two tied to West Ham’s right side leaving Oscar completely open in center of the pitch while Willian is waiting for a pass into deeper areas on right. While Conte isn’t obsessed with possession, he is still Italian and doesn’t push his full backs high. At this moment he is one nil up and he is content to keep organized and covered in case of counter attack. With Ivanović going inside to receive the ball from Hazard or maybe Oscar allowing his team to gradually progress up the pitch, instead of hugging the line and going forward immediately.
While Chelsea merited a goal from their combination play and smart possession, it was only a reckless mistake from Antonio who gave away the penalty at start of second half that allowed Chelsea to go ahead. From then on Ivanović stopped venturing forward so aggressively as he did in first half.
On the other hand, West Ham offered little in tactical sense. They were on the back foot throughout the game and were lacking aggression, decisiveness and compactness to take the ball away from their opponents. Their offensive play was significantly disturbed as Ayew had to go off with injury early on as he seemed to be a player with licence to roam around the pitch freely and connect the midfield to attack. After he was out, Tore didn’t fill the same role and West Ham relied mostly on long balls to Carroll.
Only in 70th minute when Payet comes on West Ham changes its shape and goes from 4-3-3 to 4-2-3-1 but French star changed little the fortune on the pitch, although it seems as West Ham got more confident on the ball with him on the pitch. They eventually equalised from set piece when Chelsea went desperate and shifts to 4-2-4 to get a goal minute before the fulltime.
In conclusion, the work of Conte can already be seen on the pitch. Weeks of pre-season paid off, ironically, it was mistake from opposition and a rather desperate, individual effort from Diego Costa that got them result. West Ham has a long year to prove that last season wasn’t a fluke. However, they showed little without Payet and Ayew on the pitch. Bilić can be content with his defensive shape when they are set up for zonal defending. However, they still lack the cohesion and teamwork needed to go into pressing and winning the ball from their opponents.