En route to 93 points and a Premier League title in 2016-17, Chelsea scored the first goal in 30 of its 38 league matches. It was a remarkable statistic, and one that was both result and cause of excellence. It was an emblem of the Blues’ tactical sharpness and consistency, but also a reason for their dominance. They were constructed to play with leads, and so often got to do just that.
But their title defense has followed a different script. Through 16 games of the current season, they’ve grabbed the opening goal just nine times. They’ve failed to score or conceded the opener seven times. The seventh, and third time in four games, was Saturday afternoon at the London Stadium.
It was West Ham 1, Chelsea 0, thanks to a superb sixth-minute strike from Marko Arnautovic.
It was then 85 minutes of Chelsea frustration. Of unsuccessful attempts to break down a stubborn and tenacious West Ham rearguard. A few late chances – missed chances – came and went. But for much of the match, they weren’t plentiful enough. Alvaro Morata fired just wide in the 83rd minute, spurning the visitors’ one clear sight at goal.
Antonio Conte’s side set up in its now-customary 3-5-2. But its three-man midfield, with N’Golo Kante as the single pivot and Cesc Fabregas and Tiemoue Bakayoko in front of him, aren’t necessarily equipped to break down a low block.
They are equipped to win an evenly balance battle, or to play with a lead, and they’ve had plenty of chances to do that this year. But they haven’t had enough. Certainly not as many as last year.
Conte shifted to a 3-4-3 after the break, and eventually swapped out both his wing-backs for more attacking-minded ones. The Blues were better after the break. But still, when Eden Hazard and Fabregas connected one-twos, and seemed to catch out over-eager West Ham defenders, or when Hazard ran onto layoffs from Morata, there was always another line of defense to beat. Always another line of defense to break up the move.
David Moyes’ West Ham replicated its first-half performance against Manchester City six days earlier. It played on the counter opportunistically, but not over-aggressively. It was far more coherent without either Javier Hernandez or Andy Carroll in the side. It funneled most Chelsea shots into non-dangerous areas, and clinched a massive win – Moyes’ first at the club.
Chelsea is now in danger of falling to 14 points back of Manchester City, if the league leaders can beat Manchester United in the derby on Sunday. It has fallen behind early against Burnley, Crystal Palace and now the Hammers, and been unable to recover on all three occasions.
Its regression is not just about game state, of course. It’s about an overall dip in form, an injury-induced lack of cohesion, and the resulting concession of those early goals. But because of Chelsea’s construction, and its comfort with a lead, the dip in form has snowballed into further troubles. And its title defense might already be over.
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