By Thomas Tuchel’s own admission, Chelsea were fortunate to gain all three points on Wednesday evening against a much improved Watford, writes Stephen Tudor.
With a reconfigured midfield consisting of an entirely ineffectual Saul Niguez as well as Ruben Loftus-Cheek, who gave away possession leading to the Hornets’ equaliser, the Blues muddled through, relying on the basic math from their winning formula.
To what extent this performance has any bearing on their all-London affair with West Ham at the weekend remains to be seen. Early last week Chelsea fired four past Juventus in a brilliant display of front-foot football, then racked up 24 attempts when hosting Manchester United. The Red Devils successfully frustrated them, but it further detached Tuchel’s side from their reputation for being ultra-conservative, prioritizing defence at every turn.
A league average of 2.3 goals per game is testament to that, as were the two adventurous deconstructions of Juventus and Leicester three days earlier. In Chelsea’s concluding 14 league fixtures of last term, they scored 18. In their first 14 of this season, they have converted 33. If that makes Tuchel a cautious coach who overly-favours solidity, just imagine if he ever took off the handbrake.
Although West Ham are enjoying a Premier League peak, they have still conceded twice on four occasions at home this season. The Blues are -104 to score over 1.5 at the London Stadium. So, the current table-toppers headed to Vicarage Road in fine fettle and, keeping with the positive vibes, isn’t it a well-established trait of a champion-elect to nick a win on a rare off day?
Still, we return to that midfield, one that will see Jorginho return to it on Saturday and that’s important as facing the Italian will be Declan Rice, who is already a near certainty for this season’s PFA Team of the Year. The absences of N’Golo Kante and Mateo Kovacic, however, mean this is an area where David Moyes will seek to gain a foothold. If it’s not an outright weakness for the visitors, it’s certainly a chink in their armour.
N’Golo Kante: 5th in the Ballon d’Or
Jorginho: 3rd in the Ballon d’Or
Chelsea: 2021 Club of the Year
What a run for Chelsea ???? pic.twitter.com/EhXMKM1rGW
— B/R Football (@brfootball) November 29, 2021
Elsewhere, Chelsea’s strengths are considerable, not least a defensive set-up that continues to defy normal convention. In 57% of their league encounters this season they have kept clean sheets, extending on a remarkable track record for shutouts that last year had them crowned European champions. Emmanuel Dennis’ clever finish midweek was the first time they have conceded in open play on their travels and this has resulted in supreme away form with 19 points from 21 accrued.
Up front meanwhile, the relative struggles of Romelu Lukaku intrigue even if injury and acclimatizing to new team-mates are significant factors. Throughout 2020/21, the prolific Belgian scored a goal every 118 minutes for Inter Milan but on his return to England that’s expanded to 210 minutes. To compensate for this, others are chipping in and plenty of them. There have been 15 different Chelsea goalscorers in the Premier League before we’ve even reached the midway point of this campaign and no other team have a greater variety.
Mason Mount has rediscovered his scoring boots of late. The England star is +325 to notch anytime on Saturday. All told then this is a formidable task for the Hammers, one made harder by a recent down-turn in results, if not performances. David Moyes’ men can count themselves unlucky not to have bested Brighton midweek, creating several decent opportunities on route to a 1-1 draw, but that still means they are winless in three, after putting together a string of victories that propelled them into the top four. Counter-balancing this is the big picture, for this is West Ham’s joint best-ever start to a Premier League season at this juncture.
It is an impressive feat built on teamwork and work-rate and all those other hoary Moyes stereotypes but elevated substantially by a front three who pose a constant threat, sharing 16 goals between them. Of this trio it is the prospect of Michail Antonio coming up against Antonio Rudiger that tantalizes the most, but look out too for Pablo Fornals scheming around the Hammers’ chief goal source. The criminally under-rated Spaniard has scored twice and made two assists in his last five games.
Both teams proudly prop up the disciplinary table in 2021/22, with the fewest yellow cards. Under 2.5 cards is +185. And should Fornals somehow bedevil a Chelsea rearguard that seems impervious to such follies expect it to happen late on because until Tomas Soucek’s early opener on Wednesday, West Ham had made a habit of scoring in the second period of games, with a noteworthy 70.8% of their league haul this term converted beyond the 45th minute. That’s a figure that surpasses coincidence.
Chelsea too, typically wear sides down and it’s telling that in their last six games they have scored nine in the last half an hour, with opponents jaded from their excellence and, yes Tuchel cynics, their sense of adventure.