thumbnail Hello,'s 'Tactical View' looks at how West Ham manager Sam Allardyce outsmarted Chelsea interim manager Rafael Benitez, albeit with some luck involved.

Akarsh Sharma
Analysis | Premier League Follow on

“You’re getting sacked in the morning” echoed around the Boleyn Ground on Saturday and even the away supporters chipped in with their voices. “No, I am not 100% [sure]”, admitted Chelsea interim manager Rafael Benitez after the defeat, when asked if he was certain that he will last till the end of the season.

Chelsea’s axe-wielding and impatient owner Roman Abramovich had never seen his side beaten by West Ham. And for half of the match on Saturday, there were absolutely no signs that he would. After successive goalless draws that were devoid of creativity, attacking flair and ambition, Rafael Benitez’ Chelsea seemed to have finally struck the right balance in the opening exchanges at Upton Park.

Benitez had made four changes from the mid-week snooze fest at Stamford Bridge. Gary Cahill partnered Branislav Ivanovic in the centre of defence, replacing the suspended David Luiz. Ryan Bertrand, Oriol Romeu and Oscar made way for Victor Moses, Juan Mata and Job Obi Mikel.

Chelsea’s 4-2-3-1 against Fulham, which had a defensive inclination (especially on the left with Ryan Bertrand) to it, gave way to a more fluid and attack-friendly one against West Ham. From the front six that lacked ambition against Manchester City a week before, only Moses (instead of Oscar) was a new introduction.

But Juan Mata, who had played a slightly withdrawn role against the league champions at home and hadn’t started against Fulham, was given a lot more freedom to express himself and in a more central role (as shown in Fig 1). It paid immediate dividends as Mata dictated terms in the first half, scoring one goal and nearly doubling the goals tally but for a fantastic save by Hammers goalkeeper Jussi Jääskeläinen.

Fig 1. Approximate average positions of
Juan Mata against Man City and West Ham

In fact, Chelsea’s attacking midfield trio switched positions between them with great effect to cause havoc in West Ham’s defensive set up. During Mata’s opener, Moses was on the right, Hazard on the left and Mata himself came through the middle. When Moses fluffed a wonderful chance, he was in the centre, Mata had drifted right and Hazard was on the left. And when the Hammers keeper denied Mata before half time, Moses had created the chance from the left, while Hazard was in the centre and Mata drifted in unmarked from the right. The switching was constant and seamless.

Moses’ selection over Oscar was justified. His ability to carry the ball and drive in with pace towards the West Ham defence was causing plenty of problems for the home side. In addition to that, he was capable of playing in all three positions with great effect which is something Oscar doesn’t offer.

In the centre of West Ham’s midfield, James Tomkins and Mark Noble – both more defense-minded than attack-minded – were unable to cope with the continuous movement of Chelsea’s front four. They had neither the physicality nor the ability to do enough with the ball to seize control from the opposition.

Instead, both of them sat back and invited pressure which allowed the Chelsea players to run at them. Even Gary O’Neil, West Ham’s right winger, was too occupied defending his goal to think about attacking.

Because West Ham were always on the back foot in the first half, Carlton Cole had little to no runners when he received the ball. He was forced to drop deep to collect the ball and build attacks but was unsuccessful in doing so, primarily because West Ham are usually set up to be more direct.

Sam Allardyce, to his immense credit, made two half-time changes that altered the direction of the game. Matthew Taylor, primarily a full-back but often used as a winger, replaced the ineffective Gary O’Neil on the right. James Tomkins was replaced by a more attacking central midfielder in Mohammed Diame.

Substitute Mohamed Diame had massive impact in the second half

There is no doubt that Rafa’s general mentality of protecting a lead also played a role in the second half turnaround, but Allardyce’s substitutions immediately put the Hammers on the front foot after the interval.

The Hammers manager admitted after the match that Diame was only rested because he was fatigued. The Senegalese midfielder was relentless in pressing high up the pitch, a perfect example of which was when he hurried Ashley Cole into a misplaced pass that led to West Ham’s third deep into stoppage time. He also drove at Chelsea’s defence, almost Yaya Toure like, with pace and power.

Allardyce’s substitutions gradually forced Chelsea deeper into their own half, which was ideal for West Ham to play long balls into more dangerous positions. This was evident in Diame’s goal when Cole was being marked by Mikel, who was deeper than Chelsea’s centre-backs. Since there was an overall shift of play in favour of West Ham, they had more men bombing forward and thus, more players running off Cole.

Second half substitute Mohammed Diame made 5 tackles, higher than any other player on the pitch, and most of his tackles were made high up the pitch. In comparison, Tomkins had made only 3 tackles in his defensive half when Chelsea were running riot. Matthew Taylor, the other of West Ham’s second half substitutes, crossed the ball on 11 occasions compared to Gary O’Neil’s 1 solitary cross. Both substitutes were much more advanced and adventurous than the men they replaced (as shown in Fig 2 below).

Fig 2. Approximate average positions of West Ham players vs. Chelsea,
indicating how advanced the two substitutes (Diame & Taylor) were 
compared to the men they replaced (Tomkins & O'Neil) 

Benitez waited till the 73rd minute to make his first substitution, which was perhaps too long but the Spaniard has never been one for early substitutions. He introduced Oscar in place of Hazard, who had another disappointing outing - exposed defensively by Matt Jarvis in the second half and not clinical enough in the first. Six minutes later, Marko Marin replaced Victor Moses.

Not too surprisingly, these substitutions did not have much of an effect on the game since they were more to do with introducing fresh legs than to alter anything tactically. Perhaps, on another day with another club, Benitez would’ve brought on Romeu in the centre and shifted Ramires to help out on the right.

But Benitez desperately needed a win. Had his players finished off his chances and had Mata’s free-kick sneaked in off the post, he may have achieved that elusive win. For now though, his Chelsea record reads winless in three – two goalless draws and an embarrassing defeat.

What’s worse for him, on a person level, is that Allardyce outsmarted him tactically. Considering the animosity between the two, that must’ve hurt even more.

Could Benitez have reacted better to West Ham's substitutions? Leave your comments below or discuss with the writer on twitter @Akarsh_Official

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