In a season thus far littered with particularly inconvenient international breaks, this most recent sojourn was the most welcome by far. The delight that came from seeing separate XIs defeat Manchester City and Arsenal over just 72 hours has long since been overridden by the frustration born of the following two maddeningly uninspiring performances against Newcastle and West Brom. Whilst on the face of things, the results bought with them very little negative consequence – with the solidity of our position in the table hardly a cause for concern – this opportunity to regroup and rethink I imagine would’ve been welcomed by Mourinho and the players, as they look to preclude any evolution towards the dire situations our winter league form has produced since 2010.
The scenario has long since gone past tedious. For three years now, as the mists and mellow fruitfulness of autumn in London is replaced by the bastard-cold of its winter, the rosy contingency of our prospects for the season becomes spoilt, due to our infuriating inability to win matches of league football around the turn of the year. Now, with only a handful of first team players knowledgeable of what it takes and feels like to win a Premier League – the level of efficiency with which we deal with our next four matches (against West Ham, Southampton, Sunderland and Stoke – all of whom we should be beating without difficulty) will give us an idea of how well equipped this squad is (in terms of mental fortitude and resilience) to compete for a league title, with their first opportunity to prove themselves on Saturday evening against West Ham.
It was the fixture that last December gave Rafael Benitez his first defeat at Chelsea, as he watched his new side carelessly throw away lead to end up losing pitifully. The memory of which should serve as a reminder not to underestimate Sam Allardyce’s side, but in truth, the game should be a much easier this year.
As they continue to struggle without Andy Carroll, West Ham are looking more aimless every week, with the manager (in their last game against Norwich) resorting to a 4-6-0 formation, ironically given his reputation as one of the most crudely direct coaches in the English game. The Irons ending up losing, throwing away a first half lead through the concession of sloppy fouls in and around the penalty area – evidence that the confidence and form of the players are issues for the East London side too, on top of the injury list and compulsory tactical compromises.
Allardyce acknowledged the short comings of team so far this year after that defeat: “Our points total is less than the games we have played, which is very, very dangerous,”. “We can’t keep saying that we are playing well but not getting results. We are paid to win. Everybody in this club is paid to win and we are not winning the games we should be winning.”
Whilst the striker-less formation made some sense for the hosts against Norwich, where the opportunity existed to dominate the midfield (as they did in the first half) that obviously won’t be the case on Saturday. I think almost certainly we’ll see Nolan moved back into his natural deeper midfield position to form a protective three in front of the back four, along with Mohammed Diame and Mark Noble – the same tactic which yielded West Ham’s shock 3-0 win at White Hart Lane. In the attacking positions, the talented Ravel Morrison represents his side’s biggest threat by a distance, whilst Stewart Downing probably remains ahead of Joe Cole in the pecking order.
As for ourselves, fortunately everybody it seems will return to London uninjured – giving Mourinho all of his usual selection ‘headaches’. I think David Luiz will probably come back into the side after being left out against Schalke and West Brom. Gary Cahill’s poor performance for England against Chile and subsequent omission from the XI to play Germany probably don’t help his chances of selection this weekend. At left back, Azpi has looked good since Cole’s disappointing game at St James’ Park though I think is unlikely to get a chance to play there long term, whilst Ivanovic, along with Ramires, it seems is all but un-droppable, in spite of his profound ineffectiveness moving forwards in recent matches.
In midfield, Frank Lampard’s poor current form seems to have been accepted and acknowledged by all now except Mourinho – of all the key players in the side, the 35 year old, along with Oscar are the most evidently in need of a rest and to be given more apparent competition for their place. Having been recalled to the Brazilian national team and scoring his first international goal this week, Willian has a good case for a starting spot – with Schurrle left out altogether at West Brom however, I think he might be rotated back in. Kevin De Bruyne meanwhile looks destined for a loan move in January, which is a shame though probably for the best. The young Belgian’s chances of progression this year or of staring in Brazil are looking slim if he chooses to stay at Chelsea, after some poor early season form has left him on the fringes.
Disappointingly, it looks like we might be in for more of the same of what we saw against Newcastle and West Brom, where we keep the ball extremely high up with the full backs constantly forward and the centre halves spread and with the wingers both playing quite narrowly. You can expect the West Ham midfield to squeeze as much space as possible between the lines to prevent Hazard and Mata having any space to work in. An early goal will be important to prevent the match becoming stale and frustrating, with the home side obviously prepared to sit back for 90 minutes and hit hopeful balls up towards the wingers and Carlton Cole. We need to make sure we’re moving the ball quicker, and taking more risks to prevent that from happening.
In spite of the evidence of the last two matches, I’ve got a feeling West Ham’s best attempts to frustrate us will fall well short however and I think we’ll seal the win in the first half. The prospect of a repeat of the previous three season-destroying winter periods has to be at the forefront of every player’s and Mourinho’s mind. Saturday is the first important step in making sure it doesn’t happen again.