Silencing the Hammers

By Justin Weible
Mar 17th, 2013

There’s an interesting buzz to this particular tie on Sunday, as Chelsea take on West Ham at Stamford Bridge in a classic London derby. Given the results at Goodison Park and at the Liberty Stadium, the Blues will know that the gap between 3rd and 6th is narrowing very slowly. A victory will do wonders to stem the tide. However, it must come against a West Ham side that beat the Blues 3-1 in their earlier meeting.

Chelsea come into this match, at least, full of confidence, which is more than you can say for West Ham. The Hammers enter this contest on the back of a scrappy 1-0 win against Stoke, but the performance wasn’t terribly convincing and it was just the third win for West Ham in this calendar year.

However, these London derbies are always tricky ones to navigate, and you can imagine that the East London side would love to do the double over the Blues this season. With an international break looming, momentum could be key for either side, especially given the fixture congestion that awaits Chelsea on the other side of the break.

The Blues should be boosted by the absence of Kevin Nolan in the center of midfield.
In the second half of the first meeting, one of the keys became the space that was afforded in the center of the park. With a couple key subs from Sam Allardyce, he was able to create more space in the center for Nolan to begin to pick out forward passes, and Mohamed Diame and Carlton Cole were now able to find space between the center backs to work.

The fact that the creation of space for Nolan made such a profound change will be on the mind of Rafa Benitez, but the positive is that Nolan will most likely not be fit to play. In that West Ham side, he and Joe Cole are the only two central players with the vision and ability to dictate the attack and create from the midfield. Without Nolan, the options in midfield are to play Diame in a deeper role or play Matthew Taylor in midfield.

Neither option presents the same amount of influence or creativity that Nolan is able to give you.

Coupled with the Nolan injury, there will be no Stamford Bridge return for Joe Cole.
Cole is expected to miss the match with a tweak to his hamstring. In a way, it’s sad that he won’t get to return to a ground that was so good to him. In another way, it’s good because he’s the other member of that West Ham side that can create chances through the middle.

In fact, despite his age and possibly fading skills, he still remains one of the best creators in the Premier League on talent alone, and to not have him and Nolan will hurt West Ham in terms of trying to play football.

The positive for them is that they will probably look to play a much more direct style.

Beware of Andy Carroll.
If there’s one player that has managed to give Chelsea fits in the Premier League over the last few years, it’s been Andy Carroll. From Cup finals and semifinals with Liverpool over the last years, Carroll has shown Drogba-esque flashes of brilliance where on his day, his pace, power, and skill are impossible to play.

However, he may be looking around and wondering who’s there to support him. Without Nolan and Cole, the creativity and variety of service to Carroll isn’t quite there. Expect instead to see the Big Sam route-one style with Diame in midfield to try to support Carroll with forward runs.

If you isolate Carroll from the midfield, the chances of stopping him become better, but that becomes the question. Whoever plays in the holding positions must be more disciplined and track the runs of Diame to isolate him up front,

The big question is, will Rafa Benitez resist the urge to rotate?
That is the million dollar question, if only because there’s a chance for him to name his strongest 11 in this match with an international break coming up. My personal opinion is that it’s becoming about time that you cannot leave out Juan Mata, Eden Hazard, or Oscar for the simple fact that they are so much better in quality than the men who will replace them.

The positive for the Rafa Rotation policy is that he does have a two-week break for those who were not called up for internationals, and most of those who have don’t have to travel far. Given the position in the table, it would behoove Mr. Benitez to try to go for all three points rather than rotate the squad. But that’s obviously his decision to make.

Fernando Torres or Demba Ba?
This is an interesting debate that I’ve been having for the last few weeks. Whether a popular opinion or not, my belief is that right now, Torres, despite his goals, is a better fit for what the team wants to do creatively than Ba at the moment.

While I think Demba Ba’s one of the best finishers I’ve seen this season, lone strikers are not just all about finishing, especially against a side like West Ham that will sit deep. Against these types of opponents, your striker must be able to use his movement not only to create chances for himself, but to also create spaces for others.

Outside of Chelsea, I don’t think anything illustrates that point better than Barcelona/Milan last week. The addition of David Villa and his ability to play centrally and occupy the center backs through the middle gave Lionel Messi more space than he did in the first leg where he had Philippe Mexes glued to him.

In Chelsea terms, the one thing I’ve been disappointed about Ba is his inability to control the ball when played to his feet and the defender on his back and his desire to look to run in behind through the channels at every opportunity. I think we saw a bit of those deficiencies last week against United. Rio Ferdinand was able to nick the ball off of him often when the ball was played into his feet, such that he couldn’t pick out the runners from midfield, and the only effective service came from crosses into a crowded box.

That’s basically what we can expect from West Ham, and I believe that Torres is much better at positioning himself in areas where he can make space for Hazard, Oscar, and Mata to move into. Confidence-wise, he’s not where Demba Ba is, and it shows, but I think against teams that are going to sit deep, Torres is just a bit better option as I think he gives you more variety in his play and movement.

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