International week is over, and that means a return to club football after 11 days. With the World Cup qualification process finished and November’s friendlies over, players return to club matters, and Chelsea take a trip to their exotic neighbors to the east, West Ham at Upton Park. Chelsea will be looking to improve on their lack of success away from home, while West Ham will be looking to collect their second major scalp of the season, having beaten Tottenham 3-0 a month ago.
Jose Mourinho has been taking his time off well, complaining about apologies from refs and commenting about only having four players to train for the 11 days of international break, but he’s also acknowledged the need for the Blues to improve away to home. The Blues have already lost two matches away to Newcastle and Everton and drawn to Manchester United and Tottenham and will need to limit those losses if they are to contend for the Premier League.
Things won’t be made any easier with travel of the players for international duty, the recurrence of Ashley Cole’s rib injury, and the adductor muscle problem that Fernando Torres has yet to recover from. Cole is expected to play, though I wouldn’t be surprised to see Cesar Azpilicueta deputise for Cole with an important match against Basel on the horizon, and Samuel Eto’o, fresh off the back of Cameroon’s qualification for World Cup 2014, will most likely start in attack.
Sam Allardyce has only one new injury concern in Razvan Rat picking up a hamstring injury with Romania, but aside from that, he will have a full-strength side from which to pick. His bigger concern, however, is the continued absence of Andy Carroll from the Hammer’s team sheet, especially given the miniscule 9 goals that have been scored by the Hammers this season. They will also be looking to stop the run of form that they’re on that has seen them pick up just 5 points from their last 5 matches.
How fit will this Chelsea squad be?
The biggest question going into this match won’t necessarily be what West Ham can do, but how jaded do the Chelsea side that are picked to play appear to be? As Jose said, only four players were around to train, meaning the rest of the squad was out on international duty. For a club with expectations to challenge for the title, this is nothing new or unusual. The unusual part is that a large number of players have been asked by their countries to fly to places such as Canada and South Africa to play in friendlies.
Given the number of miles the Chelsea squad has covered at club level this past year, tacking on extra miles for internationals can’t be easy, and it will be interesting to see how the squad looks, especially since the Brazil team just played Wednesday in Canada. The team could be forgiven for being a bit tired, but with the away form of Chelsea and coming off the back of a draw to West Brom and defeat to Newcastle, this team can’t afford to drop more points.
Now to West Ham and a Big Sam coached team.
Allardyce’s teams are always fun to analyse, particularly because of the longstanding notion that his teams simply play route one football and lump the ball up the striker while defending deep and parking the bus. For me, that has never been the case, and I think Allardyce is a much more astute tactician than most give him credit.
The one thing you can expect from West Ham in this match is to be disruptive. Allardyce likes his team to be organized, but to harry you the entire time. They will take chances to win the ball, but usually only in gambling in the passing lanes and usually with cover in behind. You will often see them press the man with the ball but with others looking for the errant pass to capitalise from the mistake.
From there, his team’s are very good on the counter and will try to exploit space behind and do so quickly. That doesn’t mean lump the ball forward, but usually means to play the ball quickly out to the wings to take advantage of the fact that the opposition fullbacks have to come forward to aid in chance creation.
That’s the big concern when playing Allardyce-coached sides. They counter very quickly and get chances from the transitions, and they also deny you time and space on the ball in an effort to capitalise from the opposition’s passing errors.
This season, Allardyce has been clever in setting his team up without a striker.
The big development for West Ham this season is playing with a 4-6-0 formation in the absence of a fit out-and-out striker. Allardyce generally deploys a target man who can play a pass as a lone center forward, as he likes the idea of the big forward as and out ball for the midfield when they win it and a triggerman for the counter. The problems is that without Andy Carroll and without Carlton Cole having any level of fitness after sitting on the couch all summer without a team, he’s been left very short of any of the type of strikers that he likes. Most of his forwards are quicker types who are better as second strikers or playing out wide.
However, since those forwards don’t often defend, this season he’s taken to playing Matt Jarvis, Stewart Downing, and Ravel Morrison to be those counter attacking players, usually with the striker playing the popular nomenclature of false 9.
The idea from West Ham is to get Morrison making late runs through gaps that appear from the center forward coming deep and for the midfield to act as the trigger for the counterattack. It has worked against some sides, but against teams that don’t push their center backs forward and concede the striker the deep space, they can’t initiate that counter, and that’s where their lack of goals occurs. Normally, the big striker occupies the center backs and makes them play. A false 9 can be ignored in favor of conceding wide space, especially with counterattacking teams, and if the wingers have no one to aim for, no goals are scored.
The biggest danger comes from the midfield and Morrison.
The biggest concern for the Chelsea side is the skill of the midfield and the pace of Morrison on the counter. The one thing you can say about Mark Noble and Kevin Nolan is that they are both multifaceted players and perfect for an Allardyce system. Both are very intelligent at reading the game, can win the ball in the tackle, and are both very underrated when it comes to passing the ball. If you don’t have a target man as the out ball, then the midfield must pick out passes via the diagonal ball with great intelligence, and both have done that very well. The real problem for West Ham is that they don’t have goal scorers to get on the end of the chances.
Enter Ravel Morrison, who’s begun to deliver on all the promise that Sir Alex Ferguson saw before his off-the-field antics saw his focus waver. What he has done is introduce an element of pace, especially with the run from deep beyond the man who’s playing striker. However, he is more of a wide man than an out-and-out goal scorer and ideally would be playing wide and looking to exploit the space and cut inside. The lack of Andy Carroll has meant that they’ve had to be creative with making chances, and that was something that worked against Tottenham. However, you must watch his runs because as we’ve seen, he has the pace and skill to make any team a bit nervous at the back.
So how do you attack West Ham?
There are two methods to playing West Ham. The first is the Manchester City route where you set out to attack with pace early. West Ham are like a good test cricket batsman. You want to attack him early and dismiss him before he can get comfortable. Otherwise, you’ll be hard pressed to get him out later. What City did well was put them under a lot of pressure defensively and get an early goal before they could get comfortable in the match. Allardyce’s teams will give you early openings while they’re getting settled in, and if you take them, you force them to have to play, which gives you more space later.
The second option is to be patient, move the ball quickly and intelligently, and wait for the spaces to open. Because West Ham are so effective on the counter, you do have to worry about that as the match progresses, but they can’t initiate the counter if you don’t make passing errors. The other fact is that they don’t have a lot of pace in their midfield or their defence and their back line tend to play as a four-man unit on the edge of the 18-yard box. You can exploit that lack of pace if you can get in between the lines, which admittedly is hard to do given the amount of ball pressure that his teams skillfully apply.
The bottom line is that no matter which approach you choose, you must take the chances that are presented to you. Allardyce teams will give you only a few chances in a match, with one or two coming in the early stages. If you can’t score until the second half, they become very difficult to break down simply because they’ve settled in with the rhythm of the match. Score early, and the lines become more stretched, especially at Upton Park, as West Ham try to peg back and earn some sort of points.