It’s Boxing Day and the start of the most testing period for all teams in the Premier League. Three matches in a week is a test for every team in the league, and it’s this period that usually begins to show the teams that are competing for top honours and the teams that may lack that bit of depth to stay out of the relegation spots. This season’s Boxing Day fixture for Chelsea is against a familiar London foe in West Ham.
It was last season that Jose Mourinho raised a few eyebrows when he commented that West Ham played “19th Century football” after a 0-0 draw in the corresponding fixture at Stamford Bridge. While that term might have been a bit harsh, Chelsea dominated the match, controlling 72% of the possession and taking 39 shots, though only 9 hit the target. Despite all that, the Hammers were able to hang on and had a chance to take the lead late with an Andy Carroll effort which was their only shot of the whole match.
However, this season’s tilt might be a bit of a different affair. While Mourinho has backtracked on his comment and praised Sam Allardyce for his side playing how they needed to play to get a result, it may also be an acknowledgement that last season’s West Ham side were fighting to not get sucked into a relegation battle, and this season’s squad is playing a brand of football that is far from being from the 19th century.
Last season, Allardyce’s decision to resort to a style that was more about disrupting an opponent’s style and making his side hard to play through can best be explained by his options up front. With Andy Carroll spending much of the season injured, his reserve striker Carlton Cole was left to lead the line with Ricardo Vaz Te as his backup. None of those two scream “pace and movement,” and that was something that his side lacked last season in the absence of Carroll, leading to a more pragmatic approach.
This season, West Ham look a lot different. Even with Carroll starting this season injured, Allardyce’s options from the bench look a lot better. Diafra Sakho and Enner Valencia have provided the movement and pace that Cole could not, and the addition of Mauro Zarate has given them a bit of creativity in behind the strikers. In addition, Stewart Downing has had a bit of a career renaissance this season by playing less as a winger and more like a number 10, and he’s added an extra dimension of guile. Combine all those factors with the arrival of much more mature Alexander Song and a change from a 4-5-1 to a 4-4-2 diamond, and you’ve got the recipe to play a more expansive brand of football.
That doesn’t mean that they’ve lost any steel in the midfield by switching to a more expansive system. Kevin Nolan and Mark Noble are very much still part of the side, and the additions of Aaron Cresswell and loanee Carl Jenkinson have solidified a fullback position that was a bit weak last year. Given the calls for Allardyce’s head by some of the West Ham supporters because of his style last season, Allardyce has proven how good he is as a manager by fixing many of the issues West Ham had last season.
For Jose Mourinho and Chelsea, they’re starting a period that’s important in terms of maintaining league position, with Manchester City just 3 points behind and with a much easier run of games over the next week. After the draw at Sunderland and loss to Newcastle, Chelsea have responded with back-to-back league wins over Hull City at home and over Stoke City on your typical wet, windy Monday night. That win wasn’t without one particular downside. After a bit of rough treatment in the match, Eden Hazard is a doubt for the match with an ankle issue, but the rest of the squad remains available for selection.
I can’t imagine, though, that Mourinho hasn’t had Sunday’s trip to St. Mary’s in the back of his mind and the injury issues that side have struggled with as of late. Expect Mourinho to field a strong side against the Hammers, if for no other reason but to start off this holiday period with a solid win in their only home fixture in this period and then adapt to the conditions for the next match away from home.