5 big talking points from Chelsea 2-1 West Ham: Conte, Kante and West Ham's record signing
Despite a new manager promising an altered outlook and a fresh start for last year’s surprise underachievers, Chelsea started their first game of the season with 10 players that have become mainstays at the London club. Only N’Golo Kante, signed in the summer from champions Leicester, made Antonio Conte’s starting XI.
West Ham boss Slaven Bilic handed full league debuts to newcomers Andre Ayew, Havard Nordtveit and Arthur Masuaku, with the mercurial Dimitri Payet deemed fit enough only for the bench following his exploits at Euro 2016 with France.
Chelsea went into Monday's encounter having not lost an opening league game for 18 years, while Conte hadn’t been defeated at club level in his previous 28 home games. However, with West Ham’s stellar performances in the last league season, combined with Chelsea courting drama for all the wrong reasons in 2015, this match was always going to be closer than this fixture had typically been over the past two decades.
1. Kante facilitates attacks out wide
Conte is asking Kante to undertake a more complex role than he did at Leicester
For all the plaudits Kante rightly won for his dogged, tireless performances in a Leicester shirt last season, perhaps the most noteworthy and impressive aspect of his role in Conte's opening day lineup was the manner in which he allowed full-backs Cesar Azpilicueta and Branislav Ivanovic to push higher up the pitch.
When Chelsea were in possession he would drop back between John Terry and Gary Cahill, picking up the ball from the more advanced Nemanja Matic and Oscar when no forward passes were available and subsequently seeking to restart the attack. Often this allowed Conte to adopt a 3-4-3 system, with the two full-backs backing up Eden Hazard and Willian in the attacking wide positions. Ivanovic, especially, looked impressive throughout the 90 minutes in part thanks to Kante's ability to step back into defence, and it was frequently him rather than Willian who sought to put West Ham's debut left-back Masuako under pressure.
Hazard, too, thrived whenever Azpilicueta was given licence to get forward and overload West Ham's right flank.
Clearly, Conte is asking Kante to undertake a more complex role here than he did at Leicester. The Frenchmen took to the increased responsibility with what looked like relative ease, although there is an argument to say that he should have seen a second yellow card after a reckless tackle on Payet during the game's closing stages.
2. Ayew injury makes Chelsea’s life easy
While Andre Ayew attempted just seven passes in the 35 minutes he managed before pulling up with a muscle injury, his presence in the West Ham lineup had a tangible and destructive impact on Chelsea's approach. The record signing, starting out wide right in an attacking 4-3-3 system, was frequently the visitors' most advanced player – he forced Azpilicueta to stay deeper than he would have liked and, resultantly, limiting the support offered to Hazard along the same flank.
However, things changed as soon as Ayew limped off. Gokhan Tore, his replacement, offered nothing like the same threat and Azpilicueta took this as ample encouragement to move up into a higher position, allowing him to link up more ably with Hazard and attack West Ham's box himself. It came as no surprise, then, when it was the Spaniard who won the penalty for his team early in the second half.
Looking at Azpilicueta's influence in the attacking third highlights just how detrimental Ayew's exit was for West Ham. With the Ghanaian on the pitch he achieved just one pass in attacking areas, but that ballooned to 15 thereafter.
Bilic will surely be worried with how easy it was for Chelsea to dominate that side of the pitch as soon as Ayew was forced off. New signing Sofiane Feghouli couldn't make the bench last night due to fitness concerns, but the former Valencia winger is the obvious answer when it comes to West Ham plugging holes in wide areas.
3. Still work for Conte in midfield
The central midfield pair of Matic and Oscar at times looked ponderous on the ball and without any real idea as to what their offensive role in the team was
Chelsea might have controlled the game and limited West Ham to a single credible shot on target (from which they scored), but there is still a lot of work to do done if Conte harbours genuine title challenge ambitions this term.
In particular, the central midfield pair of Matic and Oscar at times looked ponderous on the ball and they lacked idea as to what their offensive role in the team was. Given that Chelsea played with both full-backs and wingers in very advanced positions out wide, the central midfielders were always going to stick largely to the core of the pitch, but it was the lack of support they offered going forward that was surprising.
Other than Oscar's claim for a penalty, neither player put much emphasis on getting forward. This often isolated Diego Costa in attack and left the Brazil-born striker to fend for himself in an extremely physical battle with James Collins.
Conte opted for a midfield of energy as opposed to one of creativity, and the decision worked insofar as shutting down West Ham's attacks before they began. For Bilic's team, Mark Noble and new signing Nordtveit did very little to create chances ahead of them. To achieve a consistent stream of goals, though, a threat from the middle must be established in order to take some of the burden away from the wide players.
4. Is Carroll capable of leading West Ham’s attack?
Given how infrequently West Ham achieved possession in the Chelsea third, they can count themselves fortunate that they managed the one goal. Much of the blame for their lack of scoring threat came from Andy Carroll's inability to make an impact.
The striker didn't muster an effort and was forever on the losing side of the battle against Chelsea's defence. Particularly striking was his ineptitude in holding up play and giving his faster team-mates a chance to push up into dangerous positions. Plenty of passes were knocked up to him, and he won his fair share of aerial duels against Cahill and Terry in these situations (but not crosses), but Kante robbed him of possession whenever it looked as though he might be about to move the ball on.
With Ayew on one side of him and Enner Valencia on the other, it's vital that Carroll can get the ball under control and find a pass to either player so they can drive at defences on the counter. Carroll might well find the going a little easier when Payet comes back into the starting XI, as he'll have a more advanced midfielder to unload to quickly when under pressure, but the fact remains that Kante managed to nullify hims threat entirely.
5. Chelsea will be relying on Hazard
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Chelsea fans will be rubbing their hands together at Hazard's performance – the Belgian looked as though he is approaching the kind of form that made him so devastating in the Premier League in 2014/15.
The directness of his runs and passes went an enormous way to making up for Chelsea's inability to create chances through the middle, and it seems clear already that Conte is building his team around the talents of a player who disappointed so much last season.
One of Hazard's more outstanding areas of contribution was in defence, particularly in the first half when Ayew was on the field. His readiness to help Azpilicueta contain wide threats hints at a strengthening positional relationship between the two, the kind of which Willian and Ivanovic on the opposite side previously seemed to have.
Hazard's happiness to drop deeper also increased his attacking threat as it encouraged Michail Antonio, playing at right-back again for West Ham, to edge up higher. This provided plenty of running room behind the Englishman into which Hazard could open up and damage Bilic's side with his speed. Certainly, Hazard is one to watch again this year.