Chelsea’s visit to the London Stadium to play West Ham United on Monday won’t be their first trip to the ground since its opening.
At the end of October, the Hammers beat Antonio Conte’s side 2-1 in the EFL Cup, one of the rare Chelsea blips in form from the end of September until after Christmas.
In the league, though, Chelsea have been almost immaculate. The 3-4-3 formation adopted at half time in their 3-0 defeat to Arsenal has been the catalyst for a tyrannical machine the rest of the league has been unable to stop.
Recently, a draw away to Burnley certainly wasn’t the end of the world: Sean Dyche’s side have a stunning home record, and Chelsea didn’t need to go for broke to win anyway. Their home victory over Swansea was helped somewhat by a poor piece of goalkeeping from Lukasz Fabianski, but win they did. In the end, they managed four points from those games whilst not playing well, but there have been rare glimpses of chinks in the armour lately.
It might be wishful thinking, of course, but defeat to West Ham on Monday evening could leave Antonio Conte’s side only five points ahead of Manchester City should they win their game in hand. With both City and Manchester United still to play, Chelsea have ample opportunity to drop the points necessary for Pep Guardiola’s side to triumph this season – even if it would take a monumental effort on their part. The title race can still take an interesting twist.
There are still a lot of ifs and buts surrounding, yet there is one area where there is no doubt that Chelsea are weakest, and it is where West Ham will look to take advantage tonight. It’s also an area where they look best-placed to do so.
Since Tottenham Hotspur beat Chelsea back in January, it’s been noted that Conte’s side are at their weakest in the channel between Cesar Azpilicueta, on the right side of the back three, and Victor Moses, at right wing-back.
The pair’s unfamiliarity with their positions may be a factor. Moses isn’t a defender by trade, though Azpilicueta’s skill set as a full back means he’s adept at covering. Altogether, they probably have the skills to get away with it. What they don’t have between them, though, is height.
As Tottenham proved, diagonal balls over the top of Azpilicueta and behind Moses cause Chelsea problems, and the fact that Dele Alli was able to steal in twice to score headers proved their lack of aerial ability. Although Gary Cahill and David Luiz are adept under the high ball, Azpilicueta and Moses could be the weak link: especially against a team with a fit Andy Carroll.
It is both ironic and – if you’re of a West Ham persuasion – frankly depressing that Slaven Bilic spent all summer looking to bring in a top quality striker even though a fit and healthy Carroll is one of the most effective strikers in the Premier League. The problem is keeping him fit. And as Bilic said himself earlier in the season, he can no longer count on his striker.
That’s a shame, though, because on his day Carroll can be unplayable. Whether or not you enjoy the style of play that is necessary in order to get the most out of him is one thing, but he is undeniably very good at it. His ability to find mismatches on a football pitch is impressive, and you’ll often find him peeling off towards the full-back in order to create a much easier aerial duel for himself.
If Carroll is fit to play – as we expect – and if Chelsea don’t watch him closely, he’ll be jumping with Azpilicueta as often as he can. And if Conte’s side have been weak in one area all season, it’s that one.
The title race isn’t over yet, despite Chelsea’s lead at the top. There is enough time for the pack to claw the leaders back, and Manchester City are starting to look peerless in attack. Chelsea, on the other hand, are starting to wobble just the slightest bit.
In the end, City are probably too weak in defence to win the Premier League this season. But with some big games still to come, Chelsea won’t want to put themselves under too much undue pressure. And if there’s one player in the division who can take advantage of their biggest weakness this season, it’s Andy Carroll. Perhaps it’s just sheer dumb luck that they face the Hammers the one time he’s fit.