Edouard Mendy may become the scapegoat, after the goalkeeper’s uncharacteristic errors laid the groundwork for Chelsea’s downfall on Saturday, but there can be few illusions over the wider malaise of their defeat. Increasingly in recent weeks there has been a simmering frustration to Thomas Tuchel’s attack, a piston that, for all Chelsea’s relentless dominance, has slipped out of rhythm. It reared its head at Watford last week but, in the absence of any great flashes of imagination, they still found a way to grind their opponents into submission; a wave of pressure that swelled until finally the dam burst.
But on a bitterly cold afternoon, aside from Lukasz Fabianksi’s own questionable goalkeeping, for both Thiago Silva’s opener and Mason Mount’s sumptuous volley, there was nothing brittle about West Ham. There are many factors behind the success of David Moyes’s second spell in charge, but it has always been underlined by a staunch sense of resilience, the grit that’s become the foundation for a genuine assault on the top four. And so, after twice falling behind at the London Stadium, they refused to buckle.
There was of course a large element of fortune to their 3-2 victory, with Arthur Masuaku’s late cross appearing to take a wicked deflection off Ruben Loftus-Cheek and beating Mendy at the near post. And, perhaps, on the basis of plain statistics, it was not entirely deserved either. But that they were in a position to snatch victory at all was a testament to how West Ham fought tooth and nail and, at times, toe to toe with Chelsea – this was the first time this Premier League season that any team had scored more than one goal against Tuchel’s defence.
Much of that can still, admittedly, be attributed to Mendy’s errors. The goalkeeper’s clunky first touch was followed by a clumsier slide tackle that allowed Manuel Lanzini to equalise from the penalty spot. But West Ham’s second goal was a credit to their own incisiveness, in direct contrast to what Chelsea had lacked. Jarrod Bowen was a constant menace, and after he cut inside onto his left foot, there was no such hesitation before he lashed a low shot in at the near post. And from that moment onwards, although Chelsea still seized possession, and Callum Hudson-Odoi came off the bench and injected some impetus on the left, the match felt up for grabs.
Chelsea will look back on it as the game that exposed their subtle incoherencies both in midfield, where N’Golo Kante and Mateo Kovacic are sorely missed, as well as in attack. For long periods in the first half, they seemed listless after breaking into the final third, labouring under a strange lack of potency. They shuffled the ball from side to side, jabbing for an opening through West Ham’s relentlessly high guard, and when that failed, the ball would inevitably be played out wide to Reece James in hope that the full-back would again be the firework to expel a damp squib. Mount and Hakim Ziyech brought trickery and vision to unlock the tighter spaces but, even after Romelu Lukaku came on in the second half, there was always a lack of cutting edge.
It is hardly a catastrophe, but it was a setback that had slowly started to loom. Any giddiness about West Ham’s form has long faded away. They are a terrifically organised side, with an ingrained ruthless streak. It might have trembled a little as of late, but the fear that might have engulfed a fixture like this only a few years ago is now a figment of the imagination. They had shown that in victory over Liverpool here last month and, when Chelsea stuttered, they struck with urgency. It might feel like a sucker-punch for Tuchel, who grew increasingly infuriated as the game spiralled out of his control, but it can hardly be deemed a great shock either.