LONDON — It took until the last minute of the 1990s to break West Ham United’s resolve on Sunday. But after what at times looked like an attack vs defense pre-season game, Christian Pulisic brought home Marcos Alonso’s cross to give Chelsea three Premier League points with a 1-0 win at Stamford Bridge and to temporarily lift the engulfing uncertainty around the club.
The situation at Chelsea is such that they couldn’t even count on an 85th-minute penalty from kicking expert Jorginho to give them the lead. There was the familiarity of the delayed run, leap and jump, but in a moment symptomatic of Chelsea’s current situation, Jorginho’s effort was tamed and straight down the throat of goalkeeper Lukasz Fabianski. These once-reliable staples of the Thomas Tuchel era were becoming less and less familiar.
But then normality was restored when Pulisic – part of a trio of 75th-minute substitutions alongside Romelu Lukaku and Hakim Ziyech – scored from inside the box to claim victory in that London derby. Tuchel’s game management had paid off, just. It left 10-man West Ham deflated after a heroic defensive display, having lost Craig Dawson to a red card for bringing down Romelu Lukaku and conceding that missed penalty.
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“I had the impression that he was struggling, energetically [after the international break]”Coach Tuchel said of Pulisic’s recent lack of playing time. “I’m happy with the effort today and he was lucky to have that huge impact. It was super important.”
It was a case of work done for Chelsea. After conceding 11 goals in three home games and losing all three on the rebound, Chelsea badly needed a win to blow this stadium up, with all the empty seats a stark reminder of the restrictions this club find themselves working under. . The win came after a week in which it appeared their best centre-back Antonio Rudiger was set to leave and Tuchel was left bemoaning the state of the pitch as the battle for ownership of the club showed no signs of ending anytime soon.
Tuchel looked like he was carrying the stump. It took less than 90 seconds of the second half for Tuchel to hide his head in his hands. Timo Werner had misplaced a pass in midfield, and another move failed. Meanwhile, West Ham supporters chanted “Stamford Bridge is falling apart, poor old Chelsea!” This match recalled their victory over Newcastle United in March. Just like today, Chelsea failed to muster a single shot on goal in the first half before earning a late 1-0 win in that game as well.
It took Chelsea 56 minutes to get their first shot on target, and it came from a deflected effort from N’Golo Kante. Three minutes later, Tuchel, who in his program notes had called on his team to eliminate the mistakes that led to their 4-2 loss to Arsenal last week, rose to his feet for the first time, after keeping a low profile on the sideline. But as the game became more and more fractured, Tuchel made his substitutions and began patrolling the touchline in his usual fashion. He started jumping out of his seat sporadically, usually gesturing at his own players or reacting with feigned disbelief at a decision.
The first half was a disastrous affair, with Chelsea’s indecision in the final third preventing them from any clear chance. West Ham – who made six changes with more than half an eye in Thursday’s Europa League semi-final first leg tie against Eintracht Frankfurt – sat and waited to counter. They played a 5-4-1 with Declan Rice, Michail Antonio and Jarrod Bowen all on the bench. Chelsea tried and tried to break them up, but their diagonal balls fell limply beyond the far post and West Ham blocked anything thrown at them. The second half played out similarly until Tuchel showed his hand with fifteen minutes to go, and his triple substitution changed the game.
The irony is that this fixture seemed tailor-made for Lukaku to begin with. Chelsea needed his presence to hold the ball in front of that defensive wall and create space for the others. That’s exactly what he did when he came in playing over the shoulder of the centre-backs, causing some mischief and then taking the penalty which Jorginho missed. Chelsea continued their attacking waves, and eventually one of those cuts from Alonso’s line – which was superb throughout – and a ball through the penalty area found a man in blue rather than a West Ham defender. Pulisic’s arrival was precise, down to Fabianski’s left side, and Stamford Bridge let out a huge exhalation.
“Today was due to the uncertainty – the uncertainty of the last results,” Tuchel said of the result after the match. “Games like West Ham, it’s hard to have a spectacular open game against them. They defend with eight or nine players deep around the box. It’s hard to find spaces to step up, it was a bit stuck in the first half We grew We never lost discipline or patience We understand situations better when to step up and create more chances and get the late winner.
Although they insist otherwise, it must be increasingly difficult to ignore the off-pitch uncertainty that pervades the club. With three offers remaining, there is no indication that the Raine Group responsible for recommending a future preferred owner will do so anytime soon. Lord Sebastian Coe, who was part of Sir Martin Broughton’s Consortium, stood in the Shed End, and he saw a Chelsea side who started this season as title contenders but now look set for a summer rebuild .
“We want it, but we have to live with it,” Tuchel said of the prospect of an impending takeover. “We can’t make the grass grow any faster. We try to focus on what we can influence and smooth the next game.”
Chelsea’s defense has been much maligned recently but, just moments into the first half, they seemed more resolute. They had to deal with the late withdrawal of Andreas Christensen with a stomach bug and centre-backs Trevoh Chalobah – the late substitute, who recovered well from a first-half slip – Thiago Silva and Cesar Azpilicueta limited West Ham to a decent chance, which Andriy Yarmolenko hit straight on Edouard Mendy.
Tuchel will be relieved to have stopped the rot at home. With the FA Cup final still to come, this season may end with a glimmer of silverware, but he will be fully aware that a result will not completely change the slight unease at the club. Stamford Bridge were calm until this flurry of late attacks on West Ham’s goal, but despite all the unfamiliarity and uncertainty at the club, it has brought a brief period of calm as Chelsea look to end this turbulent season on a good note.