LONDON — It took until the last minute of the 90 to break West Ham United‘s resolve on Sunday. But after what felt at times like a preseason game of attack vs. defence, Christian Pulisic swept 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.
Such is the situation at Chelsea that they couldn’t even rely on an 85th-minute penalty from spot-kick expert Jorginho to give them the lead. There was the familiarity of the delayed run, the hop and skip, but in a moment symptomatic of Chelsea’s current situation, Jorginho’s effort was tame and straight down the throat of goalkeeper Lukasz Fabianski. Those once reliable staples of the Thomas Tuchel era were becoming increasingly unfamiliar.
But then normality was restored as Pulisic — part of a 75th-minute trio of substitutions alongside Romelu Lukaku and Hakim Ziyech — scored from inside the area to grab victory in this 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 got the impression he struggled, energy-wise [after the international break],” coach Tuchel said of Pulisic’s recent lack of game time. “I’m happy with the effort today and he had the chance to make this huge impact. It was super important.”
This was a case of job done for Chelsea. Having conceded 11 goals in three home games and losing all three on the bounce, Chelsea badly needed a win to get this stadium hopping, with all the empty seats a stark reminder of the restrictions this club finds itself working under. The victory came off the back of a week in which it transpired that their best centre-back, Antonio Rudiger, is set to leave and Tuchel was left bemoaning the state of the pitch while the battle for the ownership of the club showed no sign of finishing anytime soon.
Tuchel looked to be wearing the strain. 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 the middle of the pitch, and another move broke down. Meanwhile the West Ham supporters were singing “Stamford Bridge is falling down, poor old Chelsea!” This match was reminiscent of their victory over Newcastle United back in March. Just like today, Chelsea failed to muster a single shot on goal in the first half before grabbing a late 1-0 win in that game, too.
It took Chelsea 56 minutes to manage their first shot on target, and that came from a deflected N’Golo Kante effort. Three minutes later, Tuchel, who in his programme notes had called for his team to cut out the errors which dogged their 4-2 defeat to Arsenal last week, got to his feet for the first time, having previously stayed subdued on the touchline. But as the game became increasingly fractured, Tuchel made his substitutions and started patrolling the touchline in his usual fashion. He began springing off his seat sporadically, usually gesticulating to his own players, or reacting in feigning disbelief at a decision.
The first half was a dire affair, with Chelsea’s indecisiveness in the final third preventing them from any clear-cut chances. West Ham — who made six changes with more than half an eye on Thursday’s Europa League semifinal first leg against Eintracht Frankfurt — sat back and waited to counter. They played a 5-4-1 with the likes of Declan Rice, Michail Antonio and Jarrod Bowen all on the bench. Chelsea tried and tried to break them down, but their diagonal balls fell limply past the far post and West Ham blocked anything and everything thrown at them. The second half was going a similar way until Tuchel showed his hand with a quarter of an hour remaining, and his triple substitution changed the match.
The irony is this fixture looked tailor-made for Lukaku to start. Chelsea needed his presence to hold the ball up in front of that defensive wall and to create the space for others. That’s exactly what he did when he came on by playing off the shoulder of the centre-backs, causing mischief and then drawing the penalty which Jorginho missed. Chelsea continued their waves of attacks, and finally one of those cuts in from the byline from Alonso — who was superb throughout — and a ball across the six-yard box found a man in blue rather than a West Ham defender. Pulisic’s finish was precise, down to Fabianski’s left-hand side, and Stamford Bridge let out a huge exhale.
Chelsea’s Christian Pulisic scored the latest game-winning goal of his Chelsea career to snatch a late victory over West Ham. Chloe Knott – Danehouse/Getty Images
“Today it was due to uncertainty — uncertainty of the last results,” Tuchel said of the result after the match. “Games like West Ham, it is 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 accelerate, it was a bit stuck in the first half. We grew into it. We never lost discipline, or patience. We understand situations better when to accelerate and created more chances and got the late winner.”
Though they will insist to the contrary, it must be getting increasingly hard to ignore the off-field uncertainty engulfing the club. With three bids remaining, there is no indication of the Raine Group in charge of recommending a preferred future owner doing so anytime soon. Standing in the Shed End was Lord Sebastian Coe, part of Sir Martin Broughton’s consortium, and he saw a Chelsea team that started this season as title contenders but now looks set for a summer rebuild.
“We wish for it, but we have to live with it,” Tuchel said on the prospect of an imminent takeover. “We cannot make the grass grow quicker. We try to focus on what we can influence and smoothly the next match.”
Chelsea’s defending has been much maligned recently but, bar a couple of moments slips in the first half, they did look more resolute. They had to manage Andreas Christensen‘s late withdrawal due to a stomach bug and centre-backs Trevoh Chalobah — the late replacement, who recovered well from a first-half slip — Thiago Silva and Cesar Azpilicueta limited West Ham to one decent chance, which Andriy Yarmolenko hit straight at Edouard Mendy.
Tuchel will be relieved to have stopped the rot at home. With the FA Cup final still to come, this season can finish with a silverware-tinted glow, but he’ll be fully aware that one result won’t completely change the slight unease at the club. Stamford Bridge was quiet until that late surge of attacks on West Ham’s goal but for all the unfamiliarity and uncertainty at the club, this brought a brief period of calm as Chelsea look to finish this turbulent season on a high note.