This was one of those afternoons when, for Chelsea and Thomas Tuchel, any win would do. They duly got it despite a laboured performance and now that their extravagant transfer business has been completed they can feel justified in plugging the line that the season starts here.
The most slow-burning of affairs ended in near-chaos and with West Ham fuming at the disallowing of what seemed a perfectly good equaliser from Maxwel Cornet.
Kai Havertz had only just put Chelsea ahead, volleying in smartly at the near post after a fine cross from fellow substitute Ben Chilwell, when Édouard Mendy dived in to clear at the feet of Jarrod Bowen. The keeper could only knock into the path of Cornet, who finished emphatically.
West Ham celebrated but their joy was curtailed when Andrew Madley was summoned to his monitor. VAR had correctly spotted that in his follow-through Bowen clipped Mendy but the contact was slight and, in any case, the ball had already squirted several yards away and Mendy’s chances of correcting his error were slim.
The goal looked good, even when slowed down to the kind of speed that warps too many decisions, but Madley opted to chalk it off and West Ham were rightly incensed.
“It was a ridiculously bad decision,” said David Moyes, who went to see Madley afterwards. “I don’t want an explanation from them as it would have been a tough one to give. I don’t think anyone could justify that.”
Moyes saved the majority of his ire for Jarred Gillett, the VAR official. “The sad thing is this is the level of our elite refereeing at the moment,” he said. “I’ve lost faith in them after that.
I’m more embarrassed for the guy on VAR than for the referee, because that tells me it’s someone who doesn’t understand football and probably shouldn’t be anywhere near it if that’s enough to send the referee to the screen.”
Unsurprisingly Tuchel disagreed. “My opinion is very clear, it’s a foul,” he said, before raking up the perceived injustice Chelsea suffered against Spurs three weeks ago.
He also said Mendy, who stayed down after the incident and was accused by Moyes of play-acting, had been in considerable pain and would be a doubt for Tuesday’s Champions League tie against Dinamo Zagreb.
Before the outrage a football match had taken place, although not much of one until Michael Antonio capitalised on another Mendy ricket to score.
West Ham had started to come out of their shells after containing Chelsea with some comfort for an hour. Mendy saved a Bowen volley but flapped at the resulting corner after the ball had looped up off Lucas Paquetá’s shoulder. Declan Rice turned it back across for Antonio and, given the poverty of their showing, it was scant surprise Chelsea had been caught out.
They had been told to toughen up by Tuchel after defeat at Southampton but that appeared to be at the cost of anything off-the-cuff or instinctive. Raheem Sterling tried his best to offer an element of surprise but the main talking point before half-time was the evident composure, albeit under infrequent examination, of £75m signing Wesley Fofana on his debut.
Watching from the executive seats, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang must have wondered where the chances he likes to gobble up might come from. When Chelsea finally created one, the source was unexpected. Chilwell had just been introduced along with Havertz when he won a header from Thiago Silva’s diagonal ball and reacted sharply to prod past an unconvincing Lukasz Fabianski.
There had been little cause for Fabianski to dirty his gloves before then but straight after Cornet had headed against a post he was retrieving the ball from his net again upon a decisive combination from Chelsea’s cavalry.
“We wanted to restart the season and today we did,” said Tuchel, who felt his players had allowed West Ham to slow proceedings down too readily earlier on.
By the end, the visitors were fully fired up. “That’s up there with the worst VAR decisions made since it’s come into the game. Shambles,” tweeted Declan Rice, yet to calm down an hour after the whistle. Chelsea did not care.