In the week that Chelsea completed a summer spending spree of £270million, how typical that it was two players once of the Stamford Bridge parish that played colossal roles in driving West Ham to what, but for a baffling VAR decision, would have been a deserved London derby draw.
Declan Rice was cut adrift as a 14-year-old, Kurt Zouma only two summers ago, and along with new signing Lucas Paqueta, that pair formed the spine of a team that, after a slow start to the campaign, is starting to look more like the one David Moyes must have been imagining when he embarked on an ambitious transfer window of his own.
Given the cat-shaped off-field baggage Zouma has brought to Moyes’ office door since his arrival, it is testament to the Frenchman’s performances on it that his switch across the capital has still been such an unequivocal success.
At times, both last season and already this, the centre-back has held together a creaking defence ravaged by injuries, occasionally while playing through ailments of his own. Here, he cleared from inside his own six-yard box early on, made a goal-saving challenge on Kai Havertz moments before Ben Chilwell’s leveller, and for the most part kept a Chelsea attack still waiting on the arrival of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang at arm’s length.
Zouma’s success at the London Stadium, as well as that of Fikayo Tomori in Milan and Marc Guehi at Selhurst Park, have made for an amusing backdrop to the Blues’ scramble for centre-back reinforcements this summer. Neither Wesley Fofana nor Kalidou Koulibaly did anything wrong here and will surely prove fine additions, but that the £100m pair lined up at the opposite end of the field to the outstanding Zouma hardly cast Chelsea’s transfer policy in a shrewd light.
As for Rice, clearly there is a firm desire to bring the England midfielder back to west London by this time next year.
The 23-year-old showed just why with his best display of the season so far, nipping in off the toes of Blues attackers and relieving the pressure with his now trademark surges forward on the counter-attack.
He teed up Michail Antonio’s opener with lively awareness at the back post, then, in his new role as skipper, quite rightly led the protests when Maxwel Cornet’s would-be equaliser late on was chalked off for a supposed foul by Jarrod Bowen on Edouard Mendy.
He, Zouma and their West Ham teammates will leave Stamford Bridge enraged, but that the feeling is one of injustice and pride is at least a stark contrast with those of despair and concern that came with the Irons’ last defeat against Brighton only a fortnight ago, which was the third in as many games to start the campaign.
Moyes is desperate to see his team compete against the established top six and they have done just that twice in four days, unlucky not to beat Spurs at home on Wednesday and even more so to depart with nothing here.
Newcastle are up next in what could prove a match-up of the two forerunners in the race to be best of the rest, after which comes a kinder slate of fixtures against Everton, Wolves, Fulham and Southampton, albeit with European games and an international break complicating affairs along the way.
The progress shown this week as Moyes’ new-look side gradually comes together suggests West Ham will be ready to make hay during that run.
More to come from Paqueta but new signing looks fine fit for Premier League
It is not Moyes’ style to throw new signings straight into the mix, and particularly not in as daunting a fixture as this; one need only look at the care that has been taken with Gianluca Scamacca’s integration for instance, though the Italian’s absence here was down to illness, rather than his manager’s hesitancy.
So, it speaks to just how highly Moyes rates club record signing Paqueta, that after handing the Brazilian a debut within 48 hours of his arrival, as a substitute against Tottenham in midweek, the Hammers boss thrust him into action from the start here.
In truth, the €60million man did not get much of an opportunity to showcase his quality on the ball, save one audacious flick over Conor Gallagher, which set up a chance for Michail Antonio, and a delightful back-heel that almost did likewise.
Encouraging, however, was the midfielder’s willingness to do the kind of dirty work that Moyes deems non-negotiable, even for his most flair-infused players (just ask Said Benrahma).
Paqueta was on the end of several ‘Welcome to the Premier League’ challenges, but on each occasion was quickly back on his feet with little complaint and at one stage was even heading successive corners out of his own box at the near-post.
It is not what he has been signed for, but bodes well for the kind of swift integration Moyes is not usually known for.