Last night the fireworks in SW6 were provided by a rampant Chelsea side cruising their way to the top of the Premiership in scintillating style. Their resounding 5-0 win over Everton proved their hammering of Manchester United was no fluke and in doing so they sent out a powerful message to their rivals—that Chelsea are a team with serious title aspirations and may even be the team to beat. The bookmakers reacted quickly by pushing them above Liverpool into second favourites for the title.
In an earlier piece I argued that the real examination of their credentials, and their brittle defence in particular, would come at the end of this month when they play back to back games against Spurs and Manchester City. After yesterday’s performance I will have to revisit this verdict for if Liverpool are to be considered serious challengers based on their attacking prowess, then I see no reason that Chelsea’s defence should undermine their own challenge such was the excellence of their forward play.
My nagging doubts revolve around Chelsea’s lack of pace at the back and Gary Cahill’s quality as a top class defender. David Luiz’s form and enthusiasm has somewhat compensated for this sometimes, but against Arsenal and Liverpool they were clearly exposed by their opponents’ running and mesmerizing interplay. Everton came to Stamford Bridge looking to provide their hosts with a different sort of test—pace and power.
The Toffees’ game-plan was fairly straightforward: contain the Chelsea attack, and counter with Lukaku and Bolasie. They arrived at the Bridge fairly equipped to manage this with possession of the Premier League’s second meanest defence; however, two hours later they departed shell-shocked and joint eighth in goals conceded. What happened in short was this: Chelsea dominated, dismantled and then attacked the Everton carcass at will—never allowing them a foothold in the game. The forward play was exhilarating and, of course, the prime spectacle, but it began with the suffocation of the Everton airways.
In the best traditions of contemporary football Chelsea pressed from the front in such style that if Jose Mourinho was watching he must have been left wondering what he didn’t do last year to deserve this type of performance from those same players. Chelsea’s offensive players harried their opponents into submission; never giving the Everton defenders time to look up—balls were simply hoofed away and cleaned up time and time again by the commanding Luiz who recycled it back into the Everton half.
It became evident early on that the Everton midfield was being negated by the balls over the top from their own defence and overrun to the point of irrelevance by the dominating Chelsea midfield. So much so that Koeman was forced into making a substitution before half-time—putting in Mirallas for Oviedo—but in truth it would have made little difference if he had replaced him with Harry Potter—such was the cloak of invisibility over the Everton midfield. And so the powerful Everton frontmen were denied the support and service they needed and were effectively taken out of the game.
The effort made by the entire Chelsea team in restricting Everton was immense. It’s illustrated by the fact that Everton only managed to register one attempt on goal during the game, and that was in the opening minutes. Thereafter it was all Chelsea who pummeled the Everton defence without respite and it came as no surprise to see how they wilted. After the quick-fire double by Hazard and Alonso on twenty minutes, the game as a competition was over and the only question that remained was how many more would Chelsea score?
With Hazard at his effervescent best he insured that this would be a handsome win. Constantly running at Everton’s defence, he was unplayable, scoring two, the second a sublime Messi-type effort aided by the excellent Pedro, and had a big hand in two others for his teammates. In the Premier League, Coutinho, Sanchez, Özil and Silva all come close but Hazard is on another level in this sort of form and remains the benchmark for the others. He is the type of player that makes the difference between winning a trophy and not.
Pedro too has finally found his mojo and is looking the player he was at Barcelona. Whilst Hazard will deservedly grab the headlines, he cannot do it all by himself and a significant contribution from Pedro is non-negotiable if Chelsea are to have a successful season. Thankfully for them he has been obliging in recent games with this one his best so far. His running, movement, and awareness, illustrated by the sumptuous backheel for Hazard’s second, was a thing of beauty and typified the general quality he brings to this Chelsea side when he is in the mood. It is the kind of moment that fans wait patiently all game to see and when it comes, collectively fall into a state of wow!
And with Costa seemingly reborn—three assists, nine goals and with only four yellows to his name so far—it just goes to show that you can take the madness out of the genius and still be left with the genius. Last season he looked languid, this season the fire is back in his belly, and it’d be surprising if he didn’t at least register 25 goals by May, though 30 is much more likely the way things are going.
Special mention must also go to a couple of others. Victor Moses is starting to look like one hell of a player. Loaned out repeatedly throughout his Chelsea career he is finally coming good. He put in as ineffective a season as you will see from a player at Liverpool during Brendan Rodgers’ ill-feted 2013/14 season, but under Conte he has blossomed into a rampaging wing-back—good defensively and able to contribute substantially going forward. Yesterday he hit the post twice, a sign of his willingness to shoot on sight and his growing confidence. I feel there is more improvement to come from him.
Conte’s infectiousness has played a large part in inspiring this Chelsea team into serious title contenders. Like Klopp at Liverpool, the Chelsea players appear to enjoy playing for him as their predecessors once did for Mourinho a decade ago. Aside from his hard-not-to-like theatrics on pitch-side this is a man who clearly knows what he is doing especially in terms of man-management. The resurgence of Hazard, Costa, Moses, even Luiz and in particular, Pedro, testifies to this. By treating them like adults he has got them to accept their defensive responsibilities—so important in today’s game—without any fuss whatsoever. Jose Mourinho could definitely learn something from his successor at the Bridge on this issue.
If Chelsea can maintain their devastating form up front anything is possible for them this season. Their defence will not face Liverpool or Arsenal every week, they have time to grow under Conte’s instruction, and they look settled, almost the finished article. Perhaps the return of Kurt Zouma in the next three weeks will add something in terms of solidity and pace, but Chelsea can now go into the international break with confidence, still in the mix, and with the bad memories of the last year or so fading quickly in their rear-view mirror.