A Blue Up North reviews Chelsea’s match away to Newcastle United.
This Sunday saw Chelsea make the long trip up to Newcastle for their Premier League match at St James’ Park. It has not been a happy hunting ground for The Blues in recent seasons with them only taking one point in their previous 5 league visits. A combination of poor performances from the visitors and a home side who suddenly take on a persona of a top side, has lead to The Magpies having the upper hand in this fixture since December 2011.
So, despite starting with 2 wins out of 2 league matches, the Chelsea squad would have arrived knowing that their task was going to be tougher than it would appear on paper. Newcastle United may have only won 1 point from their first 2 matches, but they were a match for Tottenham Hotspur at home in their opening match who eventually got the win and Rafael Benitez’s side should have returned with all 3 points from their trip to Cardiff despite being down to 10 men.
Both of these performances epitomised how the ex Chelsea manager will strategise his side’s attempt to climb up the Premier League again this season. Against the top clubs, his team defend deep and in strong numbers giving their opponents as little room to break through. When they are able to outplay the lower sides, their lack of quality strikers may see them struggle to convert play into goals.
Maurizio Sarri’s side arrived expecting a very organised compact defensive set up from their opponents but there was a surprise before the kick off. The Newcastle line up was missing captain Jamaal Lascelles and midfielder Jonjo Shelvey, who have both been hugely influential both in defence and going forward. With other line up changes, the end result was the home side which included 3 debutants, including loanee Salamon Rondon as a loan striker.
Sarri himself decided to start for the first time this season with Eden Hazard and Mateo Kovacic, who replaced Willian and Ross Barkley. Kovacic plays a slightly different role to Barkley, who presses further forward more often as he drives at the opponent’s defence and tries to support his striker. The change appeared to be a sign that the manager expected his counterpart to match his 3 central midfielders to try to stifle space in that area for the visitors.
However, the hosts lined up with a 5 man defensive back line, while the midfield 4 played fairly narrow and defended deep. It proved to be a quite a fortress protecting the home side’s goal and Chelsea were clearly going to have their work cut out in attempting to break through.
With Jorginho pulling the strings, The Blues soon took command of possession. However, with their full backs remaining mostly in their defensive positions and both Hazard and Pedro roaming infield regularly, there was a distinct lack of width to their attacks. With few crosses coming in and minimal close support from central midfield, striker Alvaro Morata was regularly surrounded by 3 or 4 defenders whenever he received the ball. The Spaniard thrives on through balls between the defenders which he can run on to, but with the home defence lying so deep, such supply was near impossible.
With chances at a premium for The Blues, it looked like Benitez was justified in deploying his all out defence tactics. Add to that the home side’s cynical fouling of Eden Hazard, which even started in the first minute, their attempts to stifle Sarri’s side’s attacking prowess was achieving relative success. Fortunately, Hazard was able to run off all that the home side could do to him.
Hazard persisted as The Blues’s driving force and with the introduction of Olivier Giroud for the largely ineffective Alvaro Morata, a breakthrough looked steadily more likely. However the main catalyst to Sarri’s side taking the victory was the gradually more advanced roles of his full backs.
With Cesar Azpilicueta and especially Marcos Alonso pressing down the flanks, Chelsea’s forward play gained more width. It was only fitting that is was Alonso’s run into the penalty box that won the spot kick which Hazard despatched with ease.
By this stage, Chelsea were so on top in the match that even despite an excellently taken equaliser couldn’t shake Sarri’s side from their hugely deserved victory. Joselu’s bullet header did not even break Chelsea’s stride and the visitors were immediately back on the prowl for their winner.
The significance of this win should not be underestimated. The Chelsea players have been growing accustomed to not winning on Tyneside and Benitez’s side proved an extremely hard nut to crack. The win also keeps up their perfect start to the Premier League season and all 3 victories have come in very different circumstances.
With a home match against Bournemouth and the draws for the next round of the league cup and the group stages of the Europa League coming up in the next week, this is currently exciting times for The Blues under Maurizio Sarri.
Written by Jon Ellis, home and away season ticket holder. Follow him on Twitter @ClitheroeBlue