A Blue Up North reviews Chelsea’s victory at Stamford Bridge over Newcastle United.
Chelsea hosted 15th place Newcastle United at Stamford Bridge in the late kick off on Saturday. After failing to score a single goal in their previous 2 home Premier League matches, The Blues welcomed the arrival of a side they have regularly scored freely against in the past.
Since their impressive 2-0 victory over the champions Manchester City back on 8 December, Chelsea have lost 1-0 to Leicester City and endured a goalless draw with Southampton. So a matchup against a team which The Blues have beaten 16 out of 23 times at home in the Premier League should have been a chance to return to a more free scoring match against a very defensive side.
However, former Blue manager Rafael Benitez is a wily experienced boss. He shuffled his squad and sent out a team that did not fully sit back, but at times pressed fairly high up the pitch and attempted to take the match to Chelsea at times.
The Spaniard was missing a number of players due to injury but was still able to name a relatively strong side which also included debutant Sean Longstaff in central midfield. Their attack was led by Salomon Rondon, a clear threat in the air, supported by Matt Ritchie, Ayoze Perez and former Blue Christian Atsu.
Maurizio Sarri only made 3 changes after his side’s gruelling League Cup tie at Wembley Stadium on Tuesday. David Luiz and Mateo Kovacic both returned in central defence and midfield respectively, while Pedro replaced Callum Hudson-Odoi in an attack which was led by Eden Hazard once again. Sarri afterwards admitted he didn’t want to use either of his strikers, with Olivier Giroud starting from the substitute’s bench and Alvaro Morata not even in the matchday squad.
The Blues started with most of the possession as would have been expected, but the back 5 of Newcastle were rarely troubled. But then on only 9 minutes, Luiz drifted forward with the ball and picked out Pedro with a delightfully lifted pass as the Spaniard made a glorious run in to the penalty box. Despite the close attentions of the defender, Pedro controlled the ball and lifted over a hapless Dubravka to open the scoring.
It was all the way back in 1993 when The Blues last failed to score in 3 consecutive home league matches and there was a huge amount of relief around the stadium. However, the home side struggled to capitalise on the early strike and a determined Newcastle side started to create their own chances.
Rondon may have been on his own in attack, but he was able to win headers against both Luiz and Antonio Rudiger, hold the ball up and it was only thanks to excellent last ditch challenges from Cesar Azpilicueta that forced Rondon and Perez’s attempts to fly wide.
Once again Chelsea looked vulnerable when only 1-0 up. Newcastle continued to press forward and it didn’t come as the greatest surprise when Kieran Clark levelled the scores with a powerful header from a corner.
Chelsea started the second half with far more impetus and Pedro’s shot was very well saved before Willian curled a superb in to the far corner of the goal after some fantastic play from Hazard. This was the Brazilian’s first goal since the 4-0 win away at Burnley on 28 October.
The Blues then remained in the ascendancy but struggled to create many good chances. Even with a recognised striker in the side, Sarri’s side have precious few runners supporting the attack in the opponent’s penalty box, but when Hazard is attracted to the ball in midfield the gaps between Chelsea teammates up front are even greater.
There were times when the 2 fullbacks were the furthest forward players on the pitch. The lack of movement up front gives precious few targets for the midfield to press the possession up against the opponent’s defensive line.
This can also have a knock on effect as Benitez’s side continued in the belief that they could equalise again. The Magpies did not just sit back defensively, but continued to press further up the pitch.
Jorginho had been outstanding early on in the match, as Chelsea’s beating pulse kept possession under pressure and moved the ball on to where there is more space. However, as the match progressed, the Italian was targeted as Newcastle attempted to stifle Chelsea’s forward movement of the ball. At times in the second half Jorginho already had 2 close quarters markers on him before he had even received the pass.
Sarri brought both Hudson-Odoi and Giroud on in the hope of retaining more possession in attacking positions and Bayern Munich’s favourite transfer target managed a couple of quality runs with the ball, but Giroud rarely managed to get involved. Neither side was able to manufacture another goal and The Blues held on.
The win was welcome, deserved but no where near emphatic. The 3 points have cemented Chelsea’s 4th place in the league, especially after Arsenal lost at West Ham earlier in the day. However there is still a lot missing from Chelsea’s play. Most of their possession is excellent, but they rarely put opposition’s central defence under huge amounts of pressure and pepper the goal with a nonstop onslaught.
This was a match up that The Blues should have won far more comfortably and not end up almost hanging on for the victory. Yes, Newcastle were well organised and played to the very best of their collective ability but with a trip to Arsenal next Saturday, in which a victory would stretch The Blues’s lead over the North Londoners to 9 points, Sarri’s side will need to produce more in attack.
The manager will be very grateful for the lack of a midweek match and it will be very interesting how he can tweak his side after a full week of training. A win at The Emirates next Saturday would not only solidify 4th place but could also close the gap to 3rd places Tottenham Hotspur. That would be the perfect tonic for The Blues.
Written by Jon Ellis, home and away season ticket holder. Follow him on Twitter @ClitheroeBlue