It was only a couple of days ago that Chelsea was a club in disarray. The headlines told of a manager’s frustration; of a depleted squad; of doom and gloom heading into a showdown with Tottenham.
How quickly we forget that the Blues are also champions.
Chelsea’s supposed descent into crisis took a wholly unsurprising and utterly predictable turn on Sunday. Marcos Alonso fired Antonio Conte’s embattled side to a 2-1 win over Spurs at Wembley, first with a splendid free kick, and then with a stunning 88th-minute winner:
Alonso had given the visitors a 24th-minute lead with a wonderful free kick right into the top corner:
But Tottenham, which had more of the ball and the better of the chances, equalized with less than 10 minutes remaining. Its nearly 60 minutes of pressure finally paid off in the form of a Michy Batshuayi own goal, the result of Christian Eriksen’s pinpoint delivery:
The set pieces seemed to have cancelled each other out, and Conte likely would have taken a 1-1 draw had it been offered to him pre-match. But then Alonso’s low drive snuck underneath Hugo Lloris, and Conte ran back to his team’s bench like a madman, his celebrations as furious as they were ecstatic.
Chelsea needed this. It needed this desperately. That’s an odd thing to say about a team that topped the league by seven points last season, and an especially odd thing to say just one week into a title defense. But with the manager and last year’s top scorer feuding, with uncertainty still clouding both of their futures, with concerns about squad depth mounting, and with the campaign off to a disastrous start last weekend, it’s true.
But there was no desperation to the way Conte approached the game. He stayed calm and reverted to what he knows his team can do, and what he knows his team can do better than anybody else in the Premier League. They can make things difficult for an opposing attack.
With Cesc Fabregas and Gary Cahill both suspended after last week’s red cards, Eden Hazard still working his way back from injury, and Pedro only fit enough to make the bench, Conte went with a makeshift, uber-defensive version of the 3-4-3 that has been his default since last October. With attacking options limited, the 3-4-3 became a 3-5-1-1. David Luiz slid into midfield, and full-debutant Andreas Christiansen replaced him in the center of the back three. Timoué Bakayoko joined Luiz and N’Golo Kante in midfield, and Willian played just underneath Alvaro Morata up front.
The slight tweak and change in personnel made for a compact back eight that tightened up even more after Alonso’s first goal. Spurs actually did well to pick apart that back eight as much as they did.
Their two best chances of the first half fell to Harry Kane. The English striker spun off a defender and into the box, onto the end of a vertical Eric Dier pass midway through the half. But his off-balance effort was saved by Thibaut Courtois. Later on, Dele Alli skipped by Caesar Azpilicueta and set up Kane to cut inside on his right foot, but the reigning Premier League Golden Boot winner clanged his shot off the far post.
Chelsea was content to soak up pressure, and aside from Kane’s two sights at goal, clear-cut opportunities were few and far between. Tottenham almost doubled the visitors’ shot count, but much of the game was played in the roughly 40 yards between the midfield stripe and Courtois’s penalty area. The hosts couldn’t find a breakthrough from open play.
xG map for Spurs – Chelsea. Hard to get a better example of what a defense conceding shots (and set plays) but no good chances looks like. pic.twitter.com/TEu0x38fAU
— Caley Graphics (@Caley_graphics) August 20, 2017
Morata actually latched onto the game’s best chance not even five minutes in, a free header from the middle of the six-yard box that he skewed wide. Had the game ended 1-1, both he and Batshuayi would have been overwhelmed by guilt.
Tottenham appeared to have done enough to escape with a draw. And on the balance of play, the hosts probably deserved a point, if not three. But Alonso’s late foray forward made the difference.
Postgame narratives will invariably note Spurs’ recent struggles at Wembley. They lost two of three Champions League games at the national stadium a year ago, drew a Europa League leg against KRC Genk, and fell to this same Chelsea side in an FA Cup semifinal.
But the real trend is Chelsea, and Conte, concocting three points out of nothing. This wasn’t quite highway robbery, but it was and is why the Blues are the reigning champs.