As Diego Costa lobbed the stranded Wojciech Szczęsny to quell Arsenal’s late insurrection everything seemed right with the world. Eden Hazard was at his effervescent best. Cesc Fàbregas played arguably his most disciplined ninety minutes ever. Nemanja Matić bossed the midfield. Oscar was ubiquitous. With Arsenal not producing a single shot on target, our back four is returning to its old ways.
While it is incredibly early in the season Chelsea are beginning to click. Tangibly we are a far more attacking side this season and creating defensive balance was going to be a challenge. Our early wobbles appear to be behind us. That is now three clean sheets on the bounce and there has been little sacrifice in our attacking intent. Mourinho has the luxury of effectively having two plan A’s: a robust counterattacking side or one built to go for the jugular.
Confidence should be high. However, we must note that our traditional sticky patch is looming ominously on the horizon. Chelsea have made fast starts before and faded into relative obscurity by our standards come May. November and December traditionally are periods where we struggle to pick up wins. That cushion over Manchester City could evaporate quickly if we suffer another autumnal malaise.
Chelsea’s very own Rottweiler has transformed the way Mourinho can instruct his team to play. Costa was conceptually the ideal striker for a Mourinho team. However, these things often do not pan out in the way you would hope. What has materialised since his arrival is superb. Chelsea look like a complete side when he leads the line.
We can forensically dissect each of his goals so far: it would be easy to revel in his world class movement, innate ability to find space and his economical finishing. Though, it is Costa’s presence which may be the most crucial thing of all. Eden Hazard spoke before the game in an interview with Geoff Shreeves. To paraphrase the Belgian he stated that last season he was dealing with three defenders at a time. Now with Costa and Fàbregas here he has infinitely more space.
Costa causes opposition defenders to panic. He forces them to respect him and to follow his every movement. Hazard’s dribble that leads to the penalty was made possible by Costa. With Eden galloping towards the area Costa sprints wide and left. If Torres had made that run nobody would go with him. However, Mertesacker is terrified of Costa so he rushes over to that channel, which creates a gigantic hole for Hazard to explode into.
The hallmark of an excellent player is elevating those around you. Even when Costa seemed to flit in and out of the game his flashes of excellence kept the Arsenal back four honest. I have never personally seen Arsenal hoof the ball clear as many times as I did on Sunday. Koscielny and Mertesacker appeared uncomfortable all game. It is not always directly what you do with the ball that counts.
When Costa can occupy so many players the opportunity for people like Hazard to influence the game grows exponentially. We no longer see centre-backs pre-empting our attacks and going to help deal with Hazard before the ball has even arrived. Both defenders are now solely concentrating on Costa. Even when they focus on him there is little that can be done to stop him in full flight. A wondrous through ball from Fàbregas was latched onto powerfully, the athletic Koscielny trailing in his wake. Two seconds later a sumptuous touch from Costa ended the contest.
Towards the tail end of last season Oscar bore some fervent criticism for his performance levels. His early season form prompted Mourinho to feel comfortable about selling Juan Mata. Something I never felt the fans really moved beyond. When his form dipped with comments suggesting his eyes were on the World Cup, it did provoke ire from many.
The sheer volume of football that Oscar has played since joining Chelsea is actually staggering. When we talk about players being in need of a rest, then Oscar may benefit the most from being rotated out of less competitive games. Oscar may never produce the statistical level of brilliance that Mata delivered in a Chelsea shirt. However, we are categorically a far better team with Oscar than we were with Mata. I genuinely feel this season that we are beginning to see something special out of the Brazilian.
Oscar is crucial in how we operate. The way he dovetails with Fàbregas to drop deep or play in an advanced role creates havoc for opposition holding players. Do they vacate the space and follow Oscar? Or do they stay in their space and potentially get passed around or bypassed? Oscar plays the number ten role in quite a unique way and his performance against Arsenal was arguably his best all-around game for Chelsea. People will still no doubt moan about him, but he does exactly what José Mourinho wants and not what you think a number ten should be doing.
The way Oscar knits the team together with his passing, movement and pressing is the foundation of everything we are trying to achieve tactically. Seeing your ‘playmaker’ charge down a shot on the edge of the area like he was John Terry is amazing. The amount of important challenges he made kept Arsenal at bay as they passed around our area with little to show for it. He was given a standing ovation and his name chanted from all four corners of the ground as he left the game. Tellingly, nearly all his teammates came over to acknowledge him as he made his way to the touchline.
Marrying an insatiable work ethic with a bundle of creativity is going to make Oscar a ridiculous prospect this season. We must not forget that he is still only twenty-three with so much more to learn and refine. His ability in the final third is always getting better and with this new found confidence we can hope to see him fulfil all his wonderful promise. He, like others, needs to score more goals and maybe create a bit more. However, what we have seen so far from a team dynamic is nothing short of sensational.
You feel that Eden Hazard is starting to get warmed up this season. Given that he has had moments of brilliance in each game, without perhaps being consistent for ninety minutes, this should spell disaster for opposition full-backs. What we saw Sunday was Hazard at something nearing his best. He won a penalty that should have yielded a red card and ended the game as a contest. To say he terrorised Callum Chambers is an understatement. The Arsenal full-back could not live with the Belgian, who appears to be revelling in his new found spacious surroundings.
Much has been made of a future transfer of Hazard to Real Madrid as Cristiano Ronaldo’s long-term successor. However, the Belgian appears absolutely focused on becoming a “legend” at Chelsea “like Didier Drogba and Frank Lampard”. For someone so young and so talented his views about his game are unusually self-aware. Hazard stated that he has to score more goals in a recent interview. He also sees the number of times he is fouled as a badge of honour – an opportunity to win free-kicks, get players booked and win penalties. Given the assault he suffered in Lisbon, he must have been doing something right.
What is noticeable is that when we do get the ball to Hazard he is receiving passes in more space than last season. There appears to be a freedom in his play and a level of aggression that has been lacking. He constantly went looking for the ball, coming centrally and causing problems. Juxtapose his level of play with that of Mesut Özil and you have to say Hazard looks a bargain. He is virtually unstoppable in full-flight.
Consistency will be the key with Hazard and thankfully this is something he himself knows. He spoke about his relationship with José Mourinho in glowing terms, noting that they were not only friends on the pitch but off it as well. He has taken his game onto another level with Mourinho’s guidance, threatening whenever he touches the ball but also diligently working for the team. Eden has become a real team player.
I call Hazard “the difference” because he above anyone else in this squad can do something to turn a game on its head almost every time he touches the ball. Even in his quieter games he manages to contribute a moment of brilliance that leads to a goal. He is adjusting to his new role in a team with far more firepower this season.
You can see in his face that he is enjoying his football and ultimately his form has been very good. He is still very young, but we could see him touching the level of the likes of Robben and Ribery this season. On the horizon are those of Messi and Ronaldo that he hopes to match one day. If Eden continues to develop and influence games then another league title becomes a distinct possibility.
I would love to have been in the meeting where someone at Arsenal decided that they did not need Cesc Fàbregas because they had Mesut Özil. The notion in itself seems absurd given Fàbregas’ electric start to his time at Chelsea. That is further compounded by the German’s anonymity on Sunday when Fàbregas played the pass of the match. It was as pinpoint and accurate as a Rory McIlroy approach shot, dropping almost too perfectly into Diego’s path.
What Fàbregas has brought to Chelsea cannot merely be measured in this absurd assists record he appears to be maintaining. It is the quality of his passing and his intelligence on the ball that has transformed our midfield play. There have been teething problems in his partnership with Nemanja Matić but it speaks volume of his professionalism that he played his most disciplined game against his old club. He has bought into Mourinho’s team ethic and defensively you can notice his improvements. No surprises that Matić has looked incredibly dominant alongside him the past few games.
This might be hyperbole but I cannot remember someone at Chelsea passing the ball so well. We have been blessed with some superb midfielders in the past, but none have quite met Fàbregas’ immaculate standards thus far. He is a large reason why our speed of play has developed. Moreover, his telepathic connection with Diego Costa is something teams presently cannot figure out. I cannot understand why Arsenal did not want him back.
It might take a while for Fàbregas to complete the Ashley Cole transformation, but if he continues to perform as he has then it will not take long. He patrols the midfield like he has played for Chelsea his entire life. The fact he has started so well seems to have been overlooked, like it was a certainty given his ability. His comments about Arsenal post-match were very respectful, but make no mistake about his drive to win things here. Mourinho has rekindled something in the Spaniard. You can tell by how he celebrates goals with the crowd and how happy he looks. He feels important again and Barcelona may rue his sale as much as Arsenal regret not taking him back.
Nemanja Matić is a monster. Is there a better player in his position in the country at the moment? I cannot think of anyone who comes close, even at Manchester City. He, like others, has taken time to adapt to new responsibilities and a more fluid shape. However, it seems like his acclimatisation period is nearing completion. He has been a revelation the past few weeks: a mountain of a midfielder with the strength and guile to both win the ball and use it superbly well.
John Obi Mikel still has a role to play in the squad, that much is clear. I have always been a fan of the Nigerian and his value in helping to close out games is enormous. Arsenal was appearing to get some joy in the game towards the end of the match, particularly through the middle. One substitution later and the midfield battle swayed back into Chelsea’s favour and another goal was scored. When paired with Matić we look ridiculously solid and this no doubt will be an option Mourinho uses throughout the season.
Three clean sheets in a row and I was delighted with the reception that Petr Čech got when replacing the injured Thibaut Courtois. It was a much better showing defensively from Gary Cahill in particular, who has struggled somewhat this season. He marshalled an in-form Danny Welbeck (I never thought I’d be typing that sentence) well and despite one nasty challenge, played particularly well. Alexis Sánchez probably did not mean to clatter Tibo, but the way he jumped into the keeper seemed to do more harm than good. I wonder whether Cahill was exacting a little bit of revenge with his challenge. Onwards and upwards into the international break – can someone give the Rottweiler a week off please?