Some treasured Chelsea streaks ended today. Fortunately, they weren’t the important ones. For the first time since Hull away, the Blues went a full half without scoring. And for the first time since that trip to the KC Stadium, Eden Hazard failed to find the net in a league game. The big streaks, however, remain: with a 1-0 win at Middlesbrough, Chelsea take their sixth straight victory and sixth straight clean sheet. Their reward is a perch atop the table at the season’s one-third mark.
The conceit that Aitor Karanka’s Boro side might simply roll over for the Premier League’s heavy hitters had been shattered by impressive away draws at Arsenal and Manchester City. This Middlesbrough outfit might be a touch incoherent going forward, but they know how to frustrate big sides, and the expectation at the Riverside was that we’d see a tight, edgy (dare I say nervous?) match.
Chelsea’s recent run of form has been built on strong starts. In three of their four matches prior to this trip to the northeast, the Blues had scored within 10 minutes. Everton was the exception, but since they went 2-0 up before the half-hour mark and ended up with five, nobody was complaining.
An early goal is never guaranteed, however. What might happen to the 3-4-3 without an early goal had, until today, remained a happily unanswered question. But here the team who came closest to a flying start was Boro, whose first minute was also their best. Adam Forshaw, deep in midfield, unleashed the stuff of nightmares straight into our right channel, catching Victor Moses asleep and very nearly playing Gaston Ramirez clean through on goal.
There’s a world in which Ramirez collects and scores off that pass, tanking Chelsea’s clean sheet record and giving the team far more work than would have been comfortable to secure three points. Fortunately, in the world we actually live in there was slightly too much on the ball, which ended up just barely eluding the Uruguayan’s run and slinking apologetically out of play for a goal kick.
It’s possible that that moment of danger benefitted the Blues more than it did Middlesbrough. From then on, Moses was alert to the threat in behind him. And from then on, Ramirez spent his time hoping for a repeat of the pass, lurking high up the pitch in the expectation of a glorious raking ball that never came. Conveniently, that meant that he stopped doing any defending, which left a hole on the right so wide you could wheel Branislav Ivanovic’s arse through it.
Chelsea always looked a threat to score from that flank, but they took their time in so doing. Boro, like Everton a fortnight ago, were having trouble tracking Eden Hazard and Pedro, but the Blues were frequently let down by poor execution. For the first quarter of the match, their passing from attacking positions was as poor as it’s been all season. They eventually more or less recovered but for the unfortunate habit of randomly giving the ball straight to Adama Traore, which was a match-long source of utter terror.
It’s hard to know what to make of Traore, who appears to be something akin to Hatem Ben Arfa with afterburners. He doesn’t pass well, and his composure in front of goal is appalling, but he can slice through teams when he builds up a head of steam and can isolate defenders. I lost count of the number of black* shirts Traore left in his wake over the course of the game, but it was a lot, and with Jon Moss dishing out so many yellow cards the former Barcelona and Aston Villa man felt like a threat to utterly ruin our day.
*Chelsea’s blue was too close to Middlesbrough’s red kits to be worn today. Obviously.
Hazard seemed annoyed by not being the undisputed champion of one-on-one dribbling on the pitch. He retaliated in kind, effecting less embarrassment than Traore but a great deal more in the way of real problems for Middlesbrough to deal with. It was the Belgian who was the architect for the first big chance for the match.
Loitering with intent near the top of the box, Hazard saw Moses peel away from the ever-dozy Ramirez and ghost behind the Boro lines. His chip was weighted to perfection, drawing Victor Valdez out and leaving Moses free to either shoot or pass. He opted for the latter, squaring for Pedro, who stroked confidently towards an open goal.
Alas, Valdes intervened. You don’t get to be Barcelona’s long-term goalkeeper without having something a bit special about you, and the speed with which he recovered his position and tipped his former teammate’s 10-yard drive just over the crossbar was special indeed.
Chelsea had been denied, but the promise was there and momentum was building. Minutes later, Valdes came to Boro’s rescue again, cleaning up a vicious cross from Marcos Alonso, but this time he paid a price for his heroics, picking up a nasty knock to the head from a teammate as he parried. After a lengthy delay for treatment, the woozy-looking goalkeeper was allowed to continue. And before long he was picking the ball out of the back of his net.
Moses won a dubious-looking corner with a shot that maybe, perhaps, took a faint nick off Fabio da Silva before going behind. As we all know, questionable set pieces lead to goals far more often than straightforward ones, and this one didn’t disappoint. Hazard’s delivery disappeared into a cloud of bodies at the near post, popped straight into the air, and Diego Costa was the only one still tracking its flight when it returned to earth. A simple volley later and it was 1-0.
What exactly Middlesbrough’s defence was doing there is the sort of question that fuels philosophy doctorates, but Chelsea were more than happy to take advantage. They went into the break 1-0 up, knowing that the next goal would kill the game.
It was a little surprising that that next goal never actually arrived. The Blues carved out more clear-cut opportunities in the second half than the first, starting with Alonso’s scuffed shot just seconds from kickoff. Valdes made a smart low save; Callum Chambers beat Pedro to the rebound.
Boro would have been thrilled with 0-0, but after conceding were forced into a more ambitious stance. At times, they succeeding in pushing Chelsea back into a deep defensive block, but the Blues mostly remained compact. On the few occasions that they were caught out on the break, the hosts failed to do much with it, and Middlesbrough didn’t end up with a shot on target until the 78th minute.
By then the match should have been won a few times over. David Luiz, taking advantage of his semi-free role in the heart of Antonio Conte’s back three, steamed in to win possession on the halfway line and kept right on steaming, lofting in a delightful ball for Costa. It was a difficult angle and cross from which to try for goal, so Costa simply nodded back towards Pedro, who hammered an unstoppable effort off the underside of Valdes’ crossbar and back into play.
Another golden opportunity fell the Blues way thanks to smart goalkeeping from Thibaut Courtois, who turned a Middlesbrough corner into a four-on-three Chelsea counterattack. Costa, driving through the middle, played Moses in with a cheeky pass, but, alas, the once-forgotten man couldn’t get his body quite right for the finish, blazing over rather than scooping home.
The lack of cushion meant that we’d see a late surge from the hosts, and Alvaro Negredo forced Courtois into his first save in about four hours of game time* when he reeled in a pass with an audacious bit of skill and then hammered a volley towards the bottom corner. But it was nowhere near beating Courtois, who turned the shot behind for a corner, keeping fuss to a minimum.
*Between Dusan Tadic’s free kick at St. Mary’s and Negredo’s effort here, Chelsea had scored seven goals.
Chelsea fans haven’t really been subjected to a tight, hold-your-lead, finish yet this season. We started with late wins, transitioned into disappointing performances for September, then morphed into all-conquering football demons following the loss at Arsenal. Could this team protect a close lead?
Yes, and quite comfortably. Nathaniel Chalobah came on for Pedro, giving us a fresh pair of legs with which to kick Adama Traore. Branislav Ivanovic spelled Moses at right wingback to add further height to the mix. Boro’s late rally against Manchester City came off a cross, and Conte had no intension of allowing his side to meet the same fate. Balls into the box were to be snuffed out with extreme prejudice. Unsurprisingly, they were.
An all-out assault on Courtois’ goal never quite materialised, and although the four minutes of stoppage time we were subjected to were nervous, there was nothing in them to give us much real cause for concern. Full time arrived without much incident, sending Chelsea alone at the top of the league for the first time in 18 months.
This run won’t last forever (it would be surprising if it lasted another two games!) but it sure has been fun to experience so far. Chelsea aren’t just back as a serious contender to finish in the Champions League — they’re back as title contenders. Enjoy it.