For the last match before the third(!) international break of the season, Chelsea took on Everton at Stamford Bridge, looking to at least maintain our top four position in the Premier League, but possibly even move to the top after Middlesbrough's surprising 1-1 draw away to Manchester City at the Etihad earlier. To do so, Chelsea needed to grab all three points against an Everton team who had found their first win in seven weeks last Sunday against West Ham.
Chelsea manager Antonio Conte put out an unchanged starting line-up for the fourth consecutive game, sticking to his motto of "don't change what isn't broken". On the opposite side, Ronald Koeman took a page from West Ham manager Slaven Bilic’s book — so far the only manager able to best Chelsea in this new 3-4-3 system — and employed a three-men defensive set-up of his own, with Phil Jagielka, Ashley Williams and Ramiro Funes Mori as his centre-backs while Yannick Bolasie and former Chelsea boy Romelu Lukaku took care of things upfront.
The start to the game was fairly usual, with both sides battling over ball possession in the midfield. While Chelsea managed to get forward without too much difficulty, the Merseysiders responded with good pressure on our players whenever we had the ball. It all seemed to change at the 8th minute though, when Seaman Coleman's tackle left a bloody bruise on striker Diego Costa's right lower leg. Referee Robert Madley, who did not have a good game, was unmoved.
Eden Hazard found himself with increasing amounts of freedom on Coleman’s side of the pitch, with the right back getting very little help from his teammates. That freedom was also enjoyed by Chelsea left wing-back Marcos Alonso, who would end up involved in plenty of attacking forays up that side, with support provided by Nemanja Matic, Diego Costa and even Gary Cahill at times.
Bolasie finally earned the first yellow card of the match in the 15th minute, which was not a good thing for Koeman's plans of having his team put strong pressure on the home side. After a decent start for the visitors, Chelsea were then often allowed to comfortably exchange passes between defence and midfield, always looking for opportunities to take the ball forward.
It wasn't in one of those exchanges that Chelsea found their first goal of the match however. That chance came from a ball stolen by Nemanja Matic from Gareth Barry in midfield. Now main enabler in our midfield after Cesc Fàbregas' apparent fall from grace, Matic quickly passed the ball to Diego who sent the ball to Hazard on the left. The Belgian did something he used to do with regularity but has shied away from doing in the last year or so: he cut inside two Everton defenders in the box not to pass, but to blast the ball past Everton goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenburg.
Chelsea took 19 minutes to gain the early lead, and less than a minute to double it. After winning the ball back from Everton’s kick-off, Cahill took the ball forward to Hazard, who got it to his colleague on the opposite flank, Pedro. The Spanish winger crossed for the Spanish striker, but Diego dummied the shot and let the Spanish left back have his instead, notching his first goal for Chelsea. The only Spaniard not involved in the play was defender César Azpilicueta, who didn't have much trouble dealing with Everton's left side during the game.
Everton tried to regroup after the two goals in quick succession, trying to slow down the tempo and retain the ball for as long as they could, passing it laterally and building up slowly to try to find holes in our defence. Try as they might, the blue barrier kept things tight and sharp, leaving Everton without a single shot in the entire first half.
Chelsea continued to be much more effective and efficient than the visitors, and could’ve found a third goal soon after but Victor Moses rattled his shot against the near post.
In the 36th minute, Koeman saw the light and reverted Everton back to their traditional four-man back line, with Funes Mori as left back, Coleman at right back, and Phil Jagielka and Ashley Williams in the middle. Unfortunately for them, the change only opened up the middle of the pitch for Chelsea to exploit, and the men in Blue shirts continued to pour forward. It was all falling in place for the home team to score again and turn this into a rout.
One thing that should be noted is how seamless our transitions from defence to midfield, and then to attack were throughout the game. Instead of letting just one player run the show, as we’ve done so often in recent seasons, all players seemed equally involved in the flow — some with more responsibility than others, sure, but all working very hard and very well. Conte had talked about tailoring his tactics to his players in the summer, and the current set-up is a great example of that.
Chelsea finally got the well deserved third goal in the 42nd minute. Hazard took a corner from the right aiming for the near post, where Matić flicked it on to find an unmarked (!) Diego Costa at the far post. It was Diego's ninth goal in the league, one that takes him once again one ahead of Manchester City's Sergio Aguero as the top goalscorer in the Premier League. Matic meanwhile collected his fifth assist, one less than the league leader, Kevin De Bruyne.
And this was just the first half!
The second half started with some minor pressure from Everton, perhaps the effect of a gentle half-time caressing by Koeman. It was still pretty much toothless stuff though, and they weren't able to get anything done other than to fruitlessly cycle possession from one side to the other, then pass it back to defence and lump it forward. With no success.
Following the first five minutes in which Everton seemingly dominated the ball, it was time for Chelsea to get back into the swing of things, making good moves with and without the ball upfront, and keeping it solid at the back. We didn’t have to wait too long for Chelsea to extend the lead to 4-0.
Moses unlocked Hazard with a forward pass down the right flank, which was then quickly flicked to Pedro. The Spaniard then flicked it back to Eden with a back-heel, setting Hazard in on goal. A bit of quick, fancy footwork created a window for a shot and the Belgian made no mistake once again.
The 4-0 scoreline seemed to completely deflate Everton, who sagged back and concentrated on trying to not let things become too embarrassing. Koeman looked hopeless on the touchline as Pedro made it 5-0 just a few minutes later, slamming home the rebound after Stekelenburg did well to parry Hazard’s goal-bound effort.
Both teams played out the final 20-25 minutes on cruise control. Of course for Chelsea, cruise control meant “continue to look amazing on every spectrum”. Only thanks to the heroics of Stekelenburg, who, it should be said did not excel on any of the goals up to that point, did the scoreline remain “just” the 5-0. A shot by David Luiz and another effort from Moses could have easily found the back of the net in the last ten minutes of play, but the Dutchman did his best to keep Chelsea’s goal differential to a Premier League best +17.
Pedro departed to a standing ovation in the 71st minute (replaced by Oscar), while Eden Hazard (replaced by Batshuayi) and Gary Cahill (replaced by John Terry) did the same in the 80th and 84th minute, respectively. Though in the latter’s case, the cheering was mostly for his replacement, captain John Terry getting his first run-out in the league since September. Playing as the left-sided center back, Terry almost managed to create a goal even, but his cross found Diego Costa in an offside position.
Today's performance was one of Chelsea's very best in recent history. Chelsea worked amazingly well at keeping Everton out of any and all dangerous areas, while carving open the opposition with ease at the other end. It's hard to find another forward trio in England who have been playing as well as Hazard, Costa, and Pedro have in recent weeks.
But as Conte and many of our players will probably repeat many times, we need to take things one game at a time. After the break, Chelsea will take on Middlesbrough away, Tottenham at home and Manchester City away — three very tough games of increasing difficulty.
But right now, onto the longest international break ever. Forza, Chelsea!