West Bromwich Albion are annoying, in an impressive sort of way. Tony Pulis is annoying, in an impressive sort of way. Combine the pair and you have a perfect storm of irritation, a sort of hurricane of hard tackles, flying elbows and barely-localised malice. Wins against this side never come easy, and while the Baggies present a lesser challenge than, say, a trip to the Etihad, it’s still a significant one.
It’s tempting to think of Chelsea’s recent fixtures in grandiose terms. Tottenham were The Trial Of Resiliance After Early Disappointment. Manchester City were The Trial Of Overcoming Fraud. In that sort of vein, West Brom were The Trial Of Patience In The Face Of Relentless Kickery. It was a test the Blues passed, but only barely.
We’ve seen teams adapt to Chelsea’s 3-4-3 by switching to a back five of their own. That hasn’t worked. We’ve seen them trying to defend in a four, which hasn’t worked either. Pulis, as one might have expected, upped the ante: West Brom came to Stamford Bridge in a back six, with four centre halves and wide players sitting so deep you couldn’t even call them wing-backs.
The onus was on the Blues to find a way through, and they spent most of the match failing to do so. Before Diego Costa’s 77th-minute opener, a brilliant individual goal which we’ll definitely get to later, Chelsea’s most dangerous moment came when N’Golo Kante accidentally hit Pedro in the foot with a shot. A vintage attacking performance it was not.
When the opposition packs their area with large, angry men it is obviously difficult for tams to find their way to goal. Matt Phillips and Chris Brunt sat deep, denying Chelsea’s wingbacks the space they’ve been feasting on throughout this winning run*. Without that attacking outlet, the Blues looked vaguely toothless, relying on slow, lofted passes that were easily cut out by the Baggies.
*It didn’t help that the sun seemed personally commited to blinding Victor Moses throughout the first half.
It goes without saying that hopeful high passes are unlikely to cause a Tony Pulis side very many problems. Chelsea seemed to realise this, holding the ball around the box and trying to be as patient as possible. But their patient play was neutered by some immaculate positional play from West Brom, who refused to get moved around and were happy to resort to industrial-strength fouling whenever anyone — mostly Eden Hazard — threatened to disrupt their lines.
The flip side of the visitors’ defensive posture was that they found it very hard going to get the ball forward and make possession stick with Salomon Rondon. The Venezuelan found himself almost totally isolated and forced to make runs down the channels whenever West Brom won the ball, and that those runs led to a chance or two for the Baggies seems more attributable to Sergio Aguero’s go at amputating David Luiz’s left leg last weekend than anything Rondon actually did. Even when he did get into shooting position, he failed to find the target. Thibaut Courtois spent much of his time mildly worried, but was rarely called upon to actually do anything.
Rondon’s most egregious miss, a weak shot from a ridiculous angle which rolled beyond the far post, was followed immediately by Chelsea’s best chance of the half. As best chances go, this was about as embarrassing as you can imagine. Diego Costa had tried and failed to batter his way into the West Brom box, but Kante was on hand to mop up. Seeing space open up ahead of him, he went for a shot so wild that it hit Pedro at the top of the area and arced crazily towards the near post. Ben Foster, wrong-footed by the deflection, seemed mightily relieved when the ball trundled wide.
Hopeful deflections aside, it was Hazard who looked the most likely to open up the Baggies defence. His understanding with Costa has been superb all season, and he’s managed to rediscover his love of leaving defenders in the dust one-on-one. The combination play between Hazard and Costa represented Chelsea’s best chance of finding penetration, but a few choice kicks, most spectacularly from Gareth McAuley slowed him down to the point that West Brom could more or less deal with him.
The second half somehow contrived to be flatter than the first, in part because there were fewer mistakes in Chelsea’s defence. West Brom remained intermittently threatening, and if not for a heroic lunging clearance from Gary Cahill, Darren Fletcher might have caused us some severe grief on a cutback, but by and large Courtois’ goal was unthreatened.
So too was Foster’s, and by the time the hour had rolled around Antonio Conte decided he’d had enough. For the first time since their Emirates misadventure, Chelsea shifted out of 3-4-3. Pedro was hauled off for Willian, Cesar Azpilicueta was moved to right back, and Moses was shifted into a free-er, forward role.
The pressure intensified without yielding much in the way of results — even on the back foot, West Brom are a well-drilled, tenacious side — so Conte went to his bench again. On came Cesc Fabregas, replacing Moses. Almost by accident, a goal arrived immediately.
Fabregas has a long and glorious history of Premier League assists. His list of assists to Costa alone is reasonably hefty. While the pass for Costa’s winner will be added to that tally, it’ll probably be rather embarrassed about it. Long, sad punts towards the corner flag rarely come as good as we got in the 76th minute. It seems unlikely that anyone will complain.
West Brom’s defence had been working extremely hard all match, but Diego Costa had been matching their industry. Seeing the ball go towards McAuley for an easy clearance in the far right corner, Costa might have been forgiven for giving up and dropping back. Instead, he went hunting.
McAuley is not a weak man, but Costa made him look like a small child on ice skates, easing the big centre back off the ball and charging into the box. There was plenty left to do, however. Costa was coming in at a tight angle, and the Baggies defence — certainly their goalkeeper — seemed to assume he was planning to a cutback for Hazard. Instead, he sent the roof of the net rippling with a ferocious shot.
After a violently enthusiastic celebration on the sideline, Conte went straight to his bench. More height was needed against the most dangerous set-piece team in the league, so Branislav Ivanovic was introduced for Hazard as the Blues looked to run down the clock.
West Brom responded to going behind by hurling bodies forward, but the defence — now back in 3-4-3 — held firm, denying the visitors even the faintest sniff of a chance in the final stages, which could have been far more stressful than they actually were. When the dust settled, Chelsea had their three points, having just about passed one of the most difficult tests of their winning run.
Other teams will try to replicate what West Brom did today. But they’re probably the best in the league at defending deep in numbers, and even they couldn’t keep Diego Costa off the scoresheet. Meanwhile, the Blues remain at the top of the table, and they can remain there with a win at the Stadium of Light on Wednesday. Here’s hoping that streak reaches 10.