Any reasonable person would agree that Diego Costa and N’Golo Kante have been key to Chelsea’s 2016 resurgence. Costa has been the most dangerous player in the Premier League, terrorising defenders and scoring goals left and right. Kante, meanwhile, has been a vital contributor in the centre of the park, mopping up opposition attacks and freeing up the other midfielders to look like competent footballers again. Without Costa and Kante, Chelsea thwacked Bournemouth 3-0. One can only assume that with that duo present we might have reached double digits.
Antonio Conte was expected to respond to the suspensions by turning to Cesc Fabregas in midfield and Michy Batshuayi up front. Those expectations were only half realised — we got a Belgian centre forward, but instead of Batshuayi it was Eden Hazard at the point of the attack. His Costa impression wasn’t particularly good, but the Blues made it work anyway.
The Cherries had an enforced absence of their own, with Chelsea loanee Nathan Ake unavailable to make the trip to Stamford Bridge. That led to some defensive reshuffling. Attempting to stop the Blues’ 3-4-3, Eddie Howe opted to field three centre backs and run something like a 3-6-1. For about the first 20 minutes, it seemed to be working.
Chelsea had their first vague sight of goal shortly after kickoff, but it was a surprising long pass to Pedro which opened up the visitors rather than any clever buildup play. With Costa out and Hazard dropping back to start play, the Blues found themselves without the tools they usually field to break into opposition boxes. Crosses from the wingbacks were aimed at nobody in particular, and the neat one-twos that the wide forwards like using to slip in behind were missing some of their usual zest.
Defensively, however, all was well. Joshua King was isolated against the Chelsea back three, with only Jack Wilshere in regular support. The Bournemouth wingbacks, particularly Brad Smith on the left, seemed more interested in their defensive responsibilities than getting into Marcos Alonso or Victor Moses. The Cherries’ focus on holding their shape and waiting for Chelsea to produce something made for an impressively dull opening sequence, and the whole ground seemed to be waiting for a moment of magic to snap the tedium.
This afternoon’s sorcerer turned out to be Pedro. He’d been relatively quiet since scoring that spectacular equaliser against Spurs back in November, but showed that that goal was no fluke by coming up with an even better one here. A short corner routine ended with Fabregas feeding his once and present teammate on the edge of the box.
It wasn’t a clear-cut scoring chance, and I might hesitate to call it a chance at all. Pedro turned away from an Adam Smith challenge, but when he looked up he was confronted by Simon Francis and Steve Cook blocking his path to goal. There seemed to be nothing on, but he decided to shoot anyway. There was exactly one trajectory that could have beaten Francis, Cook and goalkeeper Artur Boruc, and Pedro found it, scooping a perfect chip in at the far post. You can watch top-level football for a long, long time without seeing a finish that perfect, and everyone knew it.
Bournemouth’s response to going 1-0 down was to try to push into Chelsea, but all they really got out of it was a weak shot from Wilshere* well-saved by Thibaut Courtois and then a dubious penalty shout when Adam Smith barged into Nemanja Matic as he was driving in from the right wing. It was the Blues, in fact, who came closest to finding the net again when Fabregas’s neat free kick drifted inches over the bar. We’d have to settle for a single-goal lead going into halftime.
*Before the match I had nightmarish visions of that rodent-looking idiot being the one to end Chelsea’s perfect run.
That state of affairs didn’t last long. Hazard had spent the first half looking extremely dangerous when picking up the ball deep and completely lost whenever asked to do anything you might expect from a real centre forward. Three or four passes which Costa would have hared after found the Belgian on his heels or moving the wrong way entirely. After the interval, he made sure to stick to his strengths, and was soon rewarded.
Poor Simon Francis might be forgiven a clumsy challenge or two on the league’s most adept dribbler, but his response to being isolated against Hazard on the right side of the box took ineptitude to whole new pinnacles of profundity. A leg was introduced to Hazard’s ankles at speed, and referee Mike Jones had no choice but to point to the spot. It was Chelsea’s first penalty since the opening day of the season, and had the same outcome. Hazard sent Boruc the wrong way, casually putting the Blues 2-0 to the good.
The game was more or less won at this point, which made the slew of missed Chelsea chances a little more palatable. The Cherries, to their credit, refused to take the loss lying down, but their forays forward only gave the Blues at chance to hit them on the counterattack. They could not, however, capitalise. Willian had a smart shot saved by Boruc, while Hazard and Moses managed to miscue badly from good positions.
Bournemouth had enough life in them to threaten Courtois’ clean sheet through Benik Afobe, who beat David Luiz to Wilshere’s incisive pass but found his snapshot pushed to safety by the big goalkeeper. That shot, which came in the 73rd minute, proved to be the last time Chelsea’s defence was under any pressure at all.
With the Cherries incapable of putting together any credible threat, the Blues were content to sit deep and see out the victory. There was time enough for one more goal to add further gloss to a strong performance, with Pedro picking up the platonic opposite of his earlier strike when he bounced a shot off a pair of defenders and past Boruc with the final kick of the match.
After that run of 1-0 wins, it was nice to see a more emphatic scoreline, especially since the schedule is about to get rough again soon. Stoke City come visiting on the weekend, and if Chelsea can win their 13th(!) straight we’ll be in very strong position to make some noise in the season half of the season. There are records to be broken, of course, but the most important thing now is to keep the points coming.