No late-minute winner this time. Chelsea have made a habit of scratching three points from draws; this time around they clawed a draw out of the welcoming maw of victory. To some extent this was self-inflicted -- this report could be a thousand-word litany of misses, were I feeling sado-masochistic — but we also have to acknowledge the role of a higher power in denying the Blues today.
It would be convenient to blame Swansea’s second goal on Andre Marriner. After all, tradition would seem to dictate that midfielders on yellow cards are not allowed to simply hack down isolated centre backs and steal the ball. But that, I think, is doing the referee an injustice, for it was a decision so incomprehensible, so ludicrous, that we cannot believe Marriner in his right mind when he made it.
The logical explanation for Leroy Fer being allowed to put the Swans 2-1 up with less than half an hour to play is that the referee was possessed by some sort of demon. This hypothesis has the benefit of explaining the rest of the match too, from Jordi Amat becoming magically un-send-off-able to the vast cavalcade of crunching fouls that went totally ignored towards the end of the match.
So, don’t hate Andre Marriner for this. The poor man is probably trapped in his own mind, screaming into the void as he watches his life’s work destroyed by a malevolent spirit. It’s a fate worse than death, and now that we know the truth, we can only sympathise.
What of Chelsea, though? Since these are the first dropped points of the season, the tendency will be to focus on the negatives. Thibaut Courtois gave up a ludicrous penalty. Eden Hazard turned into the worst caricature of his 2015/16 self. Diego Costa invoked the combined memories of Salomon Kalou and Ramires by completely missing an open goal. The game was there for the taking and we gave it back to our hosts.
Swansea started the brighter, giving us some problems whenever they went forward. At Watford, Chelsea seemed confused by how they should be defending against wingbacks, and that same problem was evident here, compounded further by the real danger of having professional heartthrob Fernando Llorente in the middle. The big striker didn’t do much but occupy the centre backs, but what he did was enough to be disruptive and extremely annoying.
It soon became evident, however, that the back three was causing Swansea more problems than it was Chelsea. The Blues spent 18 minutes effortlessly dealing with vague pressure before springing a messy sort of trap. Branislav Ivanovic caused carnage with a cross, and Federico Fernandez’s clearing header failed to even get out of the box. A deft piece of control from Oscar and an even smarter feed to Costa gave the striker a clean sight of goal, and Lukasz Fabianski’s best effort couldn’t keep the shot from finding the corner.
1-0 Chelsea and it looked as though more was on the way. Soon after the opener Hazard, so dangerous this season, snatched the ball off Kyle Naughton and burst through the Swansea defence. The end product failed to match the run, however, and Fabianski was able to turn the attempted one-on-one nutmeg into a corner.
More missed opportunities were to come. N’Golo Kante, imperious though he might be in shielding the back line, should probably not be the target of set piece routines, as evidenced by a pair of woeful first-half shots. The most woeful effort of all, however, came from Costa, who met a flicked corner at the far post and managed to send the ball backwards with what probably failed to count as a shot at all.
Failure to kill off games was a common refrain from last season, and the familiar problem had already made an appearance at home against West Ham. 1-0 leads are not nearly as safe as they were 10 years ago, and it was painfully obvious that Chelsea were vulnerable as long as it was close, dominance or not. Freak goals are always around the corner in the Premier League, and so it proved this time as well.
In response to the extended sequence of pressure following Costa’s opener, Swansea changed shape completely, moving from 3-5-2 to a 4-4-2 . And although this didn’t cause many problems in open play, the switch did inject some pace down the wings, and that pace, in the form of Modou Barrow, ended up leading to the equaliser.
It’s not clear to me what exactly went wrong with Chelsea’s shape, but what is clear is that having two passes cleave open the defence following a turnover and leaving Courtois in no-man’s land is not what Antonio Conte would ever have had in mind. Barrow’s speed down the left gave Gylfi Sigurdsson free rein in the middle, and a delicious, swerving pass tempted Courtois into a silly attempted clearance.
In the goalkeeper’s defence, it’s not entirely clear what he should have done once his entire team left him in the lurch. Handling or fouling outside the box would probably have meant a red card, fouling Sigurdsson inside — which is what actually happened — was a penalty and letting him run into a one on one probably wasn’t the best option either. Still, once he committed to a challenge it probably should have been less clownish. Marriner, presumably thoroughly amused, pointed to the spot, and Sigurdsson blasted home for the equaliser.
If Swansea’s first goal was a sucker punch it’s difficult to know how to describe their second. Chelsea were trying to slow thing down after conceding by passing around the back, but Gary Cahill’s attempt to roll the ball back to his goalkeeper was thwarted by Fer taking his legs out from underneath him, stealing possession and finishing (barely) off Courtois’ leg. It was a clear, indisputable foul, and probably a second yellow to boot*. Instead, the Blues were behind.
*Which was also true of Jordi Amat before the Swans’ first goal. Obviously, no red card was forthcoming there either.
The goal was obviously the product of hideous refereeing, but it was also, in its own perverse way, coming no matter what. Chelsea had looked dangerously inept whenever they tried to clear their lines from deep, and it’s no surprise that the hosts were choosing to press them whenever the opportunity presented itself. Cahill isn’t to blame for getting fouled, but he was playing a dangerous game regardless, and was made, however unjustly, to pay for it.
Despite going ahead Swansea were still a bit of a mess, and the Blues immediately had a chance to restore parity through Hazard, who did well to win possession in the attacking third before missing the ball completely when through on goal. That sequence eventually saw Costa, on a yellow for a foul against Fer, go down dramatically when challenged by Fabianski, which will probably be added (unfairly) to his list of sins.
Having spurned his opportunity to put his stamp on the game, Hazard became even more erratic, falling down more than once under no pressure and passing off responsibility to his teammates rather than drive his side himself. Fortunately there was enough talent on the bench to salvage a point without him. On came Victor Moses and Cesc Fabregas, off went Nemanja Matic and Willian, and suddenly Chelsea were well on top.
It was Fabregas who got the move for Costa’s second started, finding Oscar in the box before the ball worked itself to Ivanovic. The fullback then annihilated poor Stephen Kingsley before unleashing a vicious shot aimed at the back post. Although that effort was blocked, it was powerful enough to find its way to Costa, who turned it in (off Federico Fernandez’s ample nose) with a spectacular overhead kick.
With 81 minutes gone there was still time to find a winner, and Conte threw Michy Batshuayi on in an attempt to claim the points. Chelsea’s 4-4-2 has succeeded in turning two 1-1 draws into late wins this season, but it didn’t fare as well this time. The final 15 minutes were unstructured carnage, and although the Blues might have scored (Fabregas had a great opportunity blocked, and Costa saw one saved well by Fabianski), they looked just as likely to concede as they did to score.
So when Marriner blew the whistle after a paltry four minutes of stoppage time, one suspects that everyone was relieved. Certainly there was nobody looking forward to the end of the game like John Terry, who rolled over his ankle while making a challenge and appeared to be trying to see out the match on one foot without collapsing. If there were late heroics at the Liberty Stadium, they were to be found in the skipper remaining miraculously upright until the final whistle.
We probably would have preferred them to show up on the scoresheet. Instead we came away with an upsetting, chastening draw, rendered all the more annoying thanks to us moving into the meat of the schedule starting on Friday. This was a bad time to drop points, and its understandable that nobody’s very happy about it.
But it’s important to remember how fine the margins are. This wasn’t so different a match to our wins against West Ham or Watford. Prior to the final minutes of chaos and confusion, Swansea had threatened exactly once, while Chelsea had more than enough chances to win with or without refereeing blunders. We’ve been riding our luck in these sorts of games so far this season, and unless we can start putting teams away we’ll see frustrating draws like this one much more often than last-gasp triumphs.