No game in the Premier League is an easy one, least of all the one away at the
Britannia Random Gambling Company Stadium against Stoke City, who had already taken five points off of Manchester United and Arsenal. While under Mark Hughes the Potters are no longer quite the same side that would literally clutch and kick and rugby-tackle the opposition off their home turf on an inevitably cold and rainy evening, they would still pose a challenge to Chelsea thanks to their often exciting brand of football with a team full of skillful international stars like Ibrahim Affellay, Jese Rodriguez and Xherdan Shaqiri. Lately, they’ve even switched to a three-back system starring summer acquisitions Kurt Zouma, Bruno Martins Indi and Kevin Wimmer, although only one of those three was available to play today.
The Potters came into the fixture with a minor defensive crisis on their hands; Geoff Cameron, Kevin Wimmer and captain Ryan Shawcross were all set to miss the game due to injury. Combined with Kurt Zouma’s ineligibility to play against his parent club, Bruno Martins Indi was Stoke’s only fit center-back. A change in formation to a 4-2-3-1 was widely mooted prior to the game and Stoke’s starting line-up seemed to fit the formation’s mould as well but it turned out that Mark Hughes, adamant on maintaining his successful 3-4-3 system, shoehorned full-backs Glen Johnson and Erik Pieters into wide center-back roles, on either side of Martins Indi. Wingers Mame Biram Diouf and Ramadan Sobhi, took up the roles of wing-backs on the right and left, respectively.
Chelsea made three changes to the side that took on Arsenal last Sunday, with Tiémoué Bakayoko and Antonio Rüdiger preferred to Cesc Fabregas and Gary Cahill, respectively, while Andreas Christensen started in the heart of Chelsea’s three-man back-line instead of the suspended David Luiz. Eden Hazard was in contention to start his first league game of the season after completing 90 minutes against Nottingham Forest in the Carabao Cup on Wednesday, but Willian and Pedro flanked Alvaro Morata instead.
In spite of their make-shift lineup, or perhaps precisely because of its ridiculously open and and attacking nature, Stoke started the match with great intensity, allowing Chelsea very little time on the ball and defending very high up the pitch. They were quickly made to pay for this openness, with Glen Johnson and Erik Pieters, especially the former, playing slightly wider than one would expect. Poor positioning from the former Chelsea man Johsnon allowed Alvaro Morata clean through on goal he collected a long ball from Cesar Azpilicueta. Chelsea’s star summer signing made no mistake in slotting the ball past Jack Butland and giving the Blues the lead only two minutes into the game.
Despite the immediate setback, Stoke stuck to their guns and continued to play their natural game. Xherdan Shaqiri was a constant menace to the Chelsea side, covering every blade of grass in Chelsea’s half of the pitch, playing the ball in between the lines to Stoke’s other attackers, pressing Chelsea’s midfield duo and looking to make things happen with his obvious skill on the ball. Jese Rodriguez and the lively Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting followed Shaqiri’s example, while Joe Allen always made himself available to receive the ball from them and form passing triangles. Meanwhile, it just wasn’t happening for Chelsea in attack. Stoke’s wing-backs, Ramadan and Diouf along with the wider-than-usual pairing of Johnson and Pieters helped curtail the influence of Victor Moses and Marcos Alonso. Willian and Pedro, although industrious, were struggling to piece together coherent attacks as well. Chelsea hence continued to play in a more direct manner than usual, punting out longer passes and hoping to free one of their attackers past Stoke’s high line.
Just as Stoke seemed to be inching closer to finding an equaliser, Darren Fletcher played a weak back-pass under pressure from Morata. Pedro, anticipating correctly, was on it like a flash and doubled Chelsea’s lead with an exquisite finish from just outside the box.
As if the goal were but a minor disturbance to the flow of the game, things resumed back to being just the way they were before Pedro’s strike. Thanks to Chelsea’s compact defensive shape, Stoke found it difficult to fashion clear-cut chances in the penalty area but Shaqiri, Darren Fletcher and Joe Allen all had attempts from distance that were either blocked or off target. A Shaqiri free-kick in the 42nd minute even led to a minor spell of Stoke pressure on the Chelsea goal but it culminated in an overhead kick from Mame Biram Diouf which was well wide of the mark.
As the whistle blew for half-time, Chelsea had registered only two shots but the most important thing was that both had been converted.
Soon into the second half, Marcos Alonso fouled Diouf shortly after being on the receiving end of a strong challenge himself, and received a booking from Mike Dean for his efforts. Alonso then almost immediately brought Diouf down again, although he was not cautioned a second time. Following this, Antonio Conte sent Gary Cahill to warm-up and in the 58th minute, the change was made. Cahill replaced Alonso and slotted into the right-center-back position, as Cesar Azpilicueta moved to left wing-back. Antonio Conte later claimed that the change was purely tactical, and was a proactive change anticipating the introduction of Peter Crouch, which indeed occurred two minutes after the substitution. Stoke saw another couple of fruitless attempts on goal, as Shaqiri pinched possession from the feet of Willian and shot from outside the area and Crouch almost set up a goal for Mame Biram Diouf after beating Cahill in the air. Adding to these eventful few minutes — it’s never easy to get into the flow of the game as a defensive substitute — Cahill even looked to have impeded Choupo-Moting in the penalty area whilst already on the ground but Mike Dean did not see it that way. Thibaut Courtois had a mild concussion scare in the 65th minute, landing on his back after trying to collect the ball from a corner and seemingly out cold for a few seconds, although he was eventually adjudged fit to continue.
In an effort to help the midfield retain the ball better and subsequently kill the game, Cesc Fàbregas was brought on by Conte, replacing Pedro. What was arguably Stoke’s best chance of the game then fell to Darren Fletcher, as Shaqiri’s free-kick found him with a free header at goal but the experienced midfielder completely missed the ball. Chelsea struggled to deal with Shaqiri’s set pieces all day, including both corners and indirect free-kicks.
Eden Hazard was Chelsea’s final substitute, replacing Willian in the 71st minute and combined with Fàbregas to have a near-immediate impact. Hazard’s sharp flick towards Morata eventually found its way to Fabregas, who released Azpilicueta down the left, but his cross was hit too hard. Meanwhile, Rüdiger and Cahill switched positions with the captain moving back to his usual left-sided role. Rüdiger bodied up Crouch a bit better and proved more effective in dealing with the supreme arial threat of the veteran striker.
Fàbregas’s introduction, as usual, proved vital for Chelsea, who began to look much more comfortable in possession and finally began to legitimately threaten in the final third. Nevertheless, it was another Stoke City error that gifted Chelsea their third goal of the game as Glen Johnson’s pass was cut out by Bakayoko near the half-way line. The ball fell to Morata, who turned upfield, beat both Johnson and Fletcher for pace, and produced a world-class chipped finish into the far corner of the goal.
Excellent individual goal from Morata pic.twitter.com/gQea4rujq1— AC (@TacticalAC) September 23, 2017
Chelsea began to casually stride through the remainder of the game, with Hazard and Moses combining to almost add a fourth goal before a patient passing build-up in the Stoke City half led to Fabregas playing a beautiful through ball to Azpilicueta, who needed only chest the ball down for Morata to complete his hat-trick with a simple tap-in. This was Azpilicueta’s fourth assist of the season — Morata the recipient of all of four them. Morata twice came close to scoring a fourth goal, even, before the final whistle concluded this highly efficient performance from the Champions of England.
All in all, it wasn’t Chelsea’s best performance this season but it got the job done and in resounding fashion. Morata bagged a hat-trick, which certainly won’t do his confidence any harm. Bakayoko looked good in midfield once again, although he must be more aware of his surroundings especially when the opponent is pressing with high intensity. Andreas Christensen has looked excellent every time he’s played this season, and today was no different. David Luiz will probably assume his usual position against Atletico Madrid on Wednesday, but Christensen will come back into the starting eleven next weekend and face his toughest challenge yet: the extravagant, blazing hot attack of Manchester City.