At bare minimum, Chelsea needed to keep pace in the title challenge by securing three points. A demonstration of quality to match the other two sides truly vying for the title would have been an obviously welcome accompaniment.
With our squad becoming more available and fit, Thomas Tuchel would address both of these issues against Aston Villa.
Chelsea came out in a 3-4-3, with Christian Pulisic again playing up top. Callum Hudson-Odoi and Mason Mount were in the other attacking roles, and neither came inside as much as we may have expected, staying high and wide for the most part.
(Pulisic’s heat map reflects the two positions he played on the day.)
Chelsea’s focus was split between the two flanks, and needed to be with the narrow midfield that Villa use in their 4-3-3.
Steve Gerrard (or his ”dummy”) has been wedded to that setup since taking over, and has been drilling it and its playing patterns into his squad — to decent effect (4 wins from 6 coming in, with one one-goal losses to the top two). Whether Jacob Ramsey would play in the attacking-three or the midfield-three was just about the greatest unkonwn.
The deficiencies of playing Pulisic as a striker were noticeable in just the first two minutes of the game, as his preference is to show for the ball, receive, and then turn to run at the defence. He does not provide a deep outlet, and with an already packed center, his touches were few and far between — he finished the first half with fewer than any other outfield player.
In fact, with all of our top goalscorers well outperforming their xG and many of our goal contributions coming from defensive players, it can be safely assumed that this will not continue to produce sustainable wins. A striker with a true goal presence is precisely what we were clamoring for last season as the missing component to our game.
Ben Chilwell’s absence (now confirmed for at least the rest of the season) has forced Tuchel to rethink his inverted wingback on the left side. Marcos Alonso does not have the same pace and stamina to make those exhausting runs forward while also maintaining the team’s defensive structure on his flank. He does add an aerial presence offensively and defensively, providing a different goal scoring threat to Chilwell, and can put also put a cross or a shot on a dime.
He does seem to often take an eternity to actually play his crosses in, and that hesitancy has allowed defenses to set themselves or close down and block, as in the examples below. It should also be noted that when he plays the ball in quickly, as he does in the 43rd minute, the goal scoring chances are highly increased.
While Alonso plays a different role to Chilwell, Reece James has maintained the status quo on the opposite side, and his connection and cohesion with Mason Mount continues to blossom.
One thing that James did on a number of occasions in this game was to go for a deep cross to Alonso, hoping for a volley/shot or a cross/pass/header back across the six-yard box. It did not work perfectly, but look for that being an option to open up defenses moving forward.
Villa had a clear plan: to congest the midfield centrally, leave the flanks relatively exposed, and hope to spring on the counter. They executed the plan effectively, but Chelsea were always back in enough numbers to thwart any real danger, and Chalobah made a few key blocks in the first half. We were so effective at cutting out real chances that their first and only shot on target was actually in the 79th minute.
And yet they would temporarily steal the lead in the only manner in which they were finding any success on the day, through quick transitional or counter-attacking play. Even with that, they needed quite a bit of luck to actually make it count. The play started with a goal kick played short to draw forward the Chelsea attack and open up space in the midfield.
Emiliano Martínez sends a hopeful ball into midfield but both Chalobah and Kanté are unfortunately beaten by Ollie Watkins, and our defense is opened up.
The initial threat is halted with Rüdiger closing up the space between Danny Ings and Matty Cash, whose eventual cross is headed out by Chalobah and should have eliminated any danger now that we were fully set defensively.
Luck had other plans, and when the clearance falls to Matt Targett, he sends another cross back into the box. Reece James leaps to head out, but instead deflects the ball beyond Mendy and gives the hosts the lead.
When Chelsea are stretched, due to our advanced wingbacks and high press, teams that flood the center of the park can sometimes gain a spatial advantage in a counter. This is why Tuchel has at times, most notably against Tottenham in September, switched to a 3-5-2 to cover for that central overload.
Thankfully, Villa’s lead would be short lived (the seventh time they have lost after scoring fist) and Chelsea would get level after some impeccable midfield work by N’Golo Kanté. After winning a loose ball and driving forward, Kanté finds Pulisic in space centrally, and he slips in Hudson-Odoi breaking down the left.
While this shot is deflected, possession is retained and recycled through Kanté, who finds Alonso in the space he had been granted all day on the left. Alonso’s pass is perfectly weighted for Hudson-Odoi, making another excellent run. Matty Cash rashly brings him down and our captain, Jorginho, coolly converts his first penalty on the day.
Chalobah (perhaps due to being on a card, still working back from injury, or just because someone needed to make way) was replaced by Romelu Lukaku at the half, which saw Pulisic drop to right wingback and James drop to right side of the back line.
The impact was immediate. In the 53rd minute, Lukaku nearly gets onto a Mount cross trying to break the deadlock. Though the chance is missed, Lukaku’s deep presence occupies three defenders and opens up space and time for others coming down the opposite side.
Lukaku would not let his next chance slip by, this time also via header. A bout of possession found Chelsea with the ball wide and on the left once again. Our overload for the crossfield ball is the single threat here, as Villa are otherwise well arranged defensively.
Hudson-Odoi delivers a superb ball and Tyrone Mings deciding to let Lukaku slip right past him for a free header and makes the striker’s job all the easier, as he buries yet another goal against the Villans.
9 - Romelu Lukaku has scored nine goals in 10 Premier League appearances against Aston Villa; he hasn't scored more against any other opponent in the big-five European leagues in his career. Villain. pic.twitter.com/1041ej5fAC— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) December 26, 2021
Substitutions continued to be the story of the day: Christensen had replaced the injured Thiago Silva just after half, Mateo Kovačić had to replace the injured Kanté in the 63rd minute, and postgame Tuchel would reiterate his preference for the league to expand to the five allowed substitutions practiced last season. His point makes sense if the best league in the world is hoping for the best possible performances from its players.
It deserves mentioning that Kovačić was outstanding after coming on, and it is great to see him finding his footing again after the injury and COVID issues.
Neither of our two goalscorers were content with their displays on the day, and in added time they would make their presence felt yet again. After Villa attempted a long throw and series of crosses, the ball is eventually cleared towards Hudson-Odoi. He flicks it on for Lukaku, who had been back helping to defend.
His barnstorming run brushing aside Villa defenders — at the end of a 45-minute stint that was already beyond the physios’ recommendation — was a perfect demonstration of the directness we had been lacking from our forward thrust.
After Lukaku is brought down by a last ditch tackle from Ezri Konsa, who somehow escaped a red card despite making no attempt to actually play the ball, Jorginho is given a second chance to put home from the spot. Y’all know the drill.
Jorginho is the first player in Premier League history to score 10 penalties in a single calendar year.— Squawka Football (@Squawka) December 26, 2021
Hop. Skip. Jump. Goal. Repeat. pic.twitter.com/Wn6BSG7pWg
While the second-half was encouraging by Lukaku’s introduction and the potency and potential of the attack revealed thereafter, our injuries may once again end up being a detrimental factor.
Lukaku was brought here to fill the void that we so badly needed, but hasn’t had the chance to get sustained play. Let’s hope he gets a run of games where he can, like against Villa, be the difference-maker and bring that home points total up. Our next four games (albeit in 3 different competitions) are at the Bridge anyway — though we’ve been better away from home in the league...