In our final act at Stamford Bridge for the calendar year, Chelsea eked out a last-gasp 2-1 victory against Crystal Palace on Wednesday night. It may have been our 12th straight win against Palace in the Premier League, a club record for us, but it was a performance much more indicative of our current plight rather than any successes of the recent, or not-so-recent past.
Then again, wins aren’t nearly as common these days as they once used to be, so perhaps dwelling on the negatives when they do arrive is a self-defeating proposition. For as familiar as some of our failings may have been, we also saw some promising signs — and not just because this was our youngest ever starting XI in a Premier League match.
Malo Gusto had perhaps his best game yet, playing effectively on both flanks and both ends of the pitch. The right back assists with a left-footed cross from the left channel in open play? You know it! Meanwhile, Nicolas Jackson decided that backheeling was the most effective way to pass the ball, and really should’ve had two assists himself that way. (And he also should’ve had an easy goal, perhaps two, but you know ... no dwelling!) Roméo Lavia finally made his debut and restored some shape to our midfield. (Though there rumors of a new thigh inj...no dwelling I said!) Alfie Gilchrist made a late cameo for his senior debut, and channeled a bit of John Terry as he tried to block a pass with his head.
Alfie Gilchrist went to block the ball with his head, I’m dying this guy is a madman— Vᴅʏᴋ (@VdykCFC) December 27, 2023
And two players who have barely featured all season — largely due to injuries, one major (for Nkunku) and a few minor (for Noni) — made their presence felt in this one. Nkunku got the start, his first for the club, and that confusing airshot aside, looked ready to live up to our expectations. He made everyone around him in attack look better, which is no mean feat with this bunch — and especially for someone who’s barely played with the team.
“He needs to adapt to the team and the Premier League, but he played more than 60 minutes and it was an important step for him. There were a few combinations that were very good but we need to repeat these actions. We need him to be more involved but it’s normal, it’s his first 70 minutes. He needs to play games and he will start to find himself and adapt.”
But of course we don’t just want to compete (though we’ve failed even in that a few times recently — it’s hard not to dwell!). We want to win, and it looked like victory would elude us. Thankfully, a bit of Noni Madueke chaos-ball struck gold just in the nick of time as Eberechi Eze dangled a leg and VAR eventually confirmed the stonewall penalty.
Madueke himself dispatched it with the coolness of Cole Palmer.
“I said it was Conor [to take the penalty], but I said to Conor if Noni was more confident you can give him the penalty. You have to be confident in that moment.
“I am so happy because a player who comes from the bench needs to show this character and this hunger. He showed he was ready to take the opportunity. He played free. He did what we needed in this moment. I liked it because he showed he was disappointed with me because he didn’t play too much.”
Of course now the trick is to build on this. We’ve won three in a row at home but we’ve lost four in a row away. Consistency has eluded us, and we’ve yet to actually turn one of these potential turning points into an actual turning point.
Perhaps it’ll be more of a gradual turning circle. Eventually, we’ll come about.
“We were talking at the end about mentality. Mentality is about preparing yourself, competing in the best way, knowing the Premier League is really tough. That is where we want to be consistent, it’s a big challenge.
“We are starting to build our run of winning games at Stamford Bridge. The last year or year-and-an-half the results were not so good, so it’s so important to win in front of our fans.”
-Mauricio Pochettino; source: Chelsea FC
And so, at the halfway point of the 2023-24 season, we are six points better off than last season. It’s a circle with a very big radius.