I can’t lie, I had a piece razing the squad and manager written and ready to be published after the Wolves debacle. I was distracted with work and never got around to publishing it, and thank goodness I did not because it would have completely contradicted both the performance and the result against Aston Villa. Against Wolves, we hit historic lows - we had conceded 4 goals in back-to-back games in the league for the second time this season (which we hadn’t done since 1989), Wolves hadn’t won at the Bridge since 1979, hadn’t won a Premier League match against Chelsea ever, hadn’t won away from the Molineux since October, and all the while comprehensively played us off the pitch.
Villa ought to have been an even more challenging quest, and yet the things that went horribly wrong versus Wolves were properly addressed and reconciled, and this team which has been only heralded for its potential rather than results actually showed that potential AND achieved a great result. So while many (including myself in the unpublished article) have been pining away for a change in formation, well, foot, meet mouth. Pochettino did restore his faith in the youth, fielding a team with an average age of 22.8!
That being said, a change in personnel and a tweak in tactics were heavily influential in the win. Swapping for more youthful and mobile centre backs (the Monaco duo) and finally having traditional fullbacks fit and available for a full 90 minutes was certainly advantageous. Villa were also tremendously poor on the day, and that certainly played a role as to why we were so dominant. Their back line graciously offered chances to be broken and, for once, we were not only taking those chances but finishing them, too. In a sense, Villa made the same crucial mistakes that we made against Wolves, and we capitalised on those mistakes.
This game comes largely down to our better implementation of offensive and defensive width and a vast improvement in midfield. Both Enzo Fernández and Moises Caicedo were outstanding - and, as controversially as it will be construed - so was Conor Gallagher, even disregarding the fact that he scored the opening goal. In fact, many analytical sites have Gallagher as the man of the match, but the three of them were overwhelming while displaying their different and complementary skill-sets.
Enzo was occupying a much deeper role and keeping the play essentially in front of him, which also prevented him from leaving Caicedo isolated as the lone holding midfielder trying to shield our entire back line. That change of positioning won us back the midfield play, something that was a glaring issue in both the Wolves and Liverpool defeats. The two were both withdrawn into a more traditional double pivot, while Gallagher and Cole Palmer were the more ‘pressing’ of the midfielders, something that, again, emphasises those skills that complement each other. Gallagher and Palmer have very smart positioning off the ball to cut off passing angles and force teams into high turnovers (Villa ended with 6 high turnovers within a 40 metre radius of their own goal), and that was improved by the honest defensive work and tracking of runs that Nicolas Jackson, who apparently has played as a left winger before according to FBRef, and Noni Madueke were doing in keeping Matty Cash and Álex Moreno at bay. While our flanks were overloaded and exploited in the loss to Wolves, that issue was also addressed.
There was a much more clear presence of width in this Chelsea team, much more than against Wolves. Against Wolves, our attack was spread rather evenly across all three fronts - 36% on the left, 34% on the right, and 30% through the middle. Against Villa, 41% came through the left 39% came through the right and only 20% came through the middle. We were able to hold sustained periods of pressure in their end as a result of being able to more successfully implant ourselves into those wide positions, and it is no coincidence that both of our open-play goals were achieved through wide runs down opposing flanks, the first from Nico Jackson on the left and the second from Malo Gusto on the right. In fact, Chilwell’s run is what allows Enzo to get into the shooting position that he does when he is fouled for the free kick that he took so magnificently. After registering the lowest successful crossing rate this season (18.8%), it was fantastic to see wide play resulting in actual goals.
One thing that can certainly be improved is our concession of late goals. In fact, we have conceded 20 goals (from a total of 44) in the last half hour this season in all competitions, and 13 of those have been after the 80th minute. True to form, come the 70th minute, the attacking threat and momentum shifted almost entirely in their favour. While this match was done and dusted by the time they scored, that has not always been the case. The squad needs to learn to play a full 90 minutes, whistle to whistle.