After two utterly unprecedented seasons in the form of a pandemic disrupting, and altering, the sport of football itself, most were expecting this year to be a return to normality. A refresher, if you like, into the familiar surroundings which had been so ever present for so many years before.
Of course, there would always be moments of surprise at various points of the season – the unexpected nature of the game is what makes it so appealing – but by and large it would be a triumphant restoration of ‘business as usual’.
For around seven months, that was indeed the case, and indeed, for virtually every other club, it was the case for the entirety of the season. But, and perhaps given recent history this should not have come as a surprise to anyone involved with Chelsea Football Club, there had to be something.
Things were by no means totally calm or serene around Stamford Bridge, but there was a relatively orderly state of affairs in West London That was, until events off the pitch began to develop, and they began to affect not only performances on the pitch, but also supporters in the stands and even the very existence of the club itself.
From transfers to trophies, and even takeovers, it’s certainly fair to say that there’s never a dull moment for the Blues, shown this year more than ever.
This is the story of Chelsea’s 2021/22 season.
Game 1/66: Bournemouth vs Chelsea
Before all of that however, let’s go all the way back to July of 2021. Picture the scene: players are returning to pre-season training, England have recently lost a penalty shootout in the final of the Euros to Italy and Chelsea are the newly-crowned European Champions.
We begin in an often unfavourable environment for the Blues – away at AFC Bournemouth. On a sunny Tuesday evening, it was the first chance for the typically inflated squad to prove to Thomas Tuchel that, rather than being shipped out on loan to Vitesse, they deserved a chance in the first team squad this year.
The starting eleven contained names such as Dujon Sterling, Lewis Baker, and even a certain Danny Drinkwater, none of whom ended up getting a sniff at Tuchel’s squad. Perhaps more significantly for this game, it was the first time in 17 months that Chelsea fans could travel to an away game to support their team. The last one before it? Also Bournemouth away – talk about coming full circle.
Anyway, as with most pre-season clashes, it wasn’t a particularly enticing affair, with it being goalless at half time, despite a couple of half chances, including one for Tammy Abraham. There were a whole host of changes at the break, as well as a couple more just past the hour mark, but still nobody had found the back of the net.
That was until, as has happened on multiple occasions against the Cherries in the past, the home team went in front. Jack Stacey fired a ball into the area, which was met by Emiliano Marcondes, following an unfortunate deflection, and the ball flew past Edouard Mendy for 1-0.
Not five minutes later though, Chelsea hit back through Armando Broja, as the youngster tapped home from close range. Then it was another youth striker’s turn to get involved, as Ike Ugbo got his head on a corner delivered with pinpoint accuracy by Ross Barkley, with that goal turning out to be the winner.
Far from the most important game of the season, but it has to start somewhere – and a win at a supposedly ‘bogey’ opponent, even if just a friendly, has to be a promising sign, right?
Game 1/66: Bournemouth 1-2 Chelsea
Month in three words: Getting Going Again.
Game 2/66: Arsenal vs Chelsea
A few days later came a second friendly game, although given the opponent in question it was perhaps a little tenuous as to whether it really could ever be designated such a status. It came as part of a new initiative known as ‘The Mind Series’, which comprised three games between Chelsea, Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur, with each team playing against one another, and all the funding from the matches going towards a mental health charity.
For the Blues, the first of these came against the Gunners, and it was at the Emirates Stadium, with some more senior players making appearances, after returning from their summer breaks. That meant first showings of the season for the likes of Mateo Kovacic and Antonio Rudiger, at least for the first half.
Speaking of the opening 45 minutes, it began at a fast pace, with Ruben Loftus-Cheek seeing a shot blocked, and the aforementioned Rudiger doing enough physically to prevent Alexandre Lacazette from tapping home. Around 25 minutes in, Timo Werner broke free on a counter attack, and he played his compatriot Kai Havertz in on goal, with the Champions League-winning goal scorer doing the rest and firing into the roof of the net.
Werner himself could have got a goal just a few minutes later, but instead toe-poked into the side netting – something that may become rather familiar when looking back at this season. An energetic Werner was involved before the interval again, as he did well to win the ball back, before playing in another teammate, this time Hakim Ziyech, and the Moroccan came within inches as his shot bounced back off the post.
That was a more forgivable miss than the one in the second half, as he practically had an open goal to aim for, but instead attempted, for a still unknown reason, to be a little clever, which allowed Ben White to get back and block.
Such complacency was rued when Granit Xhaka grabbed an equaliser, heading into the net from a corner, but the disappointment only lasted a couple of minutes, with Abraham slotting home with ease to put Chelsea ahead once again.
There was still time for a little bit of controversy, as Joe Willock had a shot cross the line off of the crossbar, but the referee appeared to believe it had not, meaning the Blues ran out fairly fortunate winners in the end – not that they minded (get it?) particularly much.
Game 2/66: Arsenal 1-2 Chelsea
Game 3/66: Chelsea vs Tottenham
One last game before the season properly got underway was back at Stamford Bridge, and against another rival in the form of Tottenham. Prior to the match even beginning there was an opportunity for the hosts to get one over on their North London opponents, by bringing out the Champions League trophy in front of fans for the first time since that night in Porto.
A man who had been very involved in the previous game was so again, with Ziyech finding the opener from outside the box, a pinpoint strike into the bottom corner beating Gollini in the Spurs net. He came close to a brace soon after too, with another long-range effort whistling past the post, in a sign of the Chelsea dominance.
That control over the game lasted right throughout the first half, and if the goal scored by Arsenal a few days prior that wasn’t given was a huge slice of luck for the Blues, they had their own complaints to balance it out in this one, as Timo Werner was ruled offside, having put the ball in the back of the net, despite seemingly being well onside.
Nevertheless, Chelsea did double their lead, and it came from, to no surprise for anyone who had been watching the pre-season games, Ziyech, as his left footed strike flew into the net not long into the second half. Uncharacteristically though, rather than hold onto a lead against the much-maligned ‘bottlers’ of Tottenham, Tuchel’s team allowed then-manager Nuno Espirito Santo’s side back into the game.
Admittedly it was via a very lucky double deflection, but the goal gave the visitors a spirit they had not shown up until that point, and with 70 minutes on the clock Bergwijn put the ball through Mendy’s legs to make it 2-2. That scoreline remained until full time, and while largely irrelevant in the context of the overall season, does give an early indicator of the frustrations that were to come later on in the campaign, particularly at home.
Game 3/66: Chelsea 2-2 Tottenham
Game 4/66: Chelsea vs Villarreal
Following those three rather uninspiring games though, it was time for the first competitive match of the season, and there was already a trophy up for grabs too. Now, when you imagine the most idyllic venue for a European final, places such as Paris, Rome, or Lisbon might spring to mind. One place that probably wasn’t on your shortlist was Belfast.
That’s not to say it doesn’t have its own quirks or merits, but as far as large venues go, Windsor Park doesn’t provide the biggest stage, with a capacity of around 18,500. Regardless, it was where UEFA had selected to host the Super Cup final – the one that, unless your team is in it, you pretend doesn’t count as a major trophy.
To all intents and purposes, many would simply describe it as a glorified Community Shield. But given the necessary requirements to even reach the match itself – winning one of Europe’s two premier competitions – there is a strong argument to suggest that it deserves somewhat more respect.
Of course, the Blues had qualified thanks to their Champions League win, with their opponents coming in the form of Villarreal, who had spectacularly defeated Manchester United on penalties just a couple of months ago. And so, the stage was set for the season’s curtain raiser. Or this was the dress rehearsal, depending on how you looked at it.
Either way, it was Chelsea who appeared to be most ready to perform, as they threatened right from the off, forcing saves out of Asenjo with less than 10 minutes played. The pressure continued, and eventually paid off, as a ball fired across the area by Kai Havertz found Ziyech, who tapped home and gave the English side a deserved lead.
It’s easy to forget, but very early on in this campaign it seemed as though Ziyech was set for an excellent season, given his form. Such expectations may even have been met, had the winger remained fit for the opening games – as it was, an injury in the 43rd minute forced him off and he wouldn’t return to the starting eleven until September.
That must have given Villarreal a mental boost, as they then had their best chance of the game just before half time, with Moreno absolutely smashing the crossbar with a powerful volley. The Spanish club continued their ascendancy after the break too, hitting the woodwork once more, again with Moreno, this time hitting the left hand post after trying to slot the ball past Mendy.
It ended up being third time lucky for the Spaniard though, as after a neat passing move he fired the ball past Mendy, equalising for his side, which was nothing less than they deserved. Unai Emery’s side would go on to impress many this season, defeating Bayern Munich in the Champions League, and holding Liverpool at bay for some time, so on reflection it perhaps isn’t quite as surprising that Chelsea couldn’t defeat Villarreal with ease.
At the time though, nerves were beginning to set in – the game moved on to extra time (there’s more where that came from this season), where the pressure once more shifted back onto Villarreal, as Pulisic and Mount both came close in the additional 30 minutes. Still, nothing could separate the teams, and so it was to be a penalty shootout – something that most Blues’ fans will not want to hear.
Luckily though, this one was a more successful affair, even if it did begin with Havertz seeing his penalty saved. A couple of spot kicks later, the substitute Kepa denied Mandi, levelling it up 1-1 after two penalties each.
The backup keeper couldn’t get near any other penalties for some time, but neither could his opposite number in Asenjo, leading the shootout to continue on and on, until it got to the seventh penalty for each team. Antonio Rudiger stepped up and confidently dispatched from 12 yards, before Villarreal captain Raul Albiol saw his strike heading towards the bottom left corner saved by his fellow countryman.
Kepa picked up the ball and booted it into the air – Chelsea had played just one game, but they already had their first silverware of the season. It might not have been convincing, but at least they had shown the mental fortitude and bravery required to win in tough circumstances, not letting the nerves get to them even on penalties.
If only someone had told them to do the same thing nine months later.
Game 4/66: Chelsea 1-1 Villarreal
Chelsea win 6-5 on penalties
Game 5/66: Chelsea vs Crystal Palace
To have lifted a trophy before the domestic season even begins is always a positive, and there was an exuberant mood around Stamford Bridge on the opening day of the Premier League, the opponent coming in the form of Crystal Palace.
It’s easy to forget, but this was the first time that stadiums had been full since March 2020, so the usual sense of anticipation amongst fans was even greater and more pent up than ever before. Partially owing to the recency of international competitions, it wasn’t quite a full strength line-up, with some of those who had made it to the latter stages left out for this one.
That meant a new face in the back three in the form of Trevoh Chalobah – a relatively unknown figure at the club who, until just a few days before, had never made an appearance for Chelsea. Now, he was starting in the Premier League for the European Champions, and while he has had a few shaky moments, he does perhaps deserve more credit than he has been given by many fans, especially given the wider context.
Back to the game, and it was an enjoyable, if not very testing, first match back in the league. Palace were under new management, with Patrick Vieira at the helm, and though the Frenchman would receive a nomination for Manager of the Season in the end, his team weren’t the most organised side to ever visit the Bridge.
Marcos Alonso opened the scoring with a stunner of a free kick which curled over the wall, before Pulisic added a second five minutes from the break, taking advantage of the cross spilt by Guaita in the Palace net. It says a lot about the strength of the Chelsea defence, at least at the start of the season, that even getting past the backline was considered an achievement.
Take this game for example: Vieira’s team only managed a single shot on target – all the more impressive when you consider the recency with which Tuchel had even joined the club. Speaking of the aforementioned Chalobah, he capped off an excellent display with a cracker of a strike from long range, finding the bottom corner.
For a player who had been at the club since the age of eight, the emotion simply took over the centre back, and he collapsed to his knees in tears, only to be surrounded by all of his teammates. It was the perfect ending to a perfect opening day; three goals, three points, and a first outing for ‘Champions of Europe, you’ll never sing that.’
Game 5/66: Chelsea 3-0 Crystal Palace
Game 6/66: Arsenal vs Chelsea
Another London derby beckoned, and it was an opponent already faced this season, albeit in a friendly game, with Arsenal at the Emirates the challenge on the second weekend. The Gunners had lost the first match of 2021/22, away at newly-promoted Brentford, much to the delight of rival fans, and things would get worse before they got better for the North London side too.
Just a few days before, Romelu Lukaku had appeared in front of Chelsea fans for the first time since his return, at an open training session, and he was set to make his second debut for the club in this fixture. Of course, things never quite materialised for the Belgian during this campaign, including a startling turn of events around the New Year, but at the time the excitement was certainly there for Blues fans.
Speaking of supporters, they were excited to be back on the road for competitive action, and they weren’t disappointed whatsoever by the game. It took just a quarter of an hour for Lukaku to make his mark, getting on the end of a cross from Reece James to score a debut goal.
In truth, it wasn’t the most formidable opponent – the ease with which Chelsea opened up the Arsenal defence time and time again was practically laughable – but the dominance shown by the striker in fending off both Rob Holding and Pablo Mari was commendable.
By attracting the two central defenders, the space for the wing-backs (Alonso and James in this case) was abundant, and they gleefully bounded up and down the pitch, exploiting the glaring hole in the Gunners’ defence. If Lukaku was the Man of the Match in this one, Reece James was undoubtedly a very close second, not only due to his assist for the first, but also for the goal he scored in the 35th minute.
Mount found the Englishman in plenty of space, and the youngster fired past Leno for 2-0. Really, the only complaint from that August afternoon was that Chelsea really could have been even more ruthless with the eventual scoreline. They failed to add to their tally beyond those two goals, despite having the majority of the ball throughout the match.
Their best chance to increase the lead came when Mount crossed the ball into Lukaku, with it seeming for all the world that he would get another, only for Leno to somehow keep the header out thanks to some lightning-quick reactions.
Still, a win away at a London rival is never something to be sniffed at, and at the end of the second gameweek in the Premier League, Chelsea sat second in the table, one of only five sides to have won their first two fixtures, and one of just three yet to concede a goal.
Game 6/66: Arsenal 0-2 Chelsea
Game 7/66: Liverpool vs Chelsea
For many, this year was set to be the one where Chelsea would make a genuine challenge for the Premier League title, having gone four seasons without doing so. In order to stand much of a chance, they would need to prove their credentials of being the best by, and it is cliche, beating the best.
More specifically, they needed to show that they weren’t miles off of the two teams who had dominated the title fight in recent years – Manchester City and Liverpool – and it was the latter they’d be facing on a sunny Saturday afternoon on Merseyside. It was arguably the biggest game of the season so far, with the opposing teams joint-level in the league, even down to goals scored, meaning both pressure and expectations were high.
Initially, that optimism came to fruition, with Havertz expertly directing a looping header over the flailing grasp of Alisson from a corner, to put the visitors in front with just over 20 minutes gone. Lukaku, having impressed a week earlier in the capital, looked lively again in the first half, turning especially well on one occasion to bypass Joel Matip, before playing Mount in, but his shot went inches wide of the post.
Things seemed to be going well for Thomas Tuchel’s team, right up until the last knockings of the half, when pinball in the Chelsea penalty area led to shots being desperately blocked, one of which, in the opinion of Blues’ favourite Anthony Taylor, had struck the arm of Reece James on the goalline.
As if the punishment of a penalty wasn’t bad enough, the right wing-back was also then given a straight red card for the infringement, meaning Chelsea’s task had got a whole lot tougher. Unsurprisingly, Mohamed Salah dispatched the spot kick, and it meant a second half to come of Blues’ backs to the wall.
Now, depending on the lens you view those 45 minutes through, it can be seen in one of two ways. At the time, many lauded the defensive stability shown in how Chelsea held on for a respectable point at Anfield, even going as far as to say that it showed their potential title credentials as, and here’s another cliche, ‘that’s what Champions do’.
And yet, with the enormous benefit of hindsight, it perhaps exemplifies a symptom of the problems that would go on to be faced by Chelsea – taking a lead, squandering it, and then having to hang on for less than they had initially hoped for.
Of course, with the added context of being down to 10 men, that is a pessimistic outlook on the game, and in all honesty the first outlook is more appropriate, but when revisiting this season holistically as a whole, the perspective of certain games does paint a different story to how it may have been viewed at the time.
But let’s return to the game at hand: Chelsea went into the first international break of the season still unbeaten, and the mood was an upbeat one. If only we knew what was to come…
Game 7/66: Liverpool 1-1 Chelsea
Games Played: 6
Games Won: 4
Games Drawn: 2
Games Lost: 0
Month in three words: A Positive Start.
Written and Edited by Noah Robson (@noahrobson_)
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