Chelsea 2021/22 Revisited: September 2021

LONDON, ENGLAND – SEPTEMBER 19: Thiago Silva (second from right) celebrates scoring Chelsea’s first goal during the Premier League match between Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium on September 19, 2021 in London, England. (Photo by Visionhaus/Getty Images)

Game 8/66: Chelsea vs Aston Villa

After the first of too many international breaks this season, which saw England pick up two 4-0 victories over Hungary and Andorra respectively, as well as a 1-1 draw against Poland, it was time for club football again.

Chelsea were of course still unbeaten at this point, and were heading into their fourth game of the league season, which was at home to Aston Villa. The biggest story over the two week break for Chelsea was that of the end to the summer transfer window.

Various names had been mentioned, including the likes of Jules Kounde – which at one point seemed very close to being done – but the only incoming ended up being Saul Niguez on a season-long loan from Atletico Madrid. At the time, it seemed like a potentially shrewd bit of business, picking up a talented midfielder to add depth, ahead of a campaign that was set to be long and gruelling.

Unfortunately for all parties involved, it never truly turned out as such, and was instead a pretty spectacular failure by all accounts. He made his debut against Villa, starting alongside Mateo Kovacic in the middle, and the contrast could not have been more stark. The Spaniard looked off it right from the start, evidently incapable of keeping up with the tempo of the game, as well as the physicality.

On one occasion, he got caught taking far too much time on the ball, and had Thiago Silva’s goal-saving block to thank, else he may never have been seen in a Chelsea shirt again. Rather than having a debut to remember, it was one which the player would’ve hoped he could forget happened altogether.

It was such a below par performance that it led to Thomas Tuchel replacing him at the break with Jorginho, which was a pretty clear signal that, less than fortnight after joining, the suggestion of making the loan a permanent move had disappeared from thought.

Moving back to the game though, and while Saul may not have been the man to call, it was Chelsea’s only other summer signing, in the form of Romelu Lukaku, who was impressing once more. The Belgian found the Blues’ opener, having been played in with a perfect pass by Kovacic, and the skill and guise with which he first cut back across the defender, before almost passing the ball into the net was sensational.

He wheeled off in celebration, delighting the home crowd who, as they had been in every match so far, were practically worshipping the return of a seemingly competent number 9 after so many years. The first half wasn’t the most convincing display, aside from the opening goal; the defence looked shaky at times, and Edouard Mendy made multiple excellent saves to keep his side ahead, most notably a quickfire double stop after some chaos at an Aston Villa corner.

Such defensive vulnerabilities were shorn up following the half time interval (likely as a result of the midfield being strengthened by Jorginho’s presence), and some security on the lead was added just a few minutes into the second 45 minutes.

Mateo Kovacic pounced on a short back pass from a pressurised Tyrone Mings, before finishing with all the experience of, ironically enough, a striker such as Lukaku. His delightful chip over the onrushing Jed Steer gave the Blues a two goal cushion, and meant much of the remainder of the game felt more like an exercise in keeping control of the ball than anything else.

That was until the very last knockings of the game, when Chelsea surged forward once more through Azpilicueta, who found Lukaku right in line with the goal. Two quick touches later, the striker fired the ball into the top corner, and kissed the badge in celebration.

For all the discontent aimed at him in the months to come, it is worth remembering the initial success that came with his arrival – even if further evidence of it later in the season was severely lacking.

Game 8/66: Chelsea 3-0 Aston Villa
LONDON, ENGLAND – SEPTEMBER 11: Romelu Lukaku of Chelsea celebrates his second goal with the Chelsea fans during the Premier League match between Chelsea and Aston Villa at Stamford Bridge on September 11, 2021 in London, England. (Photo by Visionhaus/Getty Images)

Game 9/66: Chelsea vs Zenit St Petersburg

Just three days after that domestic victory, the time came for Chelsea to begin defending their Champions League crown. The Blues had been drawn into a group containing Juventus, Malmo and Zenit St Petersburg, the latter of which would be the opponents on the first midweek game of the season.

Having lifted the famous trophy the year before without any fans present for the majority of the campaign, it was a chance for the home support to experience a European night for the first time in a while. It’s fair to say however, that this one wasn’t going to go down in competition folklore, particularly the first half.

To their credit, Zenit defended tightly as a unit, preventing Tuchel’s team from creating many, if any clear-cut opportunities for quite some time, instead being happy to block off passing lanes, and man-mark Romelu Lukaku too. They did that almost perfectly, but as often happens when there is a potent striker up top, there was one minor slip in concentration for the Russian side which ended up costing them.

Azpilicueta saw Lukaku moving around in the middle, sent in a floating ball, and with neither centre back quite sure whose duty it was to compete for the header, Lukaku simply headed down at the goalkeeper’s near post from close range, to finally find a goal for the hosts with just under 70 minutes played.

He was once more heralded as ‘the missing piece’ following this fixture, and it certainly wasn’t an understatement to say there were realistic aspirations for him to reach 30 goals in all competitions, providing his form continued as it was.

It’s a classic example of football fans getting ahead of themselves, in all honesty, but when swept up in the moment, context around the similar starts previous strikers had made at Chelsea were effectively shunned from existence.

There was still one huge chance to come for Zenit, as Artem Dzyuba came mere millimetres from snatching an equaliser, sliding into the path of a cross from Azmoun but watching in anguish as his touch couldn’t quite direct the ball the right side of the post and into the back of the net.

Bar that late scare though, it was yet another example of the Blues doing what it takes to win football games, and as far as Thomas Tuchel and the rest of those watching on were concerned, things couldn’t be going much better.

Game 9/66: Chelsea 1-0 Zenit St Petersburg

Game 10/66: Tottenham vs Chelsea

Simply as a result of the fact there are so many teams based in the capital in the top flight, a London derby is never too far away for Chelsea. That said, to be playing both Arsenal and Tottenham away within the first five gameweeks of the season was pretty remarkable.

It had been a huge success last time out in North London, beating the Gunners 2-0 – a scoreline which really didn’t do the dominance justice – but this would be a different challenge. Arsenal had endured a torrid start to the season, and the Blues had been expected to win with ease.

Spurs, meanwhile, although they had lost their previous game to Crystal Palace in a shock 3-0 defeat, had won all of their games up until that point, meaning a trip to Nuno Espirito Santo’s team appeared to be a difficult proposition.

Just a few hours before the game, some sudden news came in that Jimmy Greaves had died. Being one of few to have played for both sides and still maintained admiration from both sets of supporters, there was a poignant minute’s silence, impeccably observed by all, to give the man the respect he deserved.

Now, most will likely remember the eventual outcome of this game, and perhaps simply recall a stunning victory over London rivals, but that would dismiss what was actually a rather frustrating first half for Chelsea.

The home side had the better of the chances, albeit not a huge number, but Reguilon and Son linked up on multiple occasions to threaten the Chelsea defence, worrying more than a few that the unbeaten run with which the season had started for the Blues may be set to end.

At half time, it seemed clear that something – though nobody in the Sky Sports studio could quite agree what – had to change. Thomas Tuchel revealed his plan just a few moments before the second half got underway – N’Golo Kante replaced Mason Mount, as the Blues shifted to a three-man midfield – and from that point onwards it was as if two different teams had come out the tunnel.

Thiago Silva floated a beautiful ball over the Spurs defence, into the path of Marcos Alonso who, despite it being an incredibly tight angle, still managed to trouble Hugo Lloris enough to win a corner with a powerful volley.

From that resulting set piece, which was swung in by the previously mentioned left wing-back, Thiago Silva rose highest in the box, far outleaping his supposed marker in Dele Alli, and he proceeded to direct his header down into the bottom right corner of the goal, sending the away fans into raptures of celebration.

A slick, free-flowing move then followed, beginning with Havertz, as he played a quick one-two with Alonso, raced down the wing and delivered the ball into the box. Cesar Azpilicueta kept it alive by sending it back into the six-yard box, where Alonso stood waiting, and if not for an excellent block by Eric Dier it would’ve been two.

The annoyance at not doubling the lead soon subsided though, as Kante got hold of the ball around 30 yards from goal, and while his initial shot wouldn’t have troubled his compatriot in the Spurs net, a fortunate deflection off Eric Dier wrongfooted the opposition captain, prompting one of Kante’s trademark shy celebrations.

Thiago Silva came close to nabbing a second of the afternoon for himself, and Timo Werner couldn’t put away a pretty stark opportunity, but even into injury time the visitors didn’t let up their pressure. Continually blue shirts flooded forward, peppering the Tottenham goal with effort after effort, and that stubbornness was rewarded when Rudiger found himself in the right place in the centre of the box to sweep the ball across the ‘keeper and into the net.

Gary Neville’s commentary probably sums up the mood surrounding Thomas Tuchel and his team at the time, even if it may seem excessively preemptive.

‘If you’re Manchester City, Manchester United, Liverpool, any other team that’s got aspirations to win this title, you’d fancy your chances if you finished above this Chelsea team because they look really, really good.’

Game 10/66: Tottenham 0-3 Chelsea
LONDON, ENGLAND – SEPTEMBER 19: of Chelsea of Tottenham Hotspur during the Premier League match between Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium on September 19, 2021 in London, England. (Photo by Visionhaus/Getty Images)

Game 11/66: Chelsea vs Aston Villa

As occurred almost every single midweek during this campaign, there was no rest time in between league matches, with a new competition seemingly cropping up each time there was a match on a Tuesday or a Wednesday.

This time, coming off the back of that huge win at Spurs, there was the beginning of a run in a competition which would end in dramatic fashion at Wembley Stadium a few months later. For now, that glamour felt a world away, as for the second time in as many weeks, Dean Smith’s Aston Villa travelled to London, but this time in the Carabao Cup.

Owing to the tight turnaround, there was a high degree of rotation present, including Malang Sarr coming into the side, as well as Saul returning in midfield, for the first time since his horror show against the same opponent.

Perhaps that rotation can be blamed for the less convincing performance that was seen on the night, as despite controlling much of the ball, there were few chances created for either side, especially in the first half. It took until the 54th minute and a delightful delivery from James, for a genuine opportunity to arise, and, while it isn’t often said about him, Timo Werner finished clinically, heading past Jed Steer.

As is often the case with the troubled German forward though, he squandered a one-on-one just minutes later, having been played in by a revitalised Hakim Ziyech, and that wastefulness was punished quickly too. Some extremely questionable marking in the middle allowed youngster Cameron Archer to find an equaliser for the Birmingham-based side, getting on the end of a cross from Matty Cash.

Mason Mount had a brilliant chance to win the game for his side, having come on for Kante at half time, but somehow missed the target from close range, and with it being a stalemate at 90 minutes, the Blues were set to face their second penalty shootout of the season.

Once more it was Kepa in net, though he had played the full game rather than being ushered on in the final moments as had happened during the Super Cup triumph, and he played his part, saving Villa’s third penalty from Marvelous Nakamba after Ashley Young had missed their second.

Ben Chilwell failed to score the winning spot kick, his effort cannoning back off the bar, but his opposite number on the right of the pitch in Reece James did the business, sending Chelsea into Round Four of the Carabao Cup, even if it was more than a little touch and go.

Game 11/66: Chelsea 1-1 Aston Villa
Chelsea win 4-3 on penalties

Game 12/66: Chelsea vs Manchester City

Much like the final game of August against Liverpool, Chelsea’s next game was considered a good barometer of their potential for title success, facing off against another rival for the spot in Manchester City. At the time, Thomas Tuchel had won all three meetings against Guardiola’s side as manager of the Blues, including of course that victory in Porto, so the stage was set for an enticing encounter.

The German boss evidently thought he would have to alter his plans when facing such a formidable opponent, so opted to start with the three-man midfield which had worked so well against Tottenham just a week before.

What hadn’t been a problem in North London though, was the fact that using this system meant a strike partnership of just two up front, involving Romelu Lukaku and Timo Werner. For probably the first time since his return to the club, Lukaku looked isolated and uninvolved for most of the game, in no small part due to the fact he was man-marked to precision, with Werner unable to drag any defenders away from the Belgian to give him some relief.

Another issue came relatively early on too, as Reece James sustained an injury which forced him off in place of Thiago Silva. While Azpilicueta attempted to match the Englishman’s energy up and down the wing, he failed to do so, either resulting in him unable to get involved in attacks, or help out defensively: a sacrifice that someone with the stamina and pace of James doesn’t have to make.

Those factors combined to produce what was the least inspiring performance of Chelsea’s season up until that point, as they continually found themselves desperately defending and booting balls away. Silva cleared off the line from a Ruben Dias header, Rudiger blocked a long range effort from Grealish and Jesus got put off just enough by the German defender to send his shot wide – and that was all just in the first half.

As such, when the goal for City did come, it wasn’t a great surprise to anyone in the ground. With Chelsea camped inside their own penalty area, it had all the hallmarks of the traditional ‘attack vs defence’ drill often associated with a team being a man down, making the scenario all the more frustrating for the home fans.

Gabriel Jesus used some nifty footwork to keep hold of the ball, before swivelling on the spot and firing into the net, past Edouard Mendy who could only watch as it rolled in beside him. Another goal line clearance from Silva was necessary after Jesus had the ball come to him in a huge amount of space, which did finally appear to prompt the hosts to at least have a go at finding an equalising goal.

Lukaku thought he’d done so when he tapped into an open net, but that was ruled out for offside in the build-up. 10 minutes later Kovacic looked set to score, but Dias made an excellent challenge to block the Croatian’s shot, and with defending like that it just felt as though it wasn’t going to be Chelsea’s day.

Really, Tuchel’s side were fortunate that the full time score was only 1-0, as it had been an utterly dominant display from City – and a first reminder that there was a long, long way to go in this Premier League campaign.

Game 12/66: Chelsea 0-1 Manchester City

Game 13/66: Juventus vs Chelsea

To round off September, it was time for this season’s European tour to properly begin. The Champions League had obviously started with a fairly routine three points in the group stage, but up next was arguably the toughest fixture of the six to be played before the knockout rounds.

A trip to Turin was on the cards, as Chelsea faced Juventus at the Allianz Stadium, and this really was a frustrating game for all those supporting the Blues. Tuchel reverted to his familiar 3-4-3 formation for this one, the experiment in the previous league game having failed pretty spectacularly.

Now, whilst statistics are clearly not everything in football, it does just feel worth pointing out some of the numbers from this night in Italy. Chelsea had a huge amount of the ball, with 74% of possession, but also had 10 more shots than their opponents. How then, you might ask, did Chelsea manage to lose this game?

Well, if those statistics suggested one thing, the number of shots on target (both teams had just one each) tells you another, which gives a pretty clear answer to that previous question. It was the first example of the season of a problem which would occur time and time again, in terms of the ability to finish off chances clinically.

In fact, that single effort on goal came in the seventh minute, and it was a tame strike right into the grasp of Szczesny, who from that point onwards did not have to make a single save. Of course, fairly similar criticism could be levelled at Juventus, in that they were unwilling to push forwards very much at all, instead preferring to play on the counter attack and pounce on any Chelsea mistakes.

The difference, of course, though it may sound obvious, is that their strategy worked. They took advantage of a lack of concentration after the break, as Chiesa broke into the penalty area and smashed the ball past Mendy 11 seconds into the second half to give his team the lead.

An excellent strike but one which should not have been allowed to take place, had the defence been more switched on. Speaking of the back line being asleep, it happened again midway through the second 45 minutes, as Bernardeschi was presented with a glorious opportunity to go 2-0 up, only needing to get a little bit of contact to send the ball past Mendy, but he ended up performing more of a clearance, and the onrushing Thiago Silva behind him breathed a sigh of relief.

Still, it wasn’t as if that suddenly changed the attitude, or indeed output, of anything up front, with it taking until the 83rd minute for the Blues to create another chance of note. It was Ross Barkley of all people who fed Lukaku (who had, as in the last game, been a relative shadow throughout this game), and after a smart turn it seemed like he would snatch a point late on.

As it was though, his shot was wild, and flew high over the bar, to a chorus of whistles and jeers from the home fans. There was one final effort from Kai Havertz, as he met a corner in injury time, but couldn’t keep his header down far enough, and as he was hauled up by Leonardo Bonucci, the irritation was clear to see in his eyes.

After what had been such a flawless start to the season, two defeats in a matter of days brought the Tuchel juggernaut right back down to earth, and while it wasn’t the biggest blow when it came to qualifying for the knockout stages, the troubles in attack were an apt foreshadowing of the problems which would crop up time and time again as a long and arduous campaign wore on.

Game 13/66: Juventus 1-0 Chelsea
TURIN, ITALY – SEPTEMBER 29: Federico Chiesa of Juventus celebrates after scoring his team’s first goal during the UEFA Champions League group H match between Juventus and Chelsea FC at Allianz Stadium on September 29, 2021 in Turin, Italy. (Photo by Daniele Badolato – Juventus FC/Juventus FC via Getty Images)
Month Statistics:
Games Played: 6
Games Won: 4
Games Drawn: 0
Games Lost: 2

Month in three words: Still Going Strong.

Written and Edited by Noah Robson (@noahrobson_)

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