Chelsea 2021/22 Revisited: November 2021

LONDON, ENGLAND – NOVEMBER 23: Callum Hudson-Odoi of Chelsea celebrates scoring his side’s third goal during the UEFA Champions League group H match between Chelsea FC and Juventus at Stamford Bridge on November 23, 2021 in London, England. (Photo by Chris Brunskill/Fantasista/Getty Images)

Game 20/66: Malmo vs Chelsea

After a month with six games played and six wins, it was going to be hard to keep the momentum up, but the challenge of doing so began in the Swedish city of Malmo, where Chelsea would be facing the local team. On the previous matchday in the Champions League, the Blues had turned on the style, winning 4-0 comfortably at Stamford Bridge, so the expectation was that, while being away may make it a little tougher, a win was likely.

Perhaps that slight overconfidence transferred onto the players somewhat, as in comparison to recent fixtures, the organisation of the team was less solidified than previously. Nanasi received the ball from a teammate after the hosts went on something of a counter attack, only to be shut down by Andreas Christensen and Thiago Silva, but the brief moment of chaos which ensued when the visitors lost the ball set the tone for what was set to be a frustrating if successful evening.

Ziyech, as he had done in many games up to this point, looked one of the liveliest on the pitch, creating the majority of Chelsea’s chances, including almost teeing himself up for a spectacular volley, but it went straight into the grateful grasp of Dahlin. The best chance of the first half though fell to Havertz, still standing in for Romelu Lukaku, who had been injured in the reverse fixture against this team a fortnight prior to the game.

Loftus-Cheek went charging up the pitch, before playing in Havertz with an inch-perfect pass, but the German took too heavy a touch, allowing the onrushing Malmo ‘keeper to smother the ball and prevent the away side from going in front.

Later on in the season, this sort of game would probably have ended in a goalless draw, as over the course of the campaign failing to break down an opponent became a central theme, and after a half lacking in very much action whatsoever, the Chelsea team over May 2022 for example would likely have just accepted a point.

As hard as it may be to cast your mind back though, it’s important to remember the difference in mentality, both amongst players and supporters, when it came to moments such as these. There was never any panic, nor at the same time any complacency, as Tuchel encouraged his team to just continue as they were – after all, by putting enough pressure on, a chance was bound to fall their way.

That philosophy came to be proven on many occasions, including this game in particular, when in the 56th minute a slick team move came together in perfect harmony. Hudson-Odoi played a smart one-two off of Havertz, allowing the winger to race up the right wing, from where he delivered a low cross in the direction of the aforementioned Ziyech, who then simply tapped home for 1-0.

Many might have expected this to be the metaphorical opening of the floodgates, but in all fairness to the Swedish outfit they stood firm, determined not to suffer another heavy defeat at the hands of Chelsea. Havertz had another opportunity to get a goal on the night, but failed to convert, leading to more than a few questions over his finishing capabilities.

Speaking of a lack of clinciality though, it was Christian Pulisic, after coming on as a substitute, who was left slightly embarrassed at the full time whistle. With practically the last act of the game, the American rounded the goalkeeper, having just an empty net to aim for, but he somehow hit the side netting, prompting jeers from the home supporters.

Overall, not the most thrilling 90 minutes of football ever seen, but the end result was what counted, putting Chelsea in a strong position to qualify for the knockout stages.

Game 20/66: Malmo 0-1 Chelsea
MALMO, SWEDEN – NOVEMBER 02: Hakim Ziyech of Chelsea celebrates after scoring their team’s first goal during the UEFA Champions League group H match between Malmo FF and Chelsea FC at Eleda Stadium on November 02, 2021 in Malmo, Sweden. (Photo by David Lidstrom/Getty Images)

Game 21/66: Chelsea vs Burnley

Just before yet another international break, there was time for another dose of Premier League action, and it was back at home after a couple of games on the road. The opponents were Burnley, and while ordinarily that shouldn’t pose too tough of a task, that sort of attitude would come to be proven wrong over and over again, especially with games at Stamford Bridge.

In fact, the ‘Charity FC’ nickname which came to be applied to the club whenever the team dropped points against a supposedly poor opponent can probably be traced back, at least in terms of this campaign, to this very game in early November.

Now, it is of course important to say that there will always be these kinds of results – no team can be expected to win every single match – but the almost inevitability with which fans would come to approach fixtures such as these speaks volumes about the number of poor results which would go on to take place.

Returning to this match though, and at first things seemed like they were going in the right direction. A flurry of chances early on led to optimism among the Chelsea ranks, as Hudson-Odoi first went close, before Christensen headed wide in search of just his second ever goal for the Blues. Ross Barkley, for all his critics at times, performed extremely well in the first half of this one, getting involved in all parts of the game from putting in teasing crosses to having shots himself.

Unfortunately, his best opportunity of the game came in the 72nd minute, when he blazed a shot over the bar which would’ve probably secured the game at that point, and he was taken off in place of Loftus-Cheek, meaning the lasting impression was probably more negative than the midfielder really deserved, given his performance.

That chance would’ve sealed it, because just over half an hour in, the Blues had gone 1-0 up through Kai Havertz. Reece James swung in a trademark delivery, which the German headed down low past Nick Pope, and while there had been a plethora of missed opportunities, it seemed they could all be forgotten as Chelsea headed towards a routine victory.

Of course, it may have been preferable to have won by a more convincing margin – efforts from Havertz, Hudson-Odoi and Silva in the second half really ought to have been converted – but the result was what was most important. Alas, those chances would be rued, as in the 79th minute Burnley managed to carve out one of their very few promising moments going forwards, as Lowton floated a ball in the direction of Jay Rodriguez.

The forward had the self-awareness to head down towards Vydra, who had acres of space to fire past Edouard Mendy, the Senegalese’s defenders having seemingly abandoned him with a failed offside trap.

The league leaders had failed to capitalise on their multitude of opportunities and had paid the price – it might not have been a loss, but for the two week hiatus ahead, it certainly felt like two points dropped rather than one gained.

Game 21/66: Chelsea 1-1 Burnley

Game 22/66: Leicester City vs Chelsea

Now, while that result wasn’t the most enjoyable, given the feeling of failing to beat a lesser team, some perspective was quickly realised. Burnley may not be at the same standard as the Blues, but the gap is still closer than that of the one between England and San Marino. Last November, the Three Lions came out on top with a mammoth 10-0 (no, that is not a typo) win, though unfortunately there wasn’t a Blues’ goalscorer in that one.

Never mind though, because soon enough it was time for club football to make its return – and it would stay that way until March 2022, meaning the onslaught of games synonymous with the festive period in particular was just about to get going. That run of fixtures began in the Midlands for Chelsea, against Leicester City in the early kick off, and if there was any way to respond to a poor result as had been the case in the previous game, Thomas Tuchel and his players produced it in this one.

They came out of the traps energetic and lively, wanting to push forwards every time they picked up the ball, with the first chance falling to former Fox Ben Chilwell. His effort struck the bar, much to the delight of the home supporters, but he would get the last laugh a little later on as the Blues cruised to victory.

If you were a betting person, you’d have been hard pushed not to elect Antonio Rudiger as a goalscorer ahead of this match, given his recent record against Leicester, and you’d have been rewarded too, as the German headed in Chilwell’s corner. The attacks kept on coming as another previous player from the King Power in N’Golo Kante saw his effort saved by Schmeichel, and while Havertz did try to knock in the rebound, his shot was blocked by Soyuncu.

28 minutes in, and with the Blues still one ahead, Kante went forward on a driving run at the Leicester defence, and, perhaps explaining why Schmeichel didn’t even dive for it, decided to take on an unexpected shot from outside the area. That uncharacteristic move from the Frenchman paid off spectacularly though, as it nestled in the back of the net, and he celebrated in only the way he can, huddling with his teammates in an effort not to get too much of the limelight.

It was certainly his day too, as bar a confusion with Havertz he could’ve had another 10 minutes later, but instead found that his header had been weak enough for the ‘keeper to catch. The second half didn’t provide any respite for the hosts, with the sheer quantity of Chelsea attacks only becoming more and more incessant as time went on.

If not for the Danish goalkeeper in the Leicester net, it could’ve been five or six, with one of his best saves coming early after half time as he somehow managed to get down quick enough to deny Ben Chilwell’s low and powerful strike. Meanwhile, in the opposite goal, Edouard Mendy didn’t have a lot to do, but a rocket from Amartey from very far out had to be sent over the bar by the Senegal international, with an excellent flying save.

In a short period where Leicester looked as though they might get back into the game, Jamie Vardy missed a chance he really ought to have put away, heading off target, but that slight scare woke the Blues up and from that point onwards the Chelsea dominance got back into gear.

Christian Pulisic found the third goal, latching onto a pass from the twisting and turning Hakim Ziyech, before taking a touch and then putting the ball through Schmeichel’s legs. There were two more moments when the away supporters thought they had got another, first seeing Pulisic’s potential brace ruled out for offside, and then James had a pinpoint finish chalked off for the same infringement.

Still, it was certainly just a minor footnote on an otherwise perfect day for the league leaders, as they once more continued their control at the top. And while it might seem almost laughable to mention it now, there was a genuine feeling of optimism at the potential for going all the way, exemplified in no greater form than when the away end chanted gleefully: ‘We’re gonna win the league.’

Game 22/66: Leicester City 0-3 Chelsea
LEICESTER, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 20: Antonio Rudiger of Chelsea celebrates after scoring a goal to make it 0-1 with Ben Chilwell during the Premier League match between Leicester City  and  Chelsea at The King Power Stadium on November 20, 2021 in Leicester, England. (Photo by James Williamson - AMA/Getty Images)
LEICESTER, ENGLAND – NOVEMBER 20: Antonio Rudiger of Chelsea celebrates after scoring a goal to make it 0-1 with Ben Chilwell during the Premier League match between Leicester City and Chelsea at The King Power Stadium on November 20, 2021 in Leicester, England. (Photo by James Williamson – AMA/Getty Images)

Game 23/66: Chelsea vs Juventus

After every season, there are the inevitable reflections on the best player, the best goal and, more recently, the best game too. Now, in many years that’s easier than others: take 2020/21 for example, with the Champions League Final. In other campaigns, it’s more difficult. Some might point to the Super Cup at the start of the season, others to the Club World Cup triumph in February.

But the one which, while not offering anything in terms of silverware directly, had the most comprehensive, quality and world-class performance was without a doubt against Juventus at home in the group stages of the Champions League this season. The return game, at the Allianz Stadium, had resulted in a disappointing 1-0 loss, and ever since the Italian side had been above the Blues in the group table.

A win at Stamford Bridge though would put them back on top, and in pole position to finish in first place in Group H. Put simply, this game was a Thomas Tuchel masterclass. Every player in the team put in a performance to be proud of, right from Edouard Mendy in goal to Callum Hudson-Odoi in attack. That said, one player stood out above the rest, and that was Reece James.

The wing-back was absolutely sensational all night, creating the majority of the Blues’ opportunities, as he raced up and down the right hand side of the pitch right throughout the 90 minutes. Ironically enough, he wasn’t actually involved in the first goal, which came 25 minutes in, when Rudiger chested down a corner from Ziyech, into the path of Trevoh Chalobah, and the academy youngster smashed past Szczesny to give the hosts a deserved lead.

As mentioned earlier, it was a display of quality all round, including the defence, and arguably the most impressive feat of the game was when Thiago Silva somehow managed to clear an effort from Alvaro Morata off the line. The former Chelsea striker had chipped Mendy with a clever shot, and it seemed destined to hit the back of the net, but the Brazilian leapt into action, using an acrobatic clearance to get rid of the danger, and the defender ended up being the thing that smashed into the netting instead.

Moving back to Reece James, he was again denied by the Juventus goalkeeper, having got a supremely clean connection on a strike from the right side of the penalty area, a part of the pitch he was coming close to trademarking with the amount of opportunities he would get in each game from that position.

He eventually did get his just rewards from that part of the field in the second half, as he controlled a cross from his teammate on the opposite flank, before driving a beauty of a shot past Szczesny, the sheer power on the shot beating the Pole.

The crowd had barely stopped celebrating when the next goal went in, this time from yet another academy player in the form of Callum Hudson-Odoi, who had been weaving around Juventus defenders all night. This goal was arguably the best of the night, with the Chelsea forwards almost toying with their opponents as they gleefully played one-touch football between the black and white shirts.

Rudiger switched the play to James, who passed to Ziyech, who deftly put the ball into the path of Loftus-Cheek. He then turned inexplicably past multiple defenders, before allowing his compatriot Hudson-Odoi to fire home and celebrate in front of the Matthew Harding Stand who could barely believe what they were seeing.

It was liquid football, it was better than that, it was a team who looked as though they had a virtually telepathic understanding with one another that would lead to win after win after win. As if he hadn’t already done enough to earn his Man of the Match award though, Reece James put the seal on his performance and a memorable victory, as he first muscled Moise Kean out the way of a bouncing ball with ease, before playing a cross field pass of absolute perfection towards Ziyech.

The Moroccan then fired the ball in low and hard towards Timo Werner, who couldn’t miss, and so ended the utter annihilation. It was Juventus’ heaviest ever defeat in the Champions League, and it seemed as though there was nothing that could hold the Blues back. Nothing, that was, apart from the image of Ben Chilwell leaving the stadium in a protective boot and on crutches.

The extent of the injury wasn’t known at the time, but it would prove to be a clear turning point in Chelsea’s season. On that night though, all the attention was focused on the positives, and rightly so: Thomas Tuchel was a genius, the team were in harmony and Reece James was in world class form.

If only the season had ended there.

Game 23/66: Chelsea 4-0 Juventus

Game 24/66: Chelsea vs Manchester United

Of course, in reality the campaign did not end there, and there were plenty of games to go, but heading into the next one there was a feeling of optimism. That’s because the opponents were Manchester United – a team who were languishing in eighth place, with a negative goal difference after 12 games and as many wins as losses in that time too.

Such a torrid start had led to manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer being sacked by the club, the final nail in the coffin being a humiliating 4-1 defeat to Watford the weekend before, so for now the job was left to caretaker coach Michael Carrick. With the two teams seemingly on astronomically different paths then, it wasn’t much of a surprise to see almost everyone opt for Chelsea as the favourites.

For most of the game, they certainly fulfilled that role too, having the lion’s share of possession and far more shots than the visitors too, with a tally of 24 compared to United’s three. The recently in-form Hudson-Odoi had one of the best chances of the game in the first half, when he managed to find himself one-on-one with David De Gea, but the Spaniard stood strong in goal, and continued his status as one of the few positives among the Red Devils’ otherwise shoddy squad.

As the referee blew for half time, the general consensus was that while the performance hadn’t looked quite as convincing as it had against Leicester City and Juventus, the signs were promising, and a breakthrough in the second half appeared likely. A breakthrough did indeed come, with just five minutes gone after the interval, but it went against the run of play, as Man United took a shock lead.

Bruno Fernandes booted a ball upfield after a Chelsea free kick, with Jorginho the last man at the back and it appeared he would just be able to take the ball down, or even simply let it bounce, before taking control of possession. For whatever reason though – and Tuchel’s excuse for him afterwards blaming the floodlights was certainly an interesting one – the midfielder produced a woeful touch that fell straight into the path of Jadon Sancho.

The winger, who had endured a tough start to life in a Red shirt so far, was in against Edouard Mendy, and even had the added benefit of a decoy runner to his left in Marcus Rashford, so as to force the Chelsea ‘keeper to not quite fully commit to Sancho, and in the end he simply rolled the ball past Mendy. Following that goal, the pattern of play which had been constant up to that point returned once more, and the Blues looked for a quick response to get back into the game.

It took almost 20 minutes in the end, but when Wan-Bissaka nicked Thiago Silva on the ankle in the box, Anthony Taylor pointed to the spot, and to make up for his prior mistake Jorginho took on the responsibility, sending De Gea the wrong way to level it up. With the momentum firmly on the side of the hosts, and some attacking alterations made by Tuchel, a late winner did feel like a strong possibility, but once more one of the chances with the biggest potential to take all three points fell to the visitors.

Edouard Mendy, in a moment of complete madness, passed straight to Fred, but to the goalkeeper’s great relief, the midfielder made an equally awful attempt at what he was trying, effectively chipping the ball back into a grateful Mendy’s grasp.

There was to be one final stellar opportunity right at the death, as at the end of seven minutes of additional time, Christian Pulisic found Rudiger with an acre of space in the box, so much so that the German probably could’ve even brought the ball down with a touch before firing home. As it was, the centre back felt rushed and so opted for a first time volley, which he certainly has the potential for, but it went high over the bar, consigning the Blues to a draw.

It was still just one loss in thirteen games, with only five goals conceded, but it meant Manchester City closed the gap to just one point heading into a month which would go on to fundamentally alter the shape of Chelsea’s season.

Game 24/66: Chelsea 1-1 Manchester United
LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 28:  Jorginho of Chelsea celebrates after scoring their first goal from the penalty spot during the Premier League match between Chelsea and Manchester United at Stamford Bridge on November 28, 2021 in London, England. (Photo by James Gill - Danehouse/Getty Images)
LONDON, ENGLAND – NOVEMBER 28: Jorginho of Chelsea celebrates after scoring their first goal from the penalty spot during the Premier League match between Chelsea and Manchester United at Stamford Bridge on November 28, 2021 in London, England. (Photo by James Gill – Danehouse/Getty Images)
Month Statistics:
Games Played: 5
Games Won: 3
Games Drawn: 2
Games Lost: 0

Month in three words: Still Holding On.

Written and Edited by Noah Robson (@noahrobson_)

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