Chelsea (3) vs Aston Villa (0) – An Excellent Performance that Deserved a Better Outcome

The casual observer would not have guessed that Aston Villa was starting their game against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge missing their star goalie, Emi Martinez, and offensive firebrand, Emi Buendia.  That was because the Villa came out confidently, organized, and on the front foot.  Able to field the midfield of McGinn, Luiz and Ramsey who dominated Newcastle United, the trio harassed any blue shirt in possession in the vicinity with the understanding that Watkins, in particular, would be off to the races from any turnover.

Rudiger, early on, adjusted by using his considerable speed and power to avoid the hassle by running at the Villa’s defense.  A give and go at the edge of the area with Havertz and the defender did not hesitate to shoot, but Luiz was ready to deflect the shot out for a corner.

Fans were still settling in their seats and both teams were already in high gear.  There were surprises, in the line-up that Tuchel selected, though all made sense.  Reece James’s suspension gave Chalobah another opportunity at right fullback, while Timo Werner was rested after his World Cup qualifier games with Hudson-Odoi filling in as left wingback.  Similarly, Jorginho was given a break and it was Saul, on loan from Athletico Madrid, who started in the midfield foursome alongside Kovacic with N’Golo Kanté still recovering from an ankle injury as was Christian Pulisic.

Lukaku’s acquisition let Tuchel refocus his offense on this world class striker, supporting him with the very talented duo of Ziyech and Havertz.  The 3-4-2-1 formation turned out to be significant, though not in the way that most would have predicted.

Villa’s line-up was even more intriguing.  Smith selected a 5-3-2 formation with Tuanzebe placed in the middle of the back three with Cash and Targett able to transform to wingbacks with more license.  The apparent sacrifice was the loss of a forward slot, yet Watkins and Ings found lots of space and opportunities, as it turned out.

Early on Villa’s midfield trio dominated possession and took the game to the Blues.  Saul was, notably, caught off-the-pace and in possession and this led to a number of fouls being called against the hosts, often in their own half.  In the 4th minute, John McGinn was able to place one resultant freekick from the left to the far post for Konsa to meet as he rose above the defense only for his header to go just wide of Mendy’s left post.  Alonso may have done enough by leaning back into Konsa, but it was a warning.

Soon after, the Villa again took over and Ramsey found space on the left and, with the Blues defense uncertain, carried with authority well into the penalty area before squaring the ball sharply into the 6-yard box.  With four Villans ready to pounce, Rudiger managed an awkward interception only as far as Luiz just outside the box, on the left.  A neat move to his right gave the Brazilian enough room to line-up a shot designed to curl inside the far post only for Saul to get a toe in the way and deflect the shot wide of Mendy’s left post.

Villa continued to look the likelier to score with Ziyech and Havertz having trouble getting into the game.  When Ziyech did find himself in possession at the halfway line, Ramsey unceremoniously grabbed the back of his shirt earning himself a yellow card.   With the defense playing a very high line, that was probably a good decision.  The placement of the freekick that followed just confirmed the threat the Blues posed.  It would have been a perfect pass into the penalty area to Marcus Alonso bearing in on the Villa goal if not for the retreating Cash to get enough of a defensive header to redirect for a corner.

That warning of the danger the Villa faced was followed by an even more urgent one.  Hudson-Odoi fashioned an inswinging corner with such whip and curl that it brushed Rudiger’s head at the near post and hit the turf six feet beyond on its way into the back of the net.  Konsa facing his own goal, managed to deflect the ball, off the bounce, with his knee, up and off the underside of the crossbar and out.  That was the Blues’ first shot on goal at 8:12 on the clock.  Villa’s substitute goalie, Jed Steer, could only stare.

Chelsea continued to press, and this led to another golden opportunity, only this one to Ollie Watkins at the other end of the field.  As the Blues tried to play out from the back, Saul was again found wanting.  He squared a pass to his fellow last line defender, Chalobah, but left it short giving the harassing Watkins an opportunity to almost intercept.  Chalobah had to brush-off the striker to gain space on the ball but that put him in the range of John McGinn who, picked hi pocket before he knew it and fed Danny Ings.

Villa had a two-on-one, Ings and Watkins on Saul with Thiago Silva and Rudiger two steps adrift.  A perfect, even decent, pass to Ollie would have had him alone against Mendy but, in his haste, Villa’s current top-scorer, hit the pass too hard and too straight and Mendy was able to snuff out the danger.  Watkins gave Ings the thumbs up but could not suppress a wry smile while Ings held his head.  It was 8:57 on the clock and the fans were loving the end-to-end action.  In fact, the Villa fans took over Stamford Bridge with their Villa, Villa, Villa, chant.

Soon after, Matty Cash flattened Alonso with a strong, though fair, tackle and the teams, and the fans, had a chance to grab their breaths.  When they did restart the Villa continued to have the best of the play and Rudiger found himself forced to carry the ball himself into the Villa half.  When he did pass to Alonso, his wingback was reversing to cover the space that Rudiger had left behind and the ball went out for a throw-in.   This was an encouraging sign for the claret and blues; their efforts were paying off.

Soon after Ramsey robbed Saul of possession deep in his own half and was able to find Watkins in a one on one with Thiago Silva.  Ollie’s attempt to break past his marker was deflected by the experienced defender and another Villa opportunity was thwarted.  Still, the Villa continued to press deep into the Blues half.  Then Kovacic gained possession just outside his penalty area and, for once, he was able to glide past McGinn and Ramsey and find space as he raced towards the halfway line. 

To this point, Chelsea forwards had barely touched the ball and their only shot on goal was from a corner.   With Lukaku being marshalled by Tuanzebe, just over the halfway line, he did not appear a threat.  That was until he took off, simultaneous with Kovacic directing a perfect pass towards the inside-left channel. 

Steer had no opportunity to reach the ball first, so he positioned himself for a left-footed shot that the Belgian was setting himself for.  Tuanzebe was also of the same mind but, as he closed in and extended his right leg to block, Lukaku immediately checked back onto his right foot and Tuanzebe skidded past.  Steer tried to reset but his legs were apart and Lukaku hammered the ball between and into the back of the net.  Konsa, racing back, was a couple of steps away and Mings a couple more, but neither were close enough.  Chelsea 1, Aston Villa 0 at 14:13.  Lukaku’s first shot in the match and first goal in the Premier League at Stamford Bridge for the Blues.

Villa’s response was remarkably poised and confident.  First Mings intercepted a dangerous looking pass and carried the ball away from his area before sliding a pass to Danny Ings.  Then McGinn, again, was quickest to a loose ball at the halfway line, slipped it back to Luiz, who forwarded to the sleek-running Ramsey who, in turn, found Watkins on his left heading into the corner of penalty box.  Watkins did to Chalobah what Lukaku had done to Tuanzebe and hit his right-footed shot to Mendy’s near post with the keeper leaning the opposite way.

The goalie’s strong right hand was just in time to redirect the shot around the post.  Watkins looked amazed that he had been thwarted, as were most Villa fans.  The claret and blue’s first shot on goal, against just about any other than the UEFA goalie of the year, would have been the team’s equalizer. just three minutes after the opener by Chelsea.

Two Villa corners, taken by McGinn, followed and the second one pierced the Blues defense and Mendy had to thrust out a hand to prevent it reaching Luiz in the 6-yard box.  That corner and the next couple of minutes could easily make it into a “JM’s Finest Minutes” video.  First, he got his head to a bouncing ball that Havertz was trying to bring down with a high boot earning his team another freekick in a dangerous spot.  That kick he delivered precisely onto Konsa’s head for him to head back across the face of the goal to a waiting Danny Ings only for a blue shirt to get in the way.

Chelsea tried to play the ball out from the back with Saul attempting to dribble past our beloved Scot just outside the penalty area.  While Saul got by the Scottish international, the ball did not and McGinn fed a pass to Watkins open in the box.  Mendy burst off his line and Ollie stepped inside the goalie’s slide and hit a shot towards the open net only for Thiago Silva to anticipate and fall back across the flight and block with his chest at 22:48.

While frustrated with his failure to score, Watkins did not let his level of play diminish.  In fact, his performance was as universally lauded by pundits as was McGinn’s with his running off the ball highlighted.  Similarly noted, was his ability to play with his back to the opposition goal.  It was his success in jumping up to meet a pass from the Villa backline and pick out an open Danny Ings that allowed Ings to lash a shot at goal in the 33rd minute only for the exemplary Silva to anticipate and block.

While the block did not earn a Villa corner, it did the next best thing.  It went out for a throw-in deep in the Blues’ end and an opportunity for a long throw-in by Cash.  Once again, the 6’ 5” Mings got to it first with his head.  The redirection caused enough confusion that the ball bounced back to Mings who chested it down and to the right where he had room to lash a shot wide of Mendy.  As hard as the shot was, it was still not hard enough to get by the goalie’s strong hands and the ball rebounded back to Konsa who faced an open net with Mendy down.

Perhaps because of the excitement or, possibly, the spin of the ball, Konsa’s shot was skewed and that gave the goalie a chance to drive acrobatically across his line to push the ball behind.  From that corner Mendy struggled to push the cross clear before it reached the head of Mings, almost on the goal line waiting.  Then, when Rudiger tried to clear the ball down the line, he hit it high into the stands.  Villa’s pressure was having an effect and it seemed inevitable that they would tie the game.

While Kovacic continued to play solidly for Chelsea, even he was embarrassed by McGinn.  His attempt to press the Scot was shed in a second and the ball immediately launched down the wing for a fast-breaking Matty Cash who reached it level with the penalty area and crossed first time.  Watkins racing in from the left was able to climb above a defender to head but was interfered with enough to take away a scoring opportunity.

Meanwhile, the Villa defense was solid as a rock and the Blues were forced into speculative crosses into the box and the occasional shot from distance.  When Chelsea were able to break up Villa possession around the 40 minute mark, Konsa tracked Kovacic who was trying to avoid McGinn, and executed a perfect sliding tackle from the side, jumped up with the ball, slipped it to McGinn who, then, passed it onto Ramsey who, with the defense opening up, carried it all the way into the penalty box.  The teenager’s low hard shot to the far corner would have beaten most goalies, but Mendy was able to go down and smother at a second attempt.

There was still time in the half for Watkins to take on Hudson-Odoi and Saul and force the Spaniard to commit yet another foul and give Villa yet another set-piece opportunity.  The freekick was cleared to Watkins who worked a give-and-go with Luiz, and put plenty of leather behind a shot that unfortunately, only went as far as Silva’s block.

With seconds remaining to the halftime whistle, Cash teased a ball beyond the far post that was too dangerous for Mendy to go for, but it was also a step beyond Danny Ings at the goal line.  That was it for the half, but the good guys went in from the break with a spring in their step.

That Jorginho started the second half for Chelsea for Saul was neither a surprise nor a psychological boost for the team or their fans.  It probably did allay some anxiety but it, equally, suggested that the team is not as invulnerable as they would like to think.  With Kante missing they do not have the midfield depth they thought they had.  They might even look back at Liverpool’s setbacks last year when coincidental injuries knocked the Reds out of the title race early.

Chelsea fans’ first look at the impact of Jorginho was not encouraging.  His attempt to block the progress of his fellow Brazilian. Luiz, was brushed-off and Douglas cushioned a perfect pass down the right wing for Cash to run onto and hit, first-time, low to the near post of the hosts who were forced to cede yet another corner.  McGinn’s consistently well-placed inswingers were causing anxiety, this time for Mendy who, this time, had to climb with Tuanzebe to prevent the Villa defender getting his head to the ball.  A Blues head gave up another corner that they managed to clear.

There was a sense that this half was going to continue the reliance of holding the Blues holding the Villa at bay, with the occasional long ball hoisted to relieve pressure.  Captain Tyrone Mings may have been over-confident that he was not going to have a difficult second half.  As Lukaku attempted to force a long throw-in over Mings and Tuanzebe, Tyrone allowed his partner to deal with the intrusion only for the ball to be returned.  A careless touch and the ball almost got away from him with the speedy Kovacic pressing and Mings was forced into a pass back to Steer.  The only problem was that the pass was undercooked and the Croatian was at full speed.  Steer did not have a chance and the ball was chipped over his spread right leg into the net off the inside of the post.  Chelsea were ahead by two goals with their second real shot!  Chelsea 2, Aston Villa 0 with 48:07 on the clock.

Mings looked stunned and disgusted with himself.  One moment of carelessness and, just about everyone – certainly those on the field – knew the game was over.  That is because this version of Chelsea is incredibly miserly when it comes to goals.  In the FA Cup semi-finals and in the UEFA Champions League Final, Manchester City could not muster a single goal.  Then a 10-man Chelsea warded off Liverpool for 45 minutes at Anfield holding on to a 1-1 tie, with Liverpool having only been able to score by way of a Mo Salah penalty.

To their credit, the Villans did their utmost to make a game of it.  The inclusion of Bailey for Ramsey after 56 minutes was both an attempt to add a scoring threat and a chance to get the new signing game fitness after his hamstring injury.  Traoré coming on for Ings was a similar story while also recognition that after 70 minutes playing against Chelsea, Danny had done enough for the day.  Luiz being substituted at 80 minutes, after a stellar game, was final recognition that the game was truly over.

Not that the Villa did not threaten as they fought to get back in the game. A quick turn and shot by Watkins demanded another solid save by Mendy, as did a powerful header by Konsa, and Mendy needed help from Jorginho to clear from a scramble resulting by a wickedly spinning corner

That Tuchel was able to bring on Azpilicueta for Havertz and Werner for Hudson-Odoi reflected the overall depth of the Chelsea squad and Tuchel’s acumen at its utilization.  It was no real surprise that, in the dying seconds of the game, Azpilicueta was the one able to find space on the right and Lukaku open just outside the area, while Werner was buzzing around causing distraction.  It was also not surprising that the Belgian was able to overpower Steer and add to Villa’s and Villa fans’ frustration by creating a score line that in no way reflected the team’s performance.  Chelsea 3, Aston Villa 0 after 90+3’.  The final whistle followed.

Chelsea: Mendy, Rüdiger, Chalobah, Silva, Hudson-Odoi (Werner 82′), Saul (Jorginho 45′), Alonso, Kovacic, Ziyech, Havertz (Azpilicueta 64′), Lukaku.

Unused Subs: Arrizabalaga, Christensen, Barkley, Chilwell, Loftus-Cheek, Mount.

Aston Villa: Steer, Cash, Mings, Tuanzebe, Targett, Konsa, Luiz (Nakamba 80′), J Ramsey (Bailey 56′), McGinn, Ings (Traoré 69′), Watkins.

Unused Subs: Sinisalo, Young, Hause, Sanson, Archer, El Ghazi

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *