Three quick thoughts from Chelsea’s 2-0 win over Aston Villa at Stamford Bridge on Saturday.
1. Costa gets Chelsea back on track
Jose Mourinho said he wouldn’t be sacked even if Chelsea were midtable, and the side have at least returned there after this 2-0 win over Aston Villa, making all look so much more secure. That cannot be said for Tim Sherwood, however, as his side are cut even further apart.
The table apart, there were a fair few signs of a return to normalcy for the champions aside from the victory itself, if also still a few indications of why they have been struggling — particularly the puzzling starting lineup. That decision didn’t matter by the end because enough other issues went right.
Most conspicuously, Diego Costa was back on the score sheet, hitting his first in the league since Aug. 23 and just his second of the season in domestic competition, before forcing Alan Hutton into the own goal that clinched the game. Costa’s initial strike also came in a somewhat fortuitous manner, though, which says so much about the team right now.
The oddity of the Spaniard’s season is that he has actually been playing quite well and often doing more to inject energy into the attack than anyone else. The problem for him has been a lack of service, and the problem for the team has been a lack of cohesion.
It has often looked like a group of individually good forwards trying to make things happen but with no overall attacking plan to aid them.
That was the case in the first half and with the goal. Chelsea had initially been overrunning Villa, with “running” being the operative word. All of Costa, Willian and Ruben Loftus-Cheek would suddenly burst through the opposition defence to create an opening, only to find that there was no real move or pass on.
It should be no surprise — particularly given how poor Villa are — that the key opening goal shortly before halftime came from an error rather than open play. Brad Guzan panicked with a back-pass; Joleon Lescott did even worse with an anxious ball to him, and Willian ran on to tee up Costa.
All too easy — and a first win in four chances after a difficult period. Thereafter it was a formality, with Costa’s pass across goal being deflected past Guzan by Hutton.
Mourinho will consequently have no need for deflection tactics after the game. Roman Abramovich, in the stands, was finally smiling again.
2. Mourinho’s odd treatment of Loftus-Cheek
Mourinho was smiling by halftime and laughing by the end of the game, but he was a lot spikier before kickoff. After another eyebrow-raising team selection, the Chelsea manager shut down all prematch questions on the subject, refusing to explain why he had left out Eden Hazard or elaborate on the thinking behind his reshuffled defence.
Victory naturally vindicates any decision, as Mourinho will no doubt emphasise, but the nature of this performance will only raise even more questions on top of those before the game.
For one, there is the treatment of Loftus-Cheek, who was subbed off at halftime, yet another victim of the manager’s abrupt and drastic decisions this season. Mourinho himself had made much of how he expects the young midfielder to take command this season, and there has been much excitement around Chelsea about how he can finally be the first academy graduate to get proper first-team football since John Terry.
Diego Costa found his scoring touch for Chelsea, but the win still brought questions about Mourinho.
Given all that, as well as the fact that the champions were 1-0 up at the break, the wonder is what good it can do for a mere 19-year-old to be so conspicuously hauled off like that. Loftus-Cheek had not been at his best given the waywardness of some of his passes, but he was hardly Chelsea’s worst either.
The second minute almost summed up his match. Loftus-Cheek burst forward with the kind of energy Chelsea have been badly missing in the middle this season, only to play the kind of ball they have been all too guilty of, squandering the chance to hit a through ball for Costa. Loftus-Cheek meekly played it to the left instead, and Villa cleared.
The midfielder wasn’t meek in his challenges, though; at one point he left Hutton on the floor. It’s also not like Villa’s attacks were coming through the centre of the pitch, so the decision to bring on Nemanja Matic at halftime was made even more puzzling.
Even if Mourinho wanted to change tactics, could he not have spared Loftus-Cheek another 10 minutes so it wouldn’t have seemed so ignominious? It just feels like right now, Mourinho is capable of only the dramatic gesture in a team that needs to get back to dull solidity.
At the least, the win should help the latter.
3. Villa’s problems multiply with weak defeat
It’s difficult not to focus on Sherwood and his future because no matter where you look in the Villa team right now, something seems on the brink of going wrong. That makes it very easy for the opposition, even one as recently troubled as Chelsea.
Villa are a shapeless mess that can’t seem to fix one area without it negatively influencing another.
Take the period of play that led to Chelsea’s opening goal. The irony is that up until that moment, Saturday’s game had probably been one of Villa’s better performances of the past few weeks. They had got through an early spell in which Chelsea were seemingly running through them at will, eventually shoring up that problem, and were growing in confidence.
It could even be said they had the better chances, as Hutton left Baba Rahman on the ground to force a save from Asmir Begovic before Rudy Gestede beat Terry to a cross and skewed the ball narrowly over.
Villa were playing a bit of football at this point but it proved their undoing. Something, of course, went wrong. One ball was played back to Guzan, who utterly panicked. He powered a ball to Lescott, who couldn’t control it and Villa lost all control.
Thereafter, they had nothing, not even the trickery of Jack Grealish. He seemed the only player capable of giving them anything threatening but instead took too much out of the ball. It’s not Grealish’s fault that he’s in such a team with such a responsibility, of course. But it is increasingly looking like Sherwood will be relieved of his responsibilities soon enough.