The coats and thermals were sure to have been dusted off from their summer slumber by many who made to trip to Stamford Bridge on Saturday.
Heavy showers, a low-sun and the chilly feeling would’ve made many realise winter was coming. However, there was enough to keep Chelsea fans warm-hearted on an afternoon where the Blues broke down the stubborn resistance of a Newcastle side looking to spoil.
In the early weeks of the season, a tight 1-0 looked far from being on the Chelsea menu this season, with the opening four league games offering up a total of 15 goals, with only one victory to show for it. However, Frank Lampard’s men have made steady improvements as Summer has switched to Autumn and the early sense of a frantic, youthful and naive side have slowly been replaced by a slightly more convincing outlook.
This isn’t to say Chelsea are suddenly formidable at the back. The visitors offered very little going forward despite showing bright signs early on through the speed of flair-man Saint-Maxim – with a headband and unpredictable fast feet, the Frenchman wouldn’t look too out of place in the NBA with his shoes squeaking an ungodly amount of times per minute – or on a Tennis court squaring off against Rafael Nadal at the US Open.
Newcastle failed to have a shot on target – the closest they came was from two headers, one in each half. Joelinton stretching his neck to get on the end of Saint-Maxim cross which flew into the Matthew Harding Lower. Whilst with the Magpies chasing a leveller late on, defender Cieran Clark headed over to the relief of all in Blue.
Chelsea had 71% possession, the highest they’ve attained in the Premier League so far this season.
Steve Bruce made no bones about his intentions and after picking up unexpected wins against Tottenham and Manchester United already this campaign, you couldn’t fault the 58-year-old for approaching Chelsea’s vibrant attacking outfit in a pragmatic fashion.
When Marcus Alonso’s left-footed strike found the bottom corner, finally beating an in-form Martin Dúbravka, there was a palpable sense of jubilation around Stamford Bridge.
The Spainard’s goal rewarded Chelsea’s continued pressure penning the black and white stripes back into their half, retreating, wilting and eventually – caving to a blue wave which refused to be denied by a low-block.
This game was one defined not by ninety minutes of free-flowing artistic football, but more of mentality, determination and more specifically substitutions which helped provide Chelsea with the impetus to solve the Geordie puzzle.
Frank Lampard’s managerial ability has been questioned by many outside the club on whether he has the skill to take up such a position so early on in his career prowling the touchline, rather than arriving late into the box to score a goal.
Since his arrival in July Lampard has already used a wide variety of formations to keep fans guessing. (Five in total, in case you weren’t counting.)
4-3-3, 4-2-3-1, 4-1-3-2, 3-4-3 and 3-5-2. Lots of numbers and a lot switches within a short period of time.
The diamond has yet to be used since pre-season and looks likely to one attempted in rescue situations when the Blues might be searching for a late goal; but even in the cases of Valencia and Liverpool Lampard didn’t switch to it.
Instead a 4-3-3 and a 4-2-3-1 have been to go to setups tactically. The biggest debate point around these formations usually stems from the positioning of Mason Mount, who is sometimes labelled as a number ten, but when the game starts looks to drift naturally wide to use his pace to run at the opposition.
The most interesting tactical surprise was the tricky looking trip to Molineux in early September. When team news broke, it quickly became apparent Lampard had matched up to his opponents formation in adopting a 3-4-3. For a lot of Chelsea fans, memories quickly flooded back to October of 2016 when the lineup was released for Chelsea’s trip to another team who played in black and gold – Hull City – and the infamous switch under Antonio Conte which would lead to a Premier League title.
The switch for Lampard worked a treat as the Blues were 3-0 up within 45 minutes, blowing Wanderers away – eventually winning the game 5-2. Lampard replicated the same formation a couple of days later for the home encounter with Valencia, but instead of another breathtaking attacking display, a stubborn and resilient opponent stood in their way and nicked all three points despite offering very little in attack.
It was another learning curve for Lampard and so the 4-3-3 was reinstated again.
However, what has likely been his most successful in game piece of management so far this season did come when starting with the aforementioned 3-4-3. Away to Lille for the second Champions League group game the Blues were level with the Ligue 1 side and in search of a winner.
Lampard took off Reece James, who had given a fine performance on his European debut, Callum Hudson-Odoi took his place and moved out to the left, with Mount shifting centrally back to the centre behind Tammy Abraham in a 4-2-3-1.
It only took 11 minutes for the club legend’s move to take effect when Hudson-Odoi, from the wide left would cut in and bend a teasing cross over to Willian to volley into the ground to beat Lille’s shot-stopper and win the tie.
On Saturday, substitutions would be pivotal for Lampard again at a similar time to Lille when a winner was needed.
Chelsea were forced into a change before half-time when Ross Barkley was unable to recover from an early ankle injury he sustained, so was replaced by Mateo Kovacic.
Kovacic’s impact wouldn’t be felt till after the break when the Blues turned up the heat on Newcastle.
The Croatian’s nimble feet, quick turn of pace, dribbling ability and strength in tight areas allowed Chelsea to keep attacks alive and press Newcastle back, not allowing them to leave their half. Fears of a counter-attack which were present in the first half were quickly diminished with the home side’s improved passing and Kovacic’s immaculate tacking which goes under the radar.
He was already linking well with Jorghino, committing Newcastle men and gliding across the pitch, but Chelsea were still missing something extra.
Mason Mount’s number was shown just past the hour, as the English midfielder had struggled to get into the game. With Newcastle sitting deep and unwilling to commit many men forward, Mount’s runs in behind from deep weren’t as impactful – his best moment coming from a shot inside the box in the first half, forcing Dubravka to parry it away.
In his place came Christian Pulisic who has been the subject for a lot of discussion recently for his lack of playing time which has divided opinion. The American showed no signs of frustration and instantly aimed to show any doubters and his manager why his name should be in the eleven more frequently.
With Pulisic being a naturally wide player, it seemed Newcastle struggled to deal with the 21-year-old’s movement and positioning. Coming short, running in behind – moving centrally, moving back to the right wing. It clearly made a difference and he could’ve netted his first Chelsea goal if it wasn’t for the face of Dubrakva diverting his close range effort agonisingly past the post.
That miss wouldn’t keep “Captain America” down as his movement would prove key in the move that lead to the all-important winner.
Chelsea had regularly been forced wide by Newcastle’s defensive shape leaving a heavily congested middle of the park. Forcing Lampard’s side wide played into the visitors hands as crosses from César Azpilicueta, Marcus Alonso and Callum Hudson-Odoi would be cleared by Jamaal Lascelles, Ciaran Clark or Fabian Schär.
With Chelsea rebuilding from the back, Jorginho would find Pulisic still quite far out from goal. The winger quickly spung to evade a challenge from forward Joelinton. The first burst of speed would find Pulisic in a position many players in Blue had been throughout the 72 minutes preceding it.
A rigid five man defence confronted him and the regular option would have been to find Azpilicueta with an easy pass to his right just off screen, likely forcing a cross. Instead Pulisic would use another quick burst of speed to drive at Newcastle’s Clark, attracting the attention of Joelinton and Jetro Williams.
Pulisic then quickly cut the ball back across goal, finding Hudson-Odoi now central who would kill the ball dead in its track. Now Chelsea had an overload with Newcastle’s defence static, and Alonso was left free to be fed to drill in the winner.
Hudson-Odoi will rightly register another assist, his fourth since returning from injury. However, as many have argued with Jorginho, “The pass before the pass” is as vital and that is what Pulisic showed here when his side needed it.
Chelsea would hang on for only their second clean sheet of the season and a vital three points with Tottenham and Manchester United once again dropping points.
A fifth win in a row mostly has gone under the radar whilst the wider football world’s attention have looked elsewhere for more juicy stories – and that’s a good thing.
Whilst Lampard is in the early stages of his time at Chelsea – the lack of scandal, questions and hyperbole is perfect to keep the feel-good vibe that continues to emanate around Stamford Bridge. Even with frustrations, the Stamford Bridge crowd kept their moans and groans to a minimum and used their energy to back the team in their search for a winner.
It was another positive day which tested Chelsea and Lampard, and once again the two came up with the right answers.
In many ways, the more attention goes elsewhere the better it is for Lampard’s Revolution in west London.
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