With 85 minutes gone in the Johan Cruijff Arena, everything looked good.
Chelsea had restricted their high-flying opponents to very little in their own backyard. The Blues had performed resolutely, intelligently and effectively in a loud hostile atmosphere that was looking to explode into life.
A point would have been a satisfactory night’s work for Frank Lampard’s side. Shutting out a fierce attack and putting themselves in a good position to go for a victory in the reverse fixture on the 5th of November.
But Chelsea weren’t here for satisfactory, they were here for excellence.
Lampard’s subs in recent weeks have proved essential in 2 of the Londoners 5 last wins.
The English coach brought on Callum Hudson-Odoi for Reece James in Lille with the score at 1-1 in search of a much-craved winner. 10 minutes later, substitute Hudson-Odoi would create the decider for Willian.
With the Blues drawing blanks against a stubborn Newcastle defence on Saturday, Lampard would once again turn to his bench. This time replacing Mason Mount with Christian Pulisic – just about 10 minutes later, Pulisic would prove deadly in unlocking the door and stretching the Newcastle defence. Hudson-Odoi would once again assist, this time a Marcus Alonso strike.
At 66 minutes in Amsterdam – Lampard would act again.
His 21-year-old American would prove the benefactor of a tiring defence as Willian trudged off the field after a routine industrious performance out on the right wing.
Hudson-Odoi would shift to the right, whilst Pulisic would operate on the left – a position he’s rarely found himself in for the Blues so far since arriving from Dortmund. Curiously, the only other time he’s been utilised in this position was in the Super Cup in Istanbul where his breathtaking solo-run and finish got chalked off by VAR.
The impact was clear to see, Pulisic’s acceleration from a standing position is a frightening prospect for opponents to witness as he dives, ducking in and out, whilst quickly linking with his peers to great effect.
Chelsea for all their solid defending, had struggled to find the killer ball when reaching the final third.
Mason Mount had an early effort parried away by André Onana in the Ajax goal, Hudson-Odoi would lash an effort wide after a mazy run. Some promising moves in the first half had subsequently broken down by a poor final pass. Whether that was the raw nature of Chelsea’s younger talents, or the experience of skipper César Azpilicueta, the visitors were lacking cool-heads at the pivotal moments in front of goal.
To get to this point in the game where Lampard would opt for a proactive sub was earned by the hour that preceded it. A tense, cagey affair – with not a lot of rhythm saw Chelsea frustrate and disrupt the usual elegance and artistry of Erik ten Hag’s youthful outfit.
“Total Football” would have to wait its turn as they were faced with an opponent that came with the tools necessary to knock them out of their stride.
The high energy of Chelsea’s attackers put pressure on centre backs Daley Blind and Joël Veltman who had to deal with the physicality of Tammy Abraham. In midfield Jorghino and Mateo Kovacic continued their fine work this campaign by interlinking well, keeping attacks going, making smart interceptions and always being available to help one of their defenders out when needed.
The defence, which as a team, or individually has been questioned this season.
In the first 8 games the Blues had shipped 16 goals, without a clean sheet in sight.
Since the defeat to Liverpool on the 22nd of September the Blues have only conceded 4 times in 6. It is a marked improvement and one that has been benefited by Lampard’s selection of a regular back four of Azpilicueta, Kurt Zouma, Fikayo Tomori and Marcus Alonso.
Since Liverpool, that quartet has been fielded 4 times, and it is producing impressive results. Marcus Alonso is proving doubters wrong by stepping in admirably and putting in a run of defensively sound displays since Emerson’s injury in the September international break.
Tomori has risen from 5th to 1st choice (aided by the departure of a curly-haired Brazilian) as the youngster has added himself amongst Chelsea’s best performers, earning an England call-up by Gareth Southgate in the process.
His defensive partner Zouma had a difficult start to the season. Conceding a penalty to Manchester United on the opening day and putting the ball into his own net to give Sheffield United a late equaliser in a chaotic second half which saw Chelsea relinquish a two-goal advantage. Since then, the French defender has rebounded, being less rash in his decision making and covering for his younger peer Tomori when he makes an error in judgement.
The standout defender for Chelsea in Amsterdam was Azpilicueta. I penned an article after the collapse to Sheffield United about his form and fears he may be reaching the end of his tenure, with an exciting replacement Reece James waiting in the wings.
How premature that article now appears.
Chelsea’s captain has responded admirably, draining every bit of experience he has out to maximise his ability. Even with a lack of pace, his defensive mind isn’t any slower and his display in Amsterdam showed as much.
The Spainard’s night was summed up perfectly in the first half when he made an accurately timed tackle on Quincy Promes in the box to deny a goalscoring opportunity. Azpilicueta would spring up promptly and powerfully pump his arms out in celebration to himself – this is a man who LOVES to defend!
There seems to be a less frantic nature to the way Chelsea defend. As the players have adapted to their new coach’s methods and demands, opposing teams are struggling find wide gaps to run into on the transition. Lampard’s Chelsea now seem a lot more wiser, if the Ajax performance is anything go by.
Not committing men unnecessarily when the situation doesn’t require it and individually performances have improved from this.
This isn’t to forget the slice of luck Chelsea received in the first half by our old-friend VAR.
Ajax and Promes wheeled away in celebration when he latched onto a deflected cross in by Hakim Ziyech as the one time the Blues slightly fell asleep they almost were punished. Replays showed Promes’s left foot had strayed offside so the goal was chalked off, irritating the home crowd.
VAR had ruled out three Chelsea goals already this season, so as Lampard alluded to in his post-match interview saying “We haven’t had many VAR breaks this year, so this one might have been coming.”
The luck which might have been missing in earlier moments in the season was here when it was needed. An unmarked Edson Álvarez header clipped the post in the second-half and for once Chelsea were spared from conceding another set-piece goal.
Those two close-shaves were the nearest Ajax came. A few shots from range either blasted wide or into the grateful hands of Kepa was the best it got for the Eredivisie leaders.
So where were we… oh yeah Captain America!
Chelsea had begun to make in-roads again at the right end of the pitch. Despite their mature and resolute rearguard, this was a brave Chelsea performance that was in no way based on camping in their own box, praying for a respite by a lucky break or set piece.
All night the Blues had looked to use the ball to penetrate the space left by a progressive Ajax side, and continually evaded the press when Ajax attempted to force Chelsea back.
Lampard’s second change was to throw on Michy Batshuayi in place of a frustrated Tammy Abraham.
This was not a surprise, the link between Batshuayi and Pulisic goes back to the second half of the 2017-18 season when the Belgian arrived at Borussia Dortmund on loan. In the prosperous loan move for the forward, the two sparked a good relationship which has carried over to SW6 in 2019.
The pair combined to net the fourth goal late on away to Southampton and Lampard saw how it could prove the key ingredient to get his side a big goal in a tight contest.
But it could’ve turned into a night of regret for Batshuayi who latched onto a blocked Pulisic effort. He chested it down and only had Onana to beat but blazed it over horribly. With this looking like a night of few clear cut chances, this might have been as close to breaking the deadlock Chelsea would come.
Pulisic would have a go himself after a solo run would find him just on the edge of the box after playing a one-two with Batshuayi . His eventual strike would glance wide, causing him to collapse to the floor face down.
Six minutes later, Pulisic would once again turn provider, receiving the ball from Mason Mount, drifting inside and cutting a ball back across the box to find his pal Batshuayi lurking. Another left-footed strike, once again high, but this time the bar would aid the 26-year-old as it bounced like a pinball back to the turf before up into the net.
Batshuayi coming off the bench and scoring vitally important winners late in games looks to be what will define the striker’s career in west London. A winner against West Brom in 2017 to secure the title in the 82nd minute, four months later he would net off the bench this time with the final kick of the game in Madrid against Atletico. Now for a third time, Batshuayi has come up with the answer. It might not be the ideal situation for any player to be considered a “super sub” but that is exactly the role he has so successfully filled in different shades of a black away kit for Chelsea.
Captain America & Batman working as a team – Marvel and DC likely wouldn’t approve.
But the heroics saw all in Chelsea’s well-tailored Nike kit sprint over into one huddle, limbs flailing, mouths wide open – this was a goal worth ten for a side that had earned this moment.
In added time, the Blues put on a masterclass on how to successfully run down the clock away from home in Europe. Using 3 of the 4 allocated minutes by Ajax’s corner flag. The “Shithousery” didn’t stop there with Ajax’s one last attempt to swing a ball into Chelsea’s box scuppered by the nous of their captain Azpilicueta to win a foul.
The whistle Blue and every Chelsea player the BT camera’s panned to had smiles wider than the Amstel River. This was another landmark victory for Chelsea’s youngsters (and elders) who had proved naysayers wrong in perfect fashion. “SUPER FRANK” boomed out from the upper gods on the stadium as Lampard ushered his players towards their adoring travelling support.
Lampard would pump his fist in their direction not once, not twice – but three times!
It felt apt that earlier in the day Ajax’s U19’s would fall to the same scoreline in the UEFA Youth League, as a younger Blues outfit frustrated Ajax’s next line of talent with an early Thierno Ballo header.
In all facets, Chelsea feel like a club moving in an extremely positive and, more distinctly, healthy direction. We are only in October and many Blues once the jubilation of a big win as simmered will retell the mantra of “There will be ups and downs”, which there most certainly will be for a side in transition.
But this performance after the opening day defeat at Old Trafford felt ages away. This was a display of a side that was brave and pragmatic, smart and courageous, and capable of springing surprises.
Frank Lampard has only been in the job four months, and Chelsea fans already have some special moments to savour, and by the looks of things – they’ll be more down the line.
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