Contrast between top and bottom clear as Chelsea thrash Sunderland
David Moyes came up with an honest attempt to stop Antonio Conte's 3-4-3 system, but Chelsea still trashed his Sunderland team 5-1.
In a prelude to the title celebrations at Stamford Bridge, Sunderland lined up in a back three, as many have done against Chelsea this season, but with a twist: they used four central midfielders in order to ensure double cover near key men Eden Hazard and Willian.
It seemed a decent idea, particularly when Javier Manquillo put Sunderland ahead inside three minutes. But Chelsea soon replied through Willian, as Hazard orchestrated attacks by drifting towards the right.
Sunderland could have nicked a second through another free kick, but instead Chelsea showed why 66 points separated the two teams. Hazard struck near the hour mark, before super subs Pedro and Michy Batshuayi made it a 5-1 rout.
Lonely Adnan Januzaj wins free kicks
The scoreline eventually summarised the season for both teams, although Moyes had at least made a decent attempt at containing Chelsea. The defensive part did not work out in the end, though few had expected Sunderland to threaten the champions at all.
Indeed, with Jermain Defoe and Victor Anichebe out, the top scorer in the line-up was Fabio Borini, with two league goals. The formation was a kind of 3-5-1-1, with Januzaj alone up front and Borini supporting him from the left, backed up by central midfield duo Jack Rodwell and Lee Cattermole; Sebastian Larsson had a narrow role on the right.
It didn't help that Conte recalled the big guns -- the only changes to his usual first-choice selection were Willian for Pedro and John Terry for Gary Cahill (and the latter swapped when the captain came off in a final goodbye on 28 minutes). But 80 seconds into the game, Januzaj was fouled by David Luiz outside the box, and Larsson's deflected free kick fell to Javier Manquillo who lashed home.
As the game progressed, Borini kept running beyond Januzaj, who also sprinted onto long balls down the left. Little came of it from open play, but the duo won several free-kicks near the box. At one point, Cesar Azpilicueta fouled Borini, which let Larsson test Thibaut Courtois. Just before half-time, Januzaj drew another foul from Luiz, which led to a big John O'Shea chance. Had his tame finish not gone straight at Courtois, Sunderland would have been 2-1 up.
Yet another set-play chance came in the second half when Jack Rodwell met a corner to draw a low Courtois stop. But otherwise, Chelsea remained comfortable throughout.
Moyes uses four central midfielders
Still, that was only to be expected. What mattered to Sunderland early on was to protect their 1-0 lead, and Moyes hoped he had found a way to do it.
Since the Moyes used a back three, Sunderland matched Chelsea with wing-backs out wide and three centre-backs facing three forwards; Billy Jones, O'Shea and Joleon Lescott marked Hazard, Diego Costa and Willian. Without the ball, Sunderland retreated into a 5-4-1.
And yet there was a variation. Rather than telling wide midfielders Borini and Larsson to stop outside centre-backs Azpilicueta and Cahill, Moyes moved them closer to N'Golo Kante and Cesc Fabregas. That meant Rodwell and Cattermole were often free to patrol the central zone where Hazard and Willian would operate.
As such, Rodwell and Cattermole often picked up the two playmakers, with Jones and Lescott behind as double cover. It was soon evident in the individual duels: Rodwell fouled Hazard twice inside the first 15 minutes, while O'Shea battled Costa, at one point being rewarded with an elbow against the throat, before replying by twice chasing Costa to the halfway line and hacking him down.
Hazard runs play on the right
All in all it was a decent effort from Moyes, though there is only so much lack of quality that tactics can make up for. The two early free kicks Rodwell gave away both resulted in big chances; Marcos Alonso curled the first one onto the woodwork, triggering a prolonged attack that ended with Willian driving home the equaliser. For the second, Luiz crossed for Costa who missed the target by the far post.
As the half progressed, Chelsea besieged the Sunderland box. The hosts followed their normal gameplan, but it was unusual to see Hazard spend so much time on the right -- the Belgian all but abandoned his favoured left flank in order to join Willian on the other side. Still, his involvement influences Chelsea to such an extent that most of their play was dragged across with him.
Sunderland generally stopped him by defending in numbers, and while Hazard conducted much of the play, he rarely posed a direct threat himself while on the right. The by-product was rather those dangerous free kicks, plus a series of crosses swung in from outside the box.
In fact, Hazard was at his most lethal on the rare occasions he returned to the left. Just before half-time, he skipped past Jones and fired over. Then on 61 minutes, he was released by Costa, took on Jones again and beat Jordan Pickford to make it 2-1.
Super subs settle contest
That became Hazard's last big involvement. By the 72nd minute, both he and Costa had been replaced by Pedro and Batshuayi, at which point Sunderland still had a fighting chance. Over the next few minutes, it almost seemed as if Chelsea had taken their foot off the pedal.
But then a glaring error opened the floodgates. With 12 minutes to go, Lescott tried to clear a long Fabregas pass over the top, only to head it past an outrushing Pickford and let Pedro convert. That sapped Sunderland and the visitors soon collapsed, conceding two Batshuayi goals late on and letting Chelsea register seven shots in the final 10 minutes.
That led to a 5-1 scoreline that symbolised the season for both sides: memorable for Chelsea, and one that Sunderland will want to forget.
FourFourTwo Stats Zone provides live in-game data, scores, alerts and animated chalkboards. The award-winning app is free on iOS and Android.