Chelsea's quest for balance continues as West Brom fight back for 2-2 draw
LONDON -- Three points from Stamford Bridge as Chelsea blew a 1-0 and 2-1 lead Wednesday to settle for a 2-2 draw against West Bromwich Albion.
1. 'Balance' still elusive for Chelsea
Defensive solidity was Guus Hiddink's top priority on arrival at Stamford Bridge and Chelsea have made good strides since opening his second caretaker spell with a nervy 2-2 draw at home to Watford last month. Three clean sheets in a row against Manchester United, Crystal Palace and Scunthorpe United seemed to suggest that the Premier League champions had re-discovered their trademark solidity but on Wednesday night, West Brom exposed the fragility that once confounded Jose Mourinho and are still troubling the interim boss.
In traditional Tony Pulis fashion, the visitors defended in numbers and geared much of their attack around carefully orchestrated set pieces. Chelsea looked vulnerable from the outset and it was a surprise that West Brom's equalisers ultimately came from open play rather than a scrambled corner or free kick.
Chelsea dominated possession and countered with pace and purpose whenever they got the chance, but their expansive outlook allowed West Brom to exploit poor choices on the ball.
The opening goal of the game was symbolic of the increased confidence in the Hiddink era; Branislav Ivanovic clipped a pinpoint low cross first time to the back post where Cesar Azpilicueta had raced to within two yards of the opposition goal to tap in. Such endeavour from both full-backs would have been inconceivable under Mourinho.
Pedro was particularly error-prone at both ends of the pitch; his most costly loose pass was brilliantly converted by Craig Gardner, as he fired past Thibaut Courtois from 20 yards out. The Spaniard shone on his Premier League debut when these two sides met at the Hawthorns back in August but he could have no complaints about being hauled off at halftime here.
It was telling that as Chelsea pushed for a winning goal in the second half, Pulis sensed a goal of their own and his substitutions were startlingly attack-minded. Saido Berahino replaced Claudio Yacob and Stephane Sessegnon came on for Salomon Rondon in the final half-hour as the visitors looked to deal Chelsea's fifth home defeat of the season rather than protect a creditable point.
Their bravery almost cost them 17 minutes from time when Willian surged down the right flank on a rapid counterattack and clipped the ball toward the near post, where a combination of substitute Kenedy and the unfortunate Gareth McAuley bundled the ball beyond Boaz Myhill.
In the end, West Brom's ambition was indicative and ultimately found a fitting reward with James McClean's late equaliser, when the ball broke for him on the edge of the penalty area and he curled a low shot beyond Courtois.
Stamford Bridge's once-fearsome aura is long gone and the only way Hiddink can bring it back is to make Chelsea secure in defence again. The fact that one of the Premier League's most toothless defences caused this many problems suggests he has much work still to do.
2. Revived Mikel may not be long-term solution
The recent revival of John Obi Mikel since Hiddink's arrival -- or the "Mikelaissance," as some have dubbed it -- has been the most unexpected and intriguing subplot of the post-Mourinho era at Stamford Bridge. Hiddink is clearly a huge fan of the Nigerian and his restoration to the starting XI against West Brom provided further confirmation that he is firmly ahead of Nemanja Matic in the new coaching team's defensive midfield pecking order.
"I think he is a guy who can bring balance in a team," Hiddink told reporters on Friday before adding pointedly that "Matic can also bring balance but Jon Obi especially does it very well."
Mikel certainly did his job very well against Crystal Palace, providing the nerveless foundation for Chelsea's most convincing performance of the season at one of the toughest away grounds in the Premier League. He completed 78 of 82 passes, made three of four attempted tackles and countless interceptions to ensure his side maintained a stranglehold on possession throughout.
But West Brom attacked the flaws that have consistently prevented Mikel from establishing himself as an undisputed starter at Stamford Bridge. The sight of Darren Fletcher calmly surging past Mikel to trouble the Chelsea back four in the first half was remarkable. It was also the first of several less-than-convincing moments, punctuated by the indelible image of the powerful Rondon effortlessly bumping the Nigerian to the floor with one shimmy of his hip.
It was not a fate that would have befallen Matic -- at least not before this season's spectacular slump. The Serbian was brought back to Stamford Bridge to start ahead of Mikel for a reason. His passing or positioning may not be quite as elegant but he is superior in most other areas, particularly in terms of athleticism and physicality.
As much as Mikel's upturn in form can only be a positive for Chelsea, one suspects their long-term ambitions will hinge more on the rejuvenation of Matic instead.
3. West Brom have little to lose with Berahino
On the evidence of Wednesday night at Stamford Bridge, it is remarkable that West Brom have only scored 22 goals in 21 Premier League matches. Their attacks were rarely pretty but the set-piece barrage that panicked Chelsea was undeniably effective and Pulis was ultimately rewarded for showing ambition with his substitutions.
Rondon was a willing runner and menace for the entirety of his 67 minutes on the pitch, though his wayward finishing made it easy to see why his 20 West Brom appearances have yielded just three goals. More difficult to decipher was why Berahino was granted just 30 minutes to make an impact and continues to function on the fringes.
We all know the story of Berahino's summer but the saga played out six months ago and all that has happened since is that Pulis has struggled to find goals while his talented young striker has depreciated in value. Berahino and Rondon had played just 489 minutes together prior to Wednesday's draw; Pulis gave them just seven second-half minutes to try and form a dual threat at Stamford Bridge before withdrawing the Venezuelan for Sessegnon.
West Brom are too tough, too organised and -- as two equalisers at Stamford Bridge highlighted -- too spirited to be relegated this season, even if they continue to struggle in the final third.
But regardless of how long it could be before Berahino and West Brom's paths diverge, Pulis has little to lose by using him more.
Liam is ESPN FC's Chelsea correspondent. Follow him on Twitter: @Liam_Twomey.