No need for Chelsea to panic after comprehensive defeat to Bournemouth
After referee Lee Probert blew for full-time on Wednesday night and drew to a close Chelsea's chastening 3-0 home defeat to Bournemouth, the defeated players were treated to a strangely pleasant reception.
Rather than the catcalls and whistles that might be expected to accompany such an inglorious result, there was a smattering of applause from those remaining inside Stamford Bridge.
There had been a sizeable exodus from the stadium after former Blue Nathan Ake scored the visitors' improbable third goal so perhaps the boo-boys had already left by the time the game was formally ended. Nevertheless, those that stayed to the end still refused to verbally condemn their players.
In truth, there had not been a lack of effort from the home side, just predictability in their buildup play coupled with a series of bad decisions by individuals. For all the huffing and puffing and dominance of possession, especially in the second half, Chelsea were barely able to lay a glove on Eddie Howe's side. Statistics might record that the hosts had seven shots on target but none of them stretched Asmir Begovic, In contrast, Bournemouth had four strikes on target and three found the back of the net.
This defeat was the product of a well-organised side that knew how to cope with this particular Chelsea lineup with their task made immeasurably easier once they took the lead. While Antonio Conte has had some success when plying without a recognised centre-forward, the benefits have usually come when his team scores first. It means the opponents have to advance and Chelsea's diminutive yet rapid front three can cause havoc on the counterattack.
If the opponents break the deadlock it becomes much harder as long as they are disciplined enough to sit deep and keep their shape. The result is there is no room in which Chelsea's technicians can operate and no reference point that can be targeted with crosses or aerial balls. This is what ultimately frustrated Chelsea.
The first half had hardly been a scintillating encounter but it was reasonably open with Chelsea carving out a few half chances. As soon as Callum Wilson gave Bournemouth the lead after the break, the Blues might have camped in their opponents' half but they were denied even a sniff of goal.
Of course, Conte was not helped by the farcical situation around transfer deadline day that saw Michy Batshuayi's last-minute loan move to Borussia Dortmund. But seeing as the striker has hardly been the manager's go-to guy -- even when Alvaro Morata or Diego Costa before him were unavailable -- this should not be used as an excuse.
More damaging were the absences of two key players: Morata and Willian. Morata's goal touch might have deserted him recently, but the Spaniard's game is about far more than simply finding the back of the net. His understanding with Eden Hazard has been almost telepathic from the start while his hold-up play, aerial ability and movement off the ball have been an asset to the team. Even if Morata does not score, his all-round play helps others to prosper.
Almost as vital, especially when playing three up front, is Willian. The Brazilian's exquisite close control and explosive speed from a standing start ensures defenders always have to pay close attention which in turn draws some of the focus from Hazard. With Pedro Rodriguez out of form and Ross Barkley still working his way back to sharpness, Hazard was left virtually alone against Bournemouth and even a player as gifted as the Belgian cannot do it all by himself against a massed defence. Not every time, anyway.
A return of just two wins in nine matches played in 2018 is clearly not good enough and Chelsea will be targeting their next two matches to get back on track. The champions travel to Watford on Monday before hosting West Bromwich Albion a week later and six points will be the minimum requirement if they are to keep their hopes of a top-four finish in their hands. The pressure on those matches grows even further with the knowledge that their ensuing two league fixtures are away at Manchester United and Manchester City.
But despite the surprisingly comprehensive defeat on Wednesday, there should be no sense of panic within the dressing room. Morata will return before long and even if it is delayed, new signing Olivier Giroud is well-versed enough in the Premier League to provide the focal point so badly missing up front. Willian's hamstring is due to recover much quicker than expected while Pedro's downturn and Barkley's rustiness will not last forever.
It was a bad performance and an equally bad result though that has not been the norm from this team, one that lifted the Premier League trophy last May. And perhaps that is why the supporters inside Stamford Bridge chose to be so generous to their side in the wake of a calamitous 90 minutes.
Phil is one of ESPN's Chelsea bloggers. You can follow him on Twitter @PhilLythell.