In a topsy-turvy afternoon of football, Aston Villa beat 10-man Chelsea 2-1 at Villa Park in the Premier League, but the Blues still qualified for the Champions League.
The defeat could have wrecked Chelsea’s European hopes for next season but Spurs’ comeback win against Leicester allowed the Blues to sneak into the top four by a single point. What did we learn?
1. Vengeance for the loan army
Much is often made of how Chelsea discarded Romelu Lukaku (one of the best strikers in the world), Mohamed Salah (one of the best forwards in the world) and Kevin de Bruyne (one of the best midfielders in the world), three top players once on their books, before the club shunted them out as part of their now legendary loan army. But it wasn’t all world-class superstars; Bertrand Traoré is also a proud graduate of the Chelsea loan army.
Traoré was at Chelsea for four years, but only played 16 games across all competitions in 2015/16. The rest of the time he was out on loan, first at Vitesse and then at Ajax. After three good years at Lyon he joined Aston Villa this season and has been good.
But today he struck a decisive blow for the rank-and-file members of Chelsea’s loan army, sweeping Aston Villa into a shock lead at Villa Park and completely destabilising Chelsea and their Champions League aspirations (at the time, anyway). It felt big, it was big.
2. Tuchelball stumbles when it falls behind
One of the marks of great a side is their ability to come from behind. To pull themselves out of the mire and drag themselves to victory; Manchester United are a great example of this. Of course truly great sides don’t fall behind much at all, but can still recover if they have to. Liverpool in 2019/20 and Manchester City are great examples of this.
Chelsea are a formidable side when the scores are level or they take the lead. A powerhouse defensive outfit that can stifle and suffocate as well as anybody in Europe. However one chink their armour which has been exposed by Arsenal, Leicester (in the FA Cup final) and now Aston Villa is that if you can hold it level and then score first, then the Blues do not have the firepower to come from behind.
“We should have scored a number of goals in the second-half,” said goalscorer Ben Chilwell after the match, lamenting his side’s poor finishing. “We should have won the game,” he added. And he’s not wrong, on the balance of chances the Blues should have been victorious. Marvelous Nakamba made three blocks, Matt Targett effected five clearance, Tyrone Mings had nine, while Kortney Hause made 14!
And yet, they didn’t win. They scored once after a gorgeous first-time pass from Hakim Ziyech released Christian Pulisic to get a free cross off for Chilwell to score but even that only just crossed the line. They missed so many more chances as well. Any future Chelsea opponent, including Manchester City in the Champions League final, will know that all they have to do to truly destabilise Tuchel’s defensive juggernaut is score first.
It’s not an easy task, but it is at least straightforward and it rattles them beyond belief (in addition to all the missed chances, look at Azpilicueta’s petulant red card today). And while today Chelsea still scraped into the top four thanks to Leicester losing to Spurs, in future games they may not be so lucky. They have to get over this issue.
3. The importance of N’Golo Kanté
Chelsea have lost three recent games, against Arsenal, Leicester and Aston Villa. Now Leicester was a cup final against a motivated opponent so not perhaps a total disaster, but in the league their defeats to Arsenal and Villa were frankly beneath a team with the squad and aspirations of Chelsea; so how did they lose?
Well, N’Golo Kanté didn’t play either game. That’s how.
Even for a side and squad as stacked as Chelsea’s, it still all revolves around Kanté’s genius in the middle of the park. He’s not a classic “creative” player but he absolutely shapes the way the Blues play with his pressing, passing and dribbling. He adds drive and intensity to what can be a very dry and stale midfield. Everything Chelsea do is 20mph quicker when Kanté is on, and that added speed is what turns a stilted outfit (until they get Ziyech fully settled anyway) into a dynamic one that sweeps opponents aside.
Of course the worry now is that Kanté could miss the Champions League final in a week, and as we’ve seen over the last fortnight that would be absolutely catastrophic for Chelsea.
That catastrophe would be compounded if Edouard Mendy was also out injured (he left the field at half-time today after colliding with the post). “Edouard, he fell on the frame,” Tuchel told reporters after the match. “He has big pain in his ribs, we need to wait when we get home to do some images. We will see if it is possible.”
4. Timo Werner is cursed
When Chelsea were 2-0 down and desperate for a goal to start a comeback that could save their league season, Timo Werner scored one! The ball came through to Cesar Azpilicueta whose effort was saved then bundled home by the German. A huge moment! One that could ignite Werner as a Chelsea goalscorer! And then the flag went up for offside.
This man is just absolutely cursed, isn’t he? Supremely talented, sure, but just cursed. Bad luck befalls him wherever he goes. He has fewer league goals this season than Jorginho, for goodness’ sake!
5. Grealish for England!
“Look at the statistics! Aston Villa with and without him are different teams. He is involved in almost every offensive situation. He is very good at decision-making.”
Those quotes were Thomas Tuchel speaking pre-match about Jack Grealish. There was such reverence in Tuchel’s words about the Aston Villa talisman, and it was justified because Grealish really is a special talent and has been a phenomenon this season.
“You have a very strong side and a bright future because you have a lot of young players and you have the league that brings out the very best in you,” said Tuchel of the future the English national side. And he’s absolutely correct, with Grealish being one of England’s brightest stars because of the singularly brilliant way he plays.
Grealish glides over the pitch, toying with defenders with graceful skill that recalls Andrés Iniesta or Zinedine Zidane. He has a playful arrogance about him, but is hard-working and happy to be his side’s talisman. Grealish stands up whenever Villa count on him, he is England’s Ronaldinho and he absolutely must play this summer at Euro 2020. Tuchel said that Southgate must be “absolutely delighted with the selection he can choose from,” but if he doesn’t make sure Grealish is in that selection, what is even the point?