As Lukaku wheeled away after a pile driver of a third goal, he stood, hand on corner flag, in salute to his beloved Chelsea. A boyhood fan of the club, this was the realization of a dream seventeen years in the making. A clinical performance from the brilliant Belgian was the embodiment of Chelsea’s afternoon: tough, fraught with a constant Villa threat but clinical and world class when it mattered.
Facing Villa with just a day’s preparation after the international break, it was no mistake that Thomas Tuchel selected an XI consisting primarily of players who did not travel for their countries. The likes of Trevoh Chalobah, Thiago Silva, captain for the day Marcos Alonso, Saúl Niguez and Hakim Ziyech were by no means second choice, but it was indicative of the vagaries of such a quick turnaround. Villa too were missing key duo Emiliano Martinez and Emi Buendia after they had to quarantine upon their return from Argentinian national team duty.
Though the scoreline read 3-0 in favour of Chelsea, the game itself told an entirely different story as Chelsea’s midfield, in particularly debutant Saúl, struggled to cope with the energy, pressing and quality of their Villa counterparts.
Matching Chelsea up with three at the back, Villa’s midfield trio of Jacob Ramsey, Douglas Luiz and John McGinn constantly bypassed Chelsea’s duo of Saúl and Kovacic in the first half. The introduction of Jorginho in the second gave the home side more control in possession but the Birmingham side’s energy and application continued unabated. Eighteen shots and eleven corners to Chelsea’s twelve and four spoke to the danger Villa posed to their more fancied opponents and lent itself to the thinking that Dean Smith’s side are one to watch this season.
‘Absolutely Not Comfortable’
Such a scoreline can often make it seem like the home side were in control for the entire 90 minutes but, speaking to Sky Sports post-match, Chelsea head coach Tuchel was at pains to point out how difficult the match was for his side:
“It was absolutely not comfortable. We played against a strong, strong Aston Villa side. They were well prepared. They looked very sharp and confident from the start and they caused us a lot of problems, especially in the first half.”
Though the German coach pointed out that his team improved in the second half after the introduction of Jorginho, it was difficult to look past how easy it was for their opponents to target and exploit debutant Saúl. In what was the Spaniard’s first start for his new club, he notably struggled to cope with the pace and intensity of the match. Primarily deployed as a wingback last season for Atletico Madrid, this was as harsh a baptism as any player was likely to get to the Premier League.
Having lost possession nine times, including a few passes gifted to Villa players, it was no surprise that the new number 17 was brought off at half time. Though Tuchel said it was 'completely his responsibility' for thrusting the new midfielder into the mix, it’s clear that he will need more time to adapt to playing for Chelsea.
Clinical, if not spectacular
There’s a widely held footballing truth: that to compete for championships and league titles, a team has to be able to ‘win ugly.’ That translates into winning matches where you aren’t necessarily the better side.
That Tuchel’s outfit walked away with three points was down to an ability to be decisive in key moments. Starved of service all day, Lukaku was very much Chelsea in this match: clinical. From just two shots, he scored two goals. That he has scored two of his first three goals for Chelsea in the 15th minute has an element of poetry attached to it. One of the Belgian’s heroes and now a close friend, Didier Drogba, began his Chelsea journey donning the number 15. That said, based on his first three games, Lukaku is every bit the world class operator that Chelsea have been crying out for since the departure of Diego Costa.
Similarly, Mateo Kovacic produced the kind of all action midfield performance that his talent suggests he is capable of. His contribution in the 15th minute, where he picked up the ball outside the Chelsea area, beat two Villa players and laid on an audacious through ball for Lukaku to run onto to make it 1-0 was sensational. Similarly, he was alive to Tyrone Mings’ errant pass in the 49th minute to score his first goal at Stamford Bridge in his 73rd appearance. Though it was not his best game from a defensive standpoint, he was key to the momentum of the Blues’ attacks.
Edouard Mendy has proven his world class ability since he signed for the West London side. It seemed that no matter what the Villans threw at him, he had the answer. The Senegalese shot stopper faced six shots on target and saved each one, a simply masterful display of goalkeeping.
Other notable mentions for the Blues are Thiago Silva and Trevoh Chalobah. Silva channeled Chelsea great John Terry in the 23rd minute by blocking heroically from Ollie Watkins, who had rounded Mendy. An uncertain inclusion going into the game, Silva was a vital presence throughout. Chalobah too hadn’t started since the opening game against Crystal Palace but looked assured throughout and registered a combined game high six tackles and interceptions.
Upon securing the signing of Saúl on deadline day, Chelsea director Marina Granovskaia spoke of the squad being ‘complete.’ Watching Chelsea in the first four games, there is a clear sense that this might be the case. Though there have been hiccups and performances have not been perfect, the depth of quality within the side means that Tuchel always has solutions to the problems opposition teams pose.
Chelsea’s next two fixtures in the Premier League, against Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City, will define any title credentials they purport to hold. But if performances like Aston Villa are anything to go by, the Blues have a deep well of quality and spirit from which to draw to compete with anyone in any competition.