Newcastle is Chelsea’s twilight zone. Jose Mourinho has yet to win a league game here, though he tried to make up for that by making three changes at half-time to counter a Patrick Kluivert goal back in 2005. Though the Dutchman and his dreadlocks wouldn’t last at St James’ Park – he left the following season – his goal would go down in lore, knocking Chelsea out of that year’s FA Cup, thus ending their chances of winning the quadruple.
What’s truly bothersome about today’s defeat is that this isn’t a very good Newcastle side, even with its ten absent pieces back in the fold. Though the Toon obviously deserved their win, Chelsea arguably played themselves out of contention after a promising start, and look to have allowed Manchester City to come back within three points. At least the preposterously early invincibility theme is behind us.
What Pardew got right… and what he got wrong
It’s fair to say that the former West Ham and Southampton man isn’t every punter’s cup of tea. But credit must go to him for a number of choices, beginning from the use of Jack Colback in midfield. His late run in the first run wasn’t picked up by Fabregas, but by the onrushing Courtois, who deprived him of a clear-cut chance. Colback was everywhere, and a huge nuisance to the Blues. Tottenham could have done with a destroyer of his ilk in midweek.
Pardew’s choice to try quick vertical attacks also occasionally bore fruit, as the speedy Ayoze was able to turn his marker a couple of times in the first half and release the wings. Without the domineering Matic around, Newcastle knew they could chance their hand in the middle, and did so.
That considered, it’s hard to work out exactly what kind of strategy Pardew had in mind for this game. It may explain why his teams are so maddeningly inconsistent, how they can be world-beaters one minute, and masochists the next. Key to this was his midfield’s lumbering build-up. Often exposed to the counter, Newcastle left their defence unprotected on more than one occasion, and Chelsea should really have taken advantage.
Newcastle’s midfielders were guilty of either rushing too eagerly towards Hazard – which allowed the Belgian to slot a pass across the edge of the box to the onrushing Willian, who flashed his effort wide – or unable to cover space when their fullbacks tucked in. One such oversight from Ameobi allowed Willian to rush into the box unmolested, and could have proved costly. Newcastle’s midfielders were very poor on cutbacks, which include Hazard’s effort on the post late on. Almost everybody rushed to the front post.
Chelsea’s missed opportunity… and Gary Cahill
Whilst they didn’t create an overwhelming amount of chances, the Blues were clearly on top in the first twenty minutes, and should simply have done more to expose Newcastle’s frailties. The midfield’s regular counters – thanks in no small part to Oscar and being cleverly positioned in key passing lanes- should have led to an early Chelsea strike. Apart from Willian’s strike, Costa chose to have a crack from the edge of the box when nobody was on Oscar- another open cutback option.
After that, Chelsea allowed Newcastle back in the game, though the sloppiness would come back with a vengeance when Gary Cahill fluffed a clearance, allowing Newcastle to open the scoring a few minutes into the second half. Gary Cahill simply hasn’t developed into the leader Chelsea were hoping to mould to replace Terry. He still needs training wheels, over two seasons after playing the game of his life in Munich.
Their backs to the wall, Chelsea finally woke up again: Fabregas’ diagonal chips in the box offered Chelsea some good alternatives, especially when Drogba was able to knock one down for Costa, whose effort found both Coloccini and Taylor in its way.
Despite my misplaced twitter cynicism, Jose Mourinho actually got his subs right. Drogba pulled one back for Chelsea and was an incredible physical presence in the box. The choice to throw in Schurrle may not have been so rewarding, though he looked decent trying to drop deep and build things up. It was, however, a necessary move, as Willian and Oscar seemed to have left their heads in the changing room.