Every Monday, theScore’s Daniel Rouse breaks down the weekend that was in English football. Welcome to the “Eye on England.”
Chelsea were barely responsible for bundling the ball over the line during Sunday’s first half against Liverpool.
There were bounces off Fabinho’s foot, Trent Alexander-Arnold’s shin, and Adrian’s palm before Cesar Azpilicueta confronted the ball in the melee and squeezed it in. And before all that chaos ensued, Mason Mount was in an offside position anyway.
Frank Lampard’s Blues had done little to truly threaten Liverpool when they went into the break with a 2-0 disadvantage. It seemed ricochets and general good fortune were the best they could hope for.
That was until Tammy Abraham made things click. His empty protestations to referee Michael Oliver and rallying of his teammates after an hour raised the decibels in the ground. From the corner that followed, N’Golo Kante flashed a shot wide. Stamford Bridge erupted. Chelsea were still two goals down, but the locals approved of the team’s industry as the Blues almost fought back to draw with last season’s meanest Premier League defense and the reigning European champions.
Chelsea fans should be invested in this side. In some ways, it’s making the best of a bad situation; the team is now in 11th place and has the league’s third-worst defense while that pesky transfer ban hangs over it. But it feels like a rebirth. For almost two decades, Chelsea were tarnished with a reputation for troublesome players: A side that would nod along to instructions in the dressing room and then slate its manager to a journalist or, worse still, the club’s owner, Roman Abramovich. There was rarely an academy lad in the first-team squad. That’s changed now.
Lampard’s hand was forced, of course. He had to put more trust in academy products while incoming transfers were barred for the 2019-20 season. But his dedication to youth has exceeded expectations. Fikayo Tomori was preferred to Kurt Zouma (who was signed from St. Etienne as a 19-year-old) for the Liverpool test. Zouma also sat on the bench alongside Olivier Giroud, Pedro, Ross Barkley, Michy Batshuayi, and pricey acquisition Christian Pulisic during the previous week’s affair at Wolverhampton Wanderers.
Frank’s fledglings are getting the time and opportunities to learn from their mistakes. The prospect of these players becoming The Next Big Thing is exciting for supporters; the noise that greets the debut of an academy talent often trumps that of an expensive recruit. He’s one of their own.
The youthful exuberance is infectious. It’s even affecting the senior players, including one of the closest allies of Lampard’s predecessor, Maurizio Sarri.
“I have more freedom,” Jorginho told The Athletic’s Dominic Fifield last week. “After four years with the same coach, it’s obvious a change will bring new ideas. In the past, everything was about keeping a balance to our play. In the position I was in, it was important for me to maintain that balance in the team’s performance. Whereas now I can leave my post a little more, look to get forward, move closer to the opposition goal.”
Jorginho’s midfield colleague, Kante, may be one of the greatest beneficiaries of this season’s philosophical shift. Sarri faced incessant criticism last year for fielding Kante in a more advanced role – away from the sanctity of deep midfield, where he made his name. But Lampard has surprisingly persevered with this approach, which is so far yielding encouraging results.
Against Liverpool, Kante twisted away from Fabinho to reassess his options after 71 minutes, then turned back, ran at the Reds’ defense, and picked out the top corner with an excellent drive. It was an aspect of his game to which we may become more accustomed – and players like Fabinho may try harder to subdue. Why can’t Kante, one of the game’s best midfield anchors and an indefatigable athlete, develop into a superb two-way player? He was the Blues’ best player against Liverpool, and it certainly feels like the experiment will face less scrutiny in the current iteration of Chelsea.
Overall, there were plenty of positives to draw from the Blues’ 2-1 loss. They were forced into two first-half substitutions during the encounter but still had Liverpool rocking. If Mount hadn’t blazed an inviting chance over the bar as the match was entering stoppage time, it could have ended a point apiece.
The youngsters will learn to be patient. They will grasp the importance of ugly things like pulling down opponents to halt counterattacks and appreciate the value of perfecting crafty set-piece routines. But right now, their ceaseless rushing and harrying appeal to a Chelsea supporter’s most visceral feelings: They’re playing for the shirt; they care.
A standard high-definition camera captures Premier League action at one frame every 0.02 seconds. In that time, a player moving at 20 kph (12.43 mph) can travel 111.1 millimeters (Kyle Walker reached 35.3 kph – 21.93 mph – last season). That doesn’t take into account the defender’s movement, which is often in the opposite direction. So how could Heung-Min Son be ruled offside by a margin comfortably under 111.1 millimeters in the buildup to Serge Aurier’s finish against Leicester City on Saturday?
The answer is he shouldn’t have been, but VAR is as flawed today as it was in August 2016, when it was first used in professional football.
The hateful eight
Manchester City were angry, and Watford cowered. David Silva opened the scoring 52 seconds into Saturday’s match, Bernardo Silva was immense as he carved out a hat-trick, and Kevin De Bruyne ended the 8-0 trouncing with an unstoppable bullet past Ben Foster. Swatting the Hornets aside so early also proffered Pep Guardiola the opportunity to field fringe players: Benjamin Mendy was replaced by fellow left-back Angelino after managing a half of football, while Eric Garcia was brought on to boost Guardiola’s depleted center-back options.
Liverpool, be warned: City’s upcoming fixtures are extremely inviting.
Making it look Eze
It’s time to take Queens Park Rangers seriously. Despite losing Luke Freeman to Sheffield United in the summer and not spending a penny on recruitment, QPR are one point adrift of league-leading Leeds United in the Championship. Nahki Wells and Jordan Hugill – on loan from Burnley and West Ham United, respectively – have scored 10 league goals between them, and 21-year-old virtuoso Eberechi Eze is firmly establishing himself as one of the best players outside the Premier League.