Three points from Chelsea’s 4-2 comeback over Watford at Stamford Bridge saw the defending champions avoid three consecutive Premier League defeats.
1. Chelsea remain in the title hunt
Midway through this action-packed second half at Stamford Bridge, it genuinely felt like Chelsea’s title defence was over. They would probably have ended today 12 points behind Manchester City, having dropped points in three consecutive games. Instead, a stunning late turnaround means they remain involved following a victory they barely deserved.
For long periods here Chelsea were extremely poor — open in defence, sloppy in possession and, more than anything, seemingly exhausted. Pedro Rodriguez’s stunning curled opener only partly masked a poor start — it was the same when David Luiz curled home against Roma in midweek. In fact, Chelsea appeared rather too reliant upon shooting from long-range throughout this game, whereas Watford frequently worked the ball into dangerous positions.
Conte has frequently appeared frustrated with the limitations of his squad since triumphing last season, complaining about the lack of depth and the consequent poor fitness levels of his first-teamers — they’re currently at around “70 percent,” Conte said before this game. But it was, somewhat surprisingly, substitutes that came to Chelsea’s rescue here.
First, Michy Batshuayi was summoned in place of Alvaro Morata midway through the second half, with Chelsea’s No. 9 struggling in terms of fitness. Conte evidently doesn’t trust the Belgian — his runs aren’t great, his hold-up play non-existent. But he unquestionably knows where the goal is, and his superb near-post header from Pedro’s cross was a classic centre-forward’s goal. He would later prod the ball home in stoppage time to confirm the victory.
But Chelsea’s crucial goal was the third, which came after Chelsea had threatened down the right thanks to substitutes Davide Zappacosta and Willian. The latter’s teasing cross was accidentally flicked on by Christian Kabesele, and converted at the far post by Cesar Azpilicueta. The Spaniard wasn’t a substitute but, having switched from right-wing-back to left-wing-back, after playing right-sided centre-back for most of the season, he is crucial for a manager frustrated about his lack of options.
2. Wasteful Watford
Last weekend Watford defeated Arsenal 2-1 having played poorly. This weekend they lost 4-2 having played superbly, and manager Marco Silva will be hugely frustrated that wastefulness in front of goal denied the Hornets a victory here.
Having witnessed Roma’s impressive pressing in advanced positions throughout a midweek 3-3 draw here, Silva asked his players to do something similar. It was 3-4-3 vs. 3-4-3, with Richarlison and Roberto Pereyra pushing forward onto Chelsea’s defenders and the wing-backs tracking their opposite numbers. Chelsea struggled badly against this pressing. When Thibaut Courtois finally attempted a long goal kick rather than attempting to play out, the home fans cheered — they were tired of their side being caught in possession.
Watford were impressive in possession, too. Pereyra darted around to facilitate one-twos with Richarlison and Troy Deeney, while the midfield duo of Tom Cleverley and Abdoulaye Doucoure again functioned very well. Cleverley was the hero last weekend with his late winner, but here Doucoure was on the scoresheet, blasting home in the aftermath of a Jose Holebas long throw, for his fourth goal of the campaign. From the highlights it will appear like Watford got lucky with a direct route to goal from a set piece, but their possession play had been very impressive throughout.
They came out fired up for the second half, and went ahead when Richarlison squared to Pereyra, who finished coolly.
But Watford’s second half was defined by misses from point-blank range. Richarlison produced one of the misses of the season when slicing Kiko Femenia’s cross wide under little pressure, albeit just before Watford went ahead anyway. But it could have been 3-1 when Richarlison headed wide at the far post, and he had yet another opportunity when coming inside to meet a cross midway through the second half, when he couldn’t quite turn substitute Andre Carillo’s low ball home. The Brazilian has been excellent this season, but today his profligacy cost Watford dear.
3. Pedro a bright spark
Pedro is rarely the main man. Having made a name for himself at Barcelona for his hard work, clever runs and selfless player in a team overloaded with superstars, he sometimes feels like an afterthought, eternally the third player you consider in a front trio. Here, however, he was Chelsea’s liveliest player and opened the scoring with a quite outrageous goal.
Chelsea were controversially awarded a corner on the right flank — the ball was quite clearly miscontrolled by Eden Hazard over the byline, rather than coming off a Watford boot. With Watford still protesting, Chelsea took it quickly, and rolled the ball back to Pedro, 25 yards out, very much right-of-centre. Pedro arced his body in a Beckham-esque manner before driving a quite incredible dipping, curling shot that perfectly clipped the top of Heurelho Gomes’ far post before bouncing into the net. It was a truly magnificent goal, summarised by the fact it took a couple of seconds for the entire Stamford Bridge crowd to realise it had gone in, such was the dipping trajectory.
On top of the goal, Pedro was excellent. His speed and movement was used primarily in central positions to link play, rather than when scampering in behind, his traditional run. Chelsea’s best opportunity of the first half came when Cesc Fabregas briefly played the Pedro role, storming forward in the inside-right channel to get on the end of a passing move featuring Hazard and Morata. Clean through on goal, he chipped tamely into the arms of Gomes.
As Conte has been keen to point out, the demands of European football mean Chelsea are struggling to play with the intensity of last season. But Pedro, with and without the ball, provided a fresh, lively option in the final third, and his opener will live long in the memory.