An evening that started with Chelsea looking toothless in attack ended with them brutally exposed in defence, as they fell to a scarcely believable 3-0 home defeat to Bournemouth.
This result, surely one of Bournemouth’s best ever in the Premier League, was Chelsea’s worst and most surprising of the season. It leaves them further adrift of Manchester City in what can barely be described as a title race, slipping below Liverpool because of the three goals they conceded. And it left Antonio Conte fuming at having to play this game on the final day of the transfer window.
Chelsea had only confirmed the signing of Olivier Giroud earlier in the day and so while he was here all kitted out in Chelsea training gear, sat just behind the bench, the team had no real striker in the 18-man squad.
That meant they had to play Eden Hazard as a centre-forward and it left them toothless up front, without any reference or focal point. Conte likes to play with a proper number 9 and here his side looked lost without one. The closest they came to threatening all night, towards the end of the first half, was a Gary Cahill header from a corner.
But that is not why Chelsea lost. They lost because their defence utterly dissolved in the second half, allowing Bournemouth three goals in a bizarre 16-minute spell. They were unfortunate to lose Andreas Christensen to an apparent hamstring injury half-way through the first half and from there the defence never recovered its balance. Twice Bournemouth sliced through them with simple balls in behind and the third, from Nathan Ake, was from a failure to mark at a corner.
All in all, it was a spell of such calamity and drama, and such a melting away of Chelsea’s home authority against a team they should beat, that it felt reminiscent of what Conte calls ‘the Mourinho season’ here two years ago. Chelsea did lose 3-2 here to Burnley on opening weekend back in August, but they went down to nine men that day and it always felt like a freak result.
This was far worse than that: a bigger defeat to a lesser team with less explanatory context. The challenge for Chelsea now is to make sure that they do not allow this defeat or any negative feeling to derail the club over the second half of the season. Not when they have a Champions League last-16 tie with Barcelona ahead and a race to finish in the top four.
Back in December 2015, in the midst of Chelsea’s last great crisis and just weeks before Mourinho was sacked, Bournemouth won 1-0 here, thanks to a late Glenn Murray header. But this was a more complete win, and more deserved. Eddie Howe said afterwards it was the finest victory of his Bournemouth career. They have beaten good teams before, but never this comprehensively away from home.
Howe was delighted by how assertively his team had started the game, squeezing up as they realised Chelsea had no real threat in behind. It was Bournemouth who made the earliest chances: Junior Stanislas could not get enough on a backheel, Jordon Ibe’s promising run ended with a shot at Thibaut Courtois. It was only when Chelsea forced themselves to go direct that they started to threaten: Gary Cahill skimmed a header just over the bar from a Pedro corner. Hazard misjudged a header from a Marcos Alonso cross. That was as good as it got in front of goal, which is saying something.
But few would have expected what happened straight after the restart, as Chelsea set about throwing away the game with lazy, distracted defending. Five minutes into the second half, Tiemoue Bakayoko, imprecise as ever, lost control of the ball in midfield and Callum Wilson pinched it from him. Wilson gave Jordon Ibe the ball, ran in behind Gary Cahill, took the return pass and beat Courtois with a clever low early finish.
The goal did come out of the blue but what was more surprising than it was the lack of a Chelsea response. Ross Barkley was hauled off for Cesc Fabregas but it made no difference to Chelsea’s control or their focus. Lewis Cook fizzed a shot wide and soon enough Bournemouth had their remarkable second. Attacking down the left, Wilson slid a clever little reverse pass to Stanislas, running outside him, behind Cesar Azpilicueta. Like Wilson before him, Stanislas’ early finish was too sharp for Courtois and he wheeled away with what looked like surprise. His side were 2-0 up.
Conte was in a position he has hardly ever found himself in at Chelsea, having to gamble to chase a must-win game. He threw on Callum Hudson-Odoi for Davide Zappacosta, shifting to a rare 4-3-3. But the rot was too far set in. And when Chelsea failed to clear a corner, Bournemouth scored their implausible third. The ball came to Stanislas on the edge of the box, he was free to shoot and Nathan Ake stuck out his right leg to divert the ball past Courtois.
With their new formation Chelsea saw more of the ball in the final minutes, as Bournemouth retreated to defend in their own box. But Chelsea had the same problem they had all night, no striker, no focal point, and it should have been harder than it was for Bournemouth to hold them off and see out this remarkable win. Chelsea were beaten out of sight, at home, by a team who is usually easy prey to the big sides. Starting Olivier Giroud would have been nice, but this disaster pointed to deeper problems than that.
Chelsea (3-4-3) Courtois; Azpilicueta, Christensen (Rudiger, 27), Cahill; Zappacosta (Hudson-Odoi, 65), Kante, Bakayoko, Alonso; Pedro, Hazard, Barkley (Fabregas, 54)
Bournemouth (5-4-1) Begovic; Fraser, Francis, S. Cook, Ake, Daniels; Ibe (Pugh, 83), L. Cook, Gosling, Stanislas (King, 71); Wilson (Mousset 90+2)
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