Amongst the fall out from Rafa Benitez’s midweek press conference, and the debris of fans’ protests against their current manager, a game of football broke out which Chelsea won in a convincing fashion, even if the scoreline remained just 1-0.
While Chelsea were able to produce, West Brom were lacking in ambition from the outset and partly contributed towards their own downfall.
After the disappointment of the 2-0 loss away to Man City, Bentiez made two changes to the Chelsea side. Cahill and Mikel were replaced by Azpilicueta, returning from injury, and Oscar.
Ashley Cole was making his 200th Premier League appearance for Chelsea whilst Mata was making his 100th appearance in all competitions.
Romelu Lukaku was ineligible to play against his parent club but Shane Long was fit and started as the lone striker. Elsewhere, Steve Clarke recalled Fortune and Dorrans into the side. Chris Brunt missed out.
West Brom had lost on their previous six visits to Stamford Bridge in the Premiership and showed no signs of rectifying that statistic during this match save for the closing stages when they were able to exert a little pressure on a Chelsea side who were slightly nervous given their inability to increase their lead.
The issues that Chelsea have this season regarding the disconnection of the team between a defensive unit and an attacking unit have been well documented, as has the issue of width within the side. The graphic below shows the play map during the game on Saturday:-
In response to Chelsea, West Brom also played narrowly in an attempt to blunt the attacking trio of Oscar, Hazard and Mata. Yet West Brom failed to do this effectively. Time and time again, Chelsea were able to move through the West Brom team that seemed unable to retain its shape and close off passing angles.
Despite being a 4-2-3-1 in the attacking phase, West Brom formed a 4-1-4-1 during the defensive phase. They should have been narrow and compact, congesting the centre and forcing Chelsea wide. The constant movement and interchanging of Mata, Oscar and Hazard created the problems for West Brom. When Ba dropped deeper, the Baggies should have pushed up and squeezed their opponent but they appeared content to sit in and just defend. Chelsea were only caught offside twice in the entire game.
It was sheer weight of numbers that often foiled Chelsea rather than intelligent defending from the Baggies. Just prior to half time Oscar had a shot blocked before Azpilicueta ran into the penalty area unmarked only to see his shot blocked too.
An interesting feature was the variety displayed by Chelsea regarding set pieces particularly during the first half.
The only goal of the game arrived when a short corner was taken. The ball was worked to Oscar who flighted the ball to the back post for Luiz to head back across the face of goal where Demba Ba was making to score. It was an important goal for the front man after a run of seven games without netting.
A later corner kick in the first half taken by Mata was flighted to the edge of the penalty area where the unmarked Oscar hit a volley towards goal which was blocked and another corner conceded.
Nonetheless, this ability to mix up where corners are being hit to is an important assest when attacking.
Apart from two direct free kicks which Cech pushed over, the Baggies offered little attacking menace toward Chelsea. The side were too content to remain deep particularly in the first half with Shane Long being very isolated for much of the game. Indeed, the Irishman was left to forage on scraps and failed to have any shot at goal.
By defending so deeply, West Brom were reduced to hitting long balls into the channels for their striker to work with but support was to slow to arrive. West Brom managed seven shots at goal in the whole game with two of these being from Peter Odemwingie, who was only on the pitch for 28 minutes. Possibly Cech’s best save was an inadvertent Azpilicueta header which came from a corner and the goalkeeper reacted well to push it away.
This contrasted sharply with Chelsea who had 24 attempts during the entire game and only a combination or last ditch defending, excellent goalkeeping and a little bit of luck prevented Chelsea from racking up a more comprehensive scoreline which would have been fully justified.
Whereas West Brom failed to support their striker, Chelsea were able to provide plentiful support for Demba Ba enabling him to drop deep and link play or run into channels, with the knowledge that primarily Mata or Oscar would take up a more advanced central role.
Unlike his two predecessors, Benitez avoids defeat to West Brom and retains his position at the club. Chelsea remain in fourth place, contesting the Champions League positions with neighbours Spurs and Arsenal. They have some awkward fixtures left to contend with. Given the turmoil within the club during this season, Achieving a Champions League place may well be considered a successful season.
The problem Steve Clarke now faces is ensuring his squad are sufficiently motivated for the rest of the season. Clear of relegation troubles a long time ago, they now find themselves in the position of contesting 8th and 9th place with Swansea.