In a predictable evening of football, Chelsea beat Malmo 2-1.
The win gives the Blues a massive chance of qualifying for the round-of-16 should they merely avoid defeat at Stamford Bridge. What did we learn about Thursday’s result?
1. Barkley states his case
Ross Barkley is a complex figure. He’s obviously prodigiously talented but at Everton he had as many terrible displays as he did great ones. Then he finally moved to Chelsea where he’s played poorly more than he’s played well. There have been glimpses of his excellence under Maurizio Sarri, and Thursday night was one such instance.
The Englishman was a truly impactful presence at the head of the Chelsea midfield. Everything good that the Blues did involved him in some way, whether that was through a pass or with him arriving on the end of a cross. His movement was sublime.
Chelsea’s first goal showed how dynamic he can be as he was the furthest player forward in the striker’s spot, ready to meet and convert Pedro’s cross when the defender fluffed his interception. And the second goal showed how he can add verticality to the Blues as he roared fully 50 yards up the field before feeding it to Willian who found Giroud to score. For so long under Sarri the one thing missing from Chelsea’s midfield has been that effective no. 10 – but today Barkley took a big step towards being that guy.
2. Giroud’s hot-streak gives hope
Before Thursday Olivier Giroud’s last goal for Chelsea was literally two months ago when Chelsea were away to Vidi in the Europa League. That’s a 13-game scoreless streak which is really troubling (and why the club signed Gonzalo Higuain) even though his goal against Malmo was huge.
Not only did the goal break his scoreless run, but it maintained a scoring streak. Giroud has now scored five goals in his last four Europa League outings for Chelsea. A genuine hot-streak (of sorts) that will give the Blues hope that they won’t have to constantly wheel out their big guns if they want to advance deep into the competition; Giroud can get it done.
3. Pedro and positional play
Watching Maurizio Sarri’s Chelsea can at times be a frustrating endeavour because whilst they clearly want to play Sarrismo football and indeed have absorbed the basics of passing play, they are still a mess of a side. This is because with the exception of one attacker, their understanding of their positional requirements is basically non-existent.
That one exception is Pedro. Alright David Luiz and Jorginho get it, but they’re strictly build-up players. When it comes to the final pass in the final third, no one really knows where to stand in the true sense. They don’t understand off the ball play, how they can create danger by simply standing in the right place. Only Pedro gets this, and it was no surprise to see his cross break the game open.
Pedro is a selfless worker and is a brilliant attacking presence. Thanks to his time working under Pep Guardiola and Tito Vilanova at Barcelona he truly understands where and how to play. He gets the positional nuances of Sarri’s system and that makes him essential.
4. No Paredes No Problem… sort of
Chelsea spent the January window trying to sign a striker and a midfielder. They got their striker in Gonzalo Higuain, but their attempts to bring in Leandro Paredes from Zenit St. Petersburg were scuppered by PSG who moved for the Argentine instead.
This could have presented a problem for Chelsea who offloaded Cesc Fabregas in January and thus did not have anyone to back-up or alternate with Jorginho at the base of midfield. Even against Malmo, Jorginho had to start for Chelsea to be a functional side. But then, when Jorginho went off for N’Golo Kanté it was Mateo Kovacic not the Frenchman who played at the base of midfield.
This is the role made for Kovacic. Though he used to be a creative no. 10, his time playing for Real Madrid has dulled his edge considerably but he has retained his technique and skill. Alright, he had a moment of poor defending but for the most part his ability to pass the ball quickly and accurately as well as makes him an ideal understudy (or even replacement) for Kovacic. Chelsea don’t need to sign a back-up defensive midfielder, the ideal candidate already plays for them!
5. Sarri’s selection gives United hope
Chelsea play Manchester United in the FA Cup on Monday. Manchester United last played on Tuesday, so they will have had 48 hours more rest than the Blues ahead of the game. Now Chelsea could counteract that by rotating heavily for this eminently winnable game.
Except Sarri didn’t rotate his side much at all. In fact all of his big players travelled to Sweden and Eden Hazard and N’Golo Kanté even ended up getting subbed on to play too (Higuain was fully rested, as was the out-of-form Marcos Alonso).
Now sure, neither Hazard nor Kanté looked exhausted after the game but the travel time (they won’t get home until Friday morning) plus the fact that they had to be physically and mentally ready for tonight before the game began will have sapped their energy and focus. That’s potentially huge because Chelsea will need to be operating at 100% to see off a Manchester United side desperate to make-up for defeat in the Champions League. Any slip in that and United will likely devour them.