The theory was that Maurizio Sarri’s decision to switch to a back four would diminish Marcos Alonso’s threat. The early evidence is that, illogically, Chelsea’s raiding defender seems to have become more potent.
Last weekend, he set up the opener and scored the winner against Arsenal. Eight days later, there was not quite an action replay at Newcastle United, but there were certain similarities.
Chelsea broke the deadlock, albeit in contentious fashion, when Alonso won a penalty. The most adventurous of left-backs delivered a decider of sorts, even if it was debited to DeAndre Yedlin, who unwittingly applied the final touch to his shot.
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A game that was stripped of drama for large parts by Rafa Benitez’s tactics and Newcastle’s dogged application of them ended with Chelsea savouring a third successive victory to maintain their 100 per cent start to the league campaign.
Sarri’s side have completed a trio at the top of the division and, while there was ample evidence they remain a work in progress, winning while being in transition is a useful habit.
Alonso’s catalytic qualities are a reason why they can prevail in close games. Another protagonist has also been a common denominator in recent years. On Eden Hazard’s previous start for Chelsea, he scored a penalty. On his return, he converted another. The first won the FA Cup. The prize this time was lesser, but it was as though he had never been away.
Perhaps there was a deserving scorer in undeserving fashion. Hazard was outstanding, responding to Newcastle’s uncompromising approach with uncomplaining excellence. He was fouled time and again, with Fabian Schar and Matt Ritchie collecting cautions for upending him – and others perhaps fortunate not to join them in the book – but picked himself up to run at defenders again.
He had created a fine chance for Pedro, twice tried his luck from distance and accepted the responsibility for determining the game.
And yet the manner of it was curled on Newcastle. Alonso materialised in the Newcastle box in purposeful fashion. Yet the debutant Schar seemed to play the ball.
“I touch the ball and get in front of the player,” Alonso said. “He made me go down. I think it was the right decision.” Benitez did not agree. “The penalty was soft,” the Newcastle manager said.
There was a shared sense of injustice. Newcastle levelled six minutes later and, if forwards should not be described as unlikely scorers, Joselu nevertheless feels one.
Yet the Spaniard is responsible for both of Newcastle’s goals this season and his second came in the manner of a master, a brilliant near-post header from Yedlin’s cross.
Chelsea were aggrieved, however, with Olivier Giroud arguing he had been elbowed by the American seconds earlier. They responded impressively.
“When they scored, I think everyone was thinking to draw but we are Chelsea, we never give up,” Hazard said.
That spirited conclusion, beginning when Antonio Rudiger thudded a thunderbolt against the bar, stood in contrast to the preceding torpor.
Newcastle set the tone by playing 5-4-1 and Sarri pointedly said: “I have never seen in Italy Benitez with five defenders.”
Newcastle had only 19 per cent of possession and the 14 players Benitez deployed at various points completed 30 fewer passes than Jorginho but they nevertheless restricted Chelsea to two rather tame shots on target in the first 70 minutes.
Yet the eventual events mean they have a solitary point to show for their efforts this season.
“It is a pity because we were very close,” said Benitez, who believes his former club can regain a crown they won in 2015 and 2017. “They are candidates to win the title.”