Chelsea’s ninth consecutive Premier League win did not come easily, but it will have been just as satisfying to manager Antonio Conte as any that preceded Sunday’s 1-0 win over West Brom. It required two substitutions, a shift away from the much-heralded back three and 76 minutes of patience, but like a stubborn jar of pickles, the visitors were eventually popped open.
Having watched from the sideline as Tony Pulis’ team absorbed everything Chelsea could throw at them, Conte made his changes shortly after the hour. First he sent on Willian for Pedro, dumping the back three and reshuffling into a 4-2-3-1. Eight minutes later, Cesc Fabregas entered the fray in place of Victor Moses. And it was he who brought the breakthrough in a matter of moments with one of his trademarked lofted passes from the middle. Gareth McAuley seemed to have the ball under control, but Diego Costa chose to disagree. He harried the veteran defender, seized possession, cut inside and slammed the ball past Ben Foster for his 12th league goal of the season. The relief around Stamford Bridge was palpable.
Unsurprisingly, given that Chelsea (six) and West Brom (five) have the most ever-present players in the league, changes for this early Sunday clash were kept to a minimum. Nemanja Matic returned to replace Fabregas in the Chelsea midfield, while Pulis went with the same XI that beat Watford last week.
Chelsea, as they do in this new dawn, looked to their wing-backs to provide the breakthrough, but found that Pulis was one step ahead of them. Chris Brunt and Matt Phillips put their attacking duties to one side and marshalled Marcos Alonso and Moses, dropping deep to give Albion’s defence the look of a back six. Chelsea dominated possession, holding the ball nearly three-quarters of the first half, but found it hard to make chances, their best coming from the shin of Pedro when N’Golo Kante blasted the ball into him from range. The ricochet ran wide.
The second half brought little in the way of improvement, only the slow burning hope that the increasingly frequent appearance of referee Mike Dean’s yellow card might reduce the Baggies’ numbers and open up some space. Chelsea’s supporters focused their firepower on referee Dean, especially on the hour, when he missed a Foster touch to David Luiz’s free kick and failed to give them a corner.
But the tide turned with Conte’s changes, and though Albion fought to restore parity, Chelsea were able to hold on for three points that would easily have eluded less determined teams.
What to praise Costa for first? For the goal that broke the Baggies’ hearts and won the game or the self-control that led to his being on the pitch in the first place? Five bookings warrants a one-match suspension, and the Spanish international has been on four since Sept. 24. This is the 10th game he has stayed out of the referee’s notepad, an extraordinary feat for a player of such volcanic temperament.
There is an old adage used to defend footballers for their misdemeanours: “If you take that edge out of their game, they’ll be half the player.” It appears that the opposite is true of Costa.
Focused and controlled, he is far, far more effective than the sullen sack of studs and elbows that led the line last season. Even with their numbers at the back, West Brom still had problems containing him. And, sadly for them, they could contain for only 76 minutes.