It took one dreadful 90-minute performance to expose the growing list of shortcomings in the Chelsea team that its coach had forewarned for much of the season. Chelsea was fortunate to come away from Wembley Stadium with only a 3-1 loss to Tottenham on Saturday. So rampant and dominant were Tottenham’s players that the margin of victory could easily have been five or six goals.
Some will attempt to put this result in perspective, arguing that it was Chelsea’s first loss in 19 games this season and that an away match against Tottenham a team that has made its best start to a Premier League campaign will be among the toughest this season. Look deeper, though, and there are a slew of issues to concern Chelsea coach Maurizio Sarri, who acknowledged that a “problem is evident.”
The biggest might be that opponents appear to have figured out that shackling deep-lying midfielder Jorginho goes a long way to shackling Chelsea. An offseason arrival from Napoli, Jorginho dictates the way the team plays with his relentless distribution and is Sarri’s brains on the field.
Dele Alli swarmed all over Jorginho on Saturday, forcing mistakes out of the Italy international and leading to him hitting out at Alli just before halftime. Everton did the same in a 0-0 draw at Chelsea in the last round of games before the international break, with forward Richarlison dropping back to suppress Jorginho, who ended up being booked for a nasty scissor-tackle on Gylfi Sigurdsson.
The fact that nullifying Jorginho is so effective naturally switches the focus to N’Golo Kante, a player widely seen as the best midfield anchorman in the world but who no longer plays in that position for Chelsea. Now he plays in a more advanced role ahead of Jorginho, which hardly gets the best out of the France international. He was anonymous against Tottenham, offering no attacking threat as the game largely passed him by. It seems Kante’s abilities are being wasted by Sarri.
Meanwhile, taking Jorginho out of the game means there is less protection for Chelsea’s back four. David Luiz, a ball-playing center back, has mostly had an easy ride this season with Jorginho sitting in front of him but he and fellow central defender Antonio Rudiger were left badly exposed against Tottenham. Luiz’s defending can be slack at times and the way he turned his back to Harry Kane when the striker fired in a long-range shot for Tottenham’s second goal would have disgusted Chelsea fans who have seen recently retired John Terry put his body on the line so often for the team’s cause.
With left back Marcos Alonso remaining very attacking down his wing, there is a danger that Chelsea’s defense can be overrun. Up front, Sarri continues to switch between Olivier Giroud and Alvaro Morata as the team’s sole striker but neither player has looked convincing. Giroud seems to bring the best out of Hazard but doesn’t score enough, with his late consolation at Wembley his first Premier League goal of the season.
Morata offers more of a goal threat but is inconsistent, with Sarri saying recently that the Spain striker is “fragile from a mental point of view.” That means there is a reliance on Hazard to make Chelsea’s attack click. Although he started the season with 10 goals in his first 12 games for club and country, he has not scored since Oct. 7 and the burden of carrying the team might be starting to weigh him down.
Chelsea was overtaken by Tottenham in the standings and now is only one point above fifth-place Arsenal, with Manchester City visiting Stamford Bridge early next month. The honeymoon period under Sarri lasted three months. Now he is facing his first real test as Chelsea coach.