Chelsea made a dramatic start to their Premier League title defence after falling to a 3-2 defeat by Burnley at Stamford Bridge that featured red cards for Gary Cahill and Cesc Fabregas.
Here are three things learned from their opening day defeat.
CAHILL’S CARD CAN BE NO EXCUSE
Against the backdrop of Antonio Conte’s frustration at a lack of new arrivals and with the absence of key players Eden Hazard, Diego Costa and Tiemoue Bakayoko, Gary Cahill’s 14th-minute dismissal was nothing short of a disaster.
Especially with Burnley’s physicality in the final third and at set-pieces and the Chelsea captain being his side’s best aerial presence in a defensive sense.
What came to pass in Cahill’s absence was chaotic, with Sam Vokes dragging Antonio Rudiger and David Luiz out of position and neither looking comfortable with the volume of high crossfield balls they were having to defend.
For Vokes’ second, Luiz left the Welsh striker and appeared to be more concerned with Rudiger. Unsurprisingly the Chelsea duo collided and Vokes had a free header.
However, the shambolic nature of what Chelsea descended into shouldn’t be solely squared at Cahill’s rash feet.
Yes, Rudiger was playing his first Premier League match with two brand new defensive partners but the German, Luiz and Cesar Azpilicueta are all experienced internationals.
It’s not as if Burnley’s brand of football was particularly nuanced nor focused on dominating possession, for which red cards often affect.
Defensive positioning was key and while this mess revealed Cahill as the Blues’ primary defensive organiser-in-chief, the trio that finished the game cannot point the finger of blame at their errant leader.
There was a lack of concentration, communication and composure as Burnley, and Vokes in particular, made multi-million pound defenders look extremely uncomfortable against what was, with all due respect, a largely one-dimensional threat.
That alone should be worrying Conte deeply.
MORATA MAKES HIS PRESENCE FELT
Alvaro Morata is not Diego Costa, in personality, playing style or physical make-up but the Spaniard has to replace his international team-mate.
Morata is more in the flexible, silky mode. More happy running onto the ball into space or having it at his feet, then bullying defenders with his back to goal or barging into his market and competing for crosses ala Costa.
It’s a potentially risky strategy by Conte given how important Costa’s presence was to their overall set-up last term. That being said, from January onwards the 28-year-old was on auto-pilot with Eden Hazard taking on greater attacking responsibility.
But on top of his sizeable price-tag, having to move to a new city and country, it’s a considerable burden for Morata to bear especially when the differences between the two players are so stark.
Added to that is the fact that Morata, outside of the Spanish Under-21 side has never been a frontline, first-choice striker; either being subservient to Karim Benzema and latterly Cristiano Ronaldo at Real Madrid or Carlo Tevez, Fernando Llorente and Mario Mandzukic at Juventus.
Either he must adapt to Chelsea’s way of playing, or Chelsea must adapt to Morata.
Based on the 31 minutes he played against Burnley, the former appears to be the most likely scenario with Morata showed encouraging sign at being able to provide the focal point of the attack, often with two Clarets centre-backs for company.
Admittedly his overall involvement was modest with just 14 touches and five passes completed but he didn’t waste any of those passes and gave the Blues attack some energy which Michy Batshuayi had failed to do during his time on the field.
Morata took his goal well, stooping to convert a header from Willian’s cross before delivering a clever looping flick-on header for David Luiz to give Stamford Bridge some semblance of belief a comeback was on the cards.
It was a very un-Morata performance but there were enough moments to show Conte that his new striker’s game can evolve. And while he can’t be, nor should be expected to become, Costa Mark II, he may well adapt to the team faster than previously forecast.
Confidence, of course, is everything for an athlete and with a goal and assist on his home debut following a week of questioning over his suitability at the defending champions, Morata provided by far the biggest positive for the Blues moving forward.
WHERE THERE IS WILL, THERE IS A WAY
Willian started just 15 Premier League games last season, and while he had a family bereavement earlier in the campaign which impacted his involvement, it is a remarkably low number for a footballer of such high quality.
Pedro was a surprisingly consistent presence, occupying the Brazilian’s right-sided forward berth but with Champions League to prepare for, it’s inconceivable that Willian will make so few starts this time around.
With Pedro injured for this encounter, the Brazilian came into the XI and just like in the Community Shield offered pace, width and trickery and helped spread the pitch as Burnley looked to keep it tightly packed in the midfield area and restrict any signs of attacking play from the hosts.
He was poor in the first-half with Conte’s gameplan torn up in light of Cahill’s red and the pressure seeming to get to the players as the atmosphere inside Stamford Bridge became uncomfortable and uncertain.
But the addition of Morata seemed to enliven the Brazilian with the two working well in tandem; Morata knowing he always had an outlet and Willian a front-foot player who could detect the Spaniard’s runs.
Willian was, if anything, chronically underused by Conte – so much so, Jose Mourinho thought he could take him to Old Trafford this summer – and the Italian simply has to turn to him more as the fixtures, domestic and continental, mount up.
He was key cog during Mourinho’s title-winning campaign, offering dribbling prowess and set-piece delivery and is a player who can make things happen.
He’s an underrated asset for a club who look low on numbers as they begin their title defence in the worst possible way.