Chelsea recorded their first league double over Burnley since the 2009/10 season, as two early defensive errors handed the Blues an easy route out of what was proving to be another frustrating afternoon at Stamford Bridge. Goals from Jorginho, Tammy Abraham and a maiden Premier League strike from Callum Hudson-Odoi maintained Chelsea’s five-point buffer over Manchester United whilst also capitalizing on Tottenham’s loss to Liverpool in the evening kick-off.
Much to the same extent that Burnley’s two inconsequential late strikes in the reverse fixture somewhat distorted the narrative of the game, it was this time the work of Sean Dyche’s typically robust backline to misconstrue the scoreline in favour of Frank Lampard’s side. Having set up with two blocks of four and the tough-tackling Jeff Hendrick playing off Chris Wood there was good reason to suspect that Chelsea could again fall foul to the stifling midfield overloads and flat set-piece deliveries that saw Burnley twice come from behind to deny Maurizio Sarri victory in the run-in for Champions League football last season.
Said game may not have proved critical in deciding whether or not Chelsea finished the season in the top four, but it is instead remembered as the day in which Callum Hudson-Odoi ruptured his Achilles on the eve of selection for the Europa League final and selection for the World Cup. It, therefore, seemed pertinent that the 19-year-old should retain his place in the starting line up as part of a host of changes from Lampard. Among the other changes to the squad, there were rare starts for both Andreas Christensen and Ross Barkley who have both been mooted with moves away from the club in recent weeks.
These changes for large portions of the first-half appeared to prove an unhealthy blend of experience and youth as Burnley quickly set about monopolizing the centre of the park and forcing Chelsea out wide in the knowledge that for the most part, the Blues lack quality when it comes to delivering balls into the area. Dyche’s men were also alert to the counter-attack using the mobility of Aaron Lennon and Hendrick to push high up the pitch and force Chelsea to concede fouls in the half-spaces. From these positions, there are few better in the league at capitalizing on them, than Dwight McNeil whose wand of a left foot has the ability to disrupt any defensive setup especially one as chaotic and indecisive as Chelsea’s.
Christensen has been challenged by many to disprove the notion that he lacks the strength and awareness to assert himself aerially but even with Chris Wood to contend with all afternoon – the New Zealand native has scored the most headed goals of any player across Europe’s top five leagues this season (5), Christensen stood up to the task admirably banishing the memories of Calvert Lewin’s domineering aerial display last month to record an impressive 72.7% aerial duel success rate from the eight he contested (the most of any Chelsea player on the pitch). I did, however, make light of the fact that Burnley were able to get at the Blues from set-pieces, and for all Christensen’s good work there were still moments of panic not just from him but from the rest of his teammates as McNeil ensured his deliveries landed directly on top of Kepa Arrizabalaga. This allowed Burnley to easily escape their markers and direct their headers into the corner, a routine that nearly paid dividends on two separate occasions with VAR intervening to rule out one such effort. A marginal offside was the decision that denied Hendrick another goal at the Bridge, whilst Ross Barkley’s goal-line clearance scuppered any chances of Burnley restoring parity after Jorginho’s penalty had given Chelsea the lead.
Barkley much like Christensen is a player fighting for his future at the club and having been deployed in a slightly deeper role the Englishman displayed good movement and distribution as the game became more stretched. There is a case to suggest that Barkley’s transition given time could prove to be a Kovacic-Esque masterstroke, with a new more well defined and more withdrawn role allowing him to play to his strengths. The 26-year-old is being leveled with the all too familiar claims that Kovacic faced last season, not enough end product an inability to trigger a high press and poor movement in and around the 18-yard box. Given more time and space to operate Barkley thrived on and off the ball. Take his performance against Nottingham Forest just last weekend and the transformation is, without getting too caught up in this wave of optimism, remarkable. Barkley’s shot numbers may be down, but against Burnley, he was never once dispossessed via a tackle or a loose touch whereas in a more advanced role against Forest he was dispossessed on four separate occasions notwithstanding the times he misplaced a pass. Said passing statistics also make for encouraging reading with Barkley becoming more conservative but also thoughtful with his choice of pass, instigating an 8% rise in his pass accuracy from a meagre 82% to just over 90% despite Burnley looking to congest the midfield and put pressure on Chelsea’s double pivot of Jorginho and Barkley. A superbly executed ball with the outside of his boot to free Reece James inside the area showed more promise than anything he was able to conjure up against Forest.
Speaking of James his criminally underrated ability to deliver a ball would prove to be the downfall of a Burnley side whose whole tactical identity stems from creating space for McNeil to cross. This willful neglect of James led Chelsea to carve out the two opportunities from which they’d take a commanding lead. It was a crisp switch of play from the English full-back that allowed Willian to drive into the box and draw a foul from Matt Lowton, although the decision to award a penalty looked contentious as Willian appeared to drag his leg into the body of Lowton to instigate the contact. James then came into the foreground of the play to double Chelsea’s advantage, beating his man before digging out a cross for Tammy Abraham to nod in via the aid of some hapless goalkeeping from Nick Pope. If it wasn’t clear already Saturday’s performance only served to confirm the fact that James has now established himself as one of the first names on the team sheet.
Hudson-Odoi would then wrap up the points for Chelsea just after the restart, displaying excellent predatory instincts to tap in at the far post as his move to the right-hand side of Chelsea’s forward line continues to prove a success. A tough run of fixtures awaits but with players now finally starting to find form after a hectic winter schedule it could prove less problematic than first feared.