Going into Saturday’s match at St. James’ Park, Chelsea squatted imperiously atop the Premier League. Undefeated after fourteen games, and with thirty-six points thanks to eleven wins and three draws, they remained six points clear of second place. While a revitalised Manchester City – last season’s champions, and Chelsea’s main contenders for this season’s Premier League crown – had closed the gap somewhat over recent weeks, making a genuine title race increasingly plausible, still the main topic of conversation concerning Chelsea regarded the possibility of their going the whole season unbeaten.
Newcastle, meanwhile, have been resurgent after taking only four points from their first seven games – extending an abysmal run in the league which began as far back as last Christmas. Finding themselves in the relegation zone, and turning to a group of young players including Ayoze Pérez, Sammy Ameobi, Mehdi Abeid, and Paul Dummett, the side then took a full fifteen points from their next five games: a sequence which included victories over Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool. But this remarkable run – which briefly lifted Newcastle as high as fourth-place – risked faltering, following a single-goal defeat at West Ham and a draw at Burnley across their last two league matches.
José Mourinho had never achieved a league victory over Newcastle at St. James’ Park, witnessing two defeats and two draws in four previous visits. Mourinho has seen his side win at Newcastle in the League Cup: Chelsea emerged victorious by virtue of two goals scored in extra time in the fourth round in 2004; and won through thanks to a single goal in the quarter-finals in 2006. But with an FA Cup defeat at the ground in 2004/05 also against him, Mourinho has a poor history at St James’. While Mourinho’s record against Newcastle had been noted in the press – and Mourinho himself mentioned it when suggesting that Newcastle, along with many other teams in the league, try harder than usual against Chelsea – still Chelsea went into the game as strong favourites.
Provisionally, the two sides lined up on Saturday utilising similar 4-2-3-1 formations:
The pattern of much of the game emerged through the opening stages, with Newcastle eager to sit back and defend, ceding Chelsea the ball, but willing to counter with pace. Defending, Newcastle played with two banks of four; with Pérez harrying and closing down the angles across the opposition back-line; and with Sissoko pushing to his left as often as he dropped deeper to provide an extra man in the midfield.
Thus without the ball – and over the course of the match, Chelsea held 66% of the possession – Newcastle reverted to a fairly deep-lying 4-4-2. With the ball, Chelsea’s 4-2-3-1 was entirely reconfigured. Costa remained at the head of the attack, with Hazard and Willian providing support towards the edges of Newcastle’s area. Mikel played a static role in the centre of the pitch. But Chelsea’s full backs pushed high up the flanks, with Ivanovic adopting an especially advanced position, and making surging runs down Chelsea’s right; while Fabregas and Oscar dropped and roamed either side of Mikel, serving as Chelsea’s twin playmakers. In fact, when Chelsea’s buildup play broke down, and Newcastle were able to clear the ball or mount a brief attack, often it was Fabregas and Oscar who swept up in the wide areas behind their side’s full backs.
In the first half, with Chelsea on top, theirs was a very fluid system: Fabregas and Oscar were able to come from deep, with Oscar filling in the gaps behind the forwards; while Hazard occasionally moved from his position on the left of the attack to stretch the play and double up with Ivanovic wide on Chelsea’s right. Chelsea’s best moments of the first half came when Willian found space drifting inside from the right, and twice shot narrowly wide from the edge of the area.
Though Chelsea were struggling to create clear chances, Newcastle resisted the temptation to drop too deep, and Sissoko and Pérez provided the semblance of an attacking outlet, still Newcastle struggled to threaten the Chelsea goal via quick breaks. With Nemanja Matić out of the game owing to suspension, an in-form Moussa Sissoko had sounded like Newcastle’s best bet for forcing a goal – but Sissoko struggled to assert himself on the game. The ceaseless energy and intelligent movement of Pérez proved more productive, and he broke dangerously down Chelsea’s left after one long throw from goalkeeper Rob Elliot; but Newcastle’s best chance of the first half came upon a rare spell of possession. Sammy Ameobi played a sharp pass to Pérez on the edge of the Chelsea area, and Pérez slipped the ball through to Jack Colback, breaking through from the midfield. However, Colback was closed down effectively by Thibaut Courtois, who used his foot to block Colback’s effort.
Carrying an injury, Elliot was forced off at half-time, and twenty-one-year-old goalkeeper Jak Alnwick emerged to make his Premier League debut. Yet before Chelsea were able to test him, in the fifty-seventh minute, Newcastle took the lead. Sammy Ameobi – after a first half in which he had languished by the left touchline, appearing overawed – grew into the game, and whipped several low balls across the Chelsea goal. When Gary Cahill failed to deal with one of these, only slicing the ball beyond Courtois, Papiss Cissé – brought onto the pitch minutes earlier in place of Rémy Cabella – was in the right place to slide past the flailing keeper.
Chelsea responded by replacing Oscar with André Schürrle, whose immediate impact was to scythe through Colback, the worst challenge of the game earning him a yellow card. Then Didier Drogba arrived in place of Willian, and Felipe Luis replaced Azpilicueta. Drogba immediately went to the head of the attack, alongside Costa but with the latter occasionally dropping off into a secondary role; and with a naturally attacking, left-footed left back, Chelsea began to focus their play increasingly down their left hand side. Still they struggled to break Newcastle down, until with little more than ten minutes remaining, Eden Hazard struck against the Newcastle post. After strong tackles from Ameobi and Colback saw Newcastle gain and regain possession, Sissoko was played into space and – just as three defenders and Courtois closed him down – managed to poke the ball across the area to an unmarked Cissé, who slotted in for his and Newcastle’s second.
Typically, Chelsea responded by throwing a tantrum. Schürrle could have seen a second yellow card for an attempted trip on Pérez, and now Fabregas – booked for hacking down Pérez in the build to Newcastle’s second – could also have received a second booking, for laying siege to Martin Atkinson after the referee penalised Costa. As the temperature soared, Atkinson refused Colback a free kick when his attempt to win a header was impeded; ignored a dive by Drogba as he challenged with Coloccini; but then was forced to act when Steven Taylor took out Schürrle as Chelsea stormed forward. Taylor had been booked in the first half, and was duly dismissed for a second bookable offence. As Mike Williamson replaced Ameobi, an utter lack of marking from the ensuing free kick – a lofted ball courtesy of Fabregas – allowed Drogba to head in and reduce the deficit.
At this point, a man down and with six minutes of normal time remaining, the feeling was that Newcastle would fold, and that Chelsea would secure at least an equaliser. Then Martin Atkinson absurdly decided to add six minutes of extra time: a brazen corruption, given that aside from a lengthy celebration after Newcastle’s second, there had been no meaningful stoppages. The Newcastle crowd only co-opted the ball as a form of protest, once the six minutes had been announced; while the ball boys at Newcastle are barely out of infancy, and do nothing but obligingly hand the ball to whomever is nearest.
And yet, although Chelsea frantically pressed in the twelve minutes they were afforded to salvage the game, only Diego Costa really tested Alnwick – his drive forcing the young keeper to push over the bar, conceding one of several late corners. Alnwick handled the ball with confidence, kicked with distance and accuracy, and – though unwilling to rush off his line for the odd through-pass – was a solid presence on high balls into the box. So Newcastle saw the game out, and Chelsea suffered their first defeat of the season.
All in all, despite the lively movement of their playmakers and full backs, and the rotational interchange which characterised their play just behind the forwards, Chelsea lacked dynamism in the final third and struggled to break down Newcastle’s sturdy defence. Chelsea’s gameplan involved stretching the pitch through their full backs, but this proved ineffective, as quality crosses failed to arrive in the Newcastle box, and Hazard and Willian failed to find space between Newcastle’s wide and central defenders.
Costa was expertly marshalled – both mentally and physically – by Coloccini, who led the Newcastle effort. Alongside him, Janmaat set the tone with a typically tenacious display, and Dummett and Taylor – until his sending off – were solid. Ahead, Colback produced his best performance in a Newcastle shirt: working up and down the pitch, strong in the tackle, and unerring with the ball at his feet. It was important that – in a way that often hasn’t been characteristic of the side under Pardew – Newcastle did not merely sit and allow Chelsea to come onto them. Though far from proactive, they were willing to commit men forward on the counter, and in a concise and coherent fashion. Pérez’s work-rate in the attack consistently unsettles opposition defences; and the habit of using Cissé from the bench is proving conducive to the team as well as to both players.
Newcastle’s task will be to avoid last season’s complacency, and to provide an atmosphere which will continue to encourage its talented youngsters to fight and thrive. Chelsea’s form has been uneven over the last month. The side has struggled in the north-east – defeat at Newcastle following a goalless draw at Sunderland – and even against West Brom, they benefited from an offside opening goal and the unjust sending off of Claudio Yacob. After Manchester City’s one-goal victory over Everton, the gap at the top has been reduced to three points, and City – along with their local rivals, an improving Manchester United – are the league’s form side.