Chelsea 2-2 Everton (Felix 52′, Havertz 76′ | Doucoure 69′, Simms 89′)
Graham Potter’s side played some sublime stuff against Everton on Saturday. Mateo Kovacic used the outside of his right boot to wriggle out of tight spots, Enzo Fernandez stretched the play with accurate probing passes, Reece James and Ben Chilwell galloped on the wings, and Joao Felix and Kai Havertz had touches that wouldn’t have looked out of place on Soccer AM skill school.
And yet Chelsea never truly gave the impression that they would score enough goals to win the game. Where have we heard that before?
The first half fell into a predictable pattern with Chelsea hoarding the ball and Everton happy to let them have it. In the opening 10 minutes, the hosts had 87 per cent possession and their visitors were sat so deep that it looked as though their midfield and defence had moulded into one, like a meaty slab of luminous pink Play-Doh. Demarai Gray cut a forlorn figure up front against three gigantic centre-backs.
But for all their control, Chelsea didn’t create an awful lot from open play. Kovacic skewed a volley just wide from a corner that had been partially cleared and Havertz nodded over from a Chilwell set-piece, but otherwise, Chelsea were limited to low percentage efforts that were either blocked with fervour or else trickled straight into Jordan Pickford’s gloves. Everton had only two touches in Chelsea’s box in the opening period – in the 41st and 42nd minutes – but the sides went in level at the break.
This lack of penetration obviously isn’t a new issue for Chelsea or indeed their manager. Manchester City are the only team in the Premier League to have completed more passes than Chelsea, but while they rank second for passes into the penalty area, the Blues are eighth for that metric. Chelsea are in the same position for chances created, which suggests that while Potter’s side are extremely adept at keeping the ball, they are far less effective at funnelling it into goalscoring positions.
By the end of the game, Chelsea had out-shot Everton by 20-12 and completed almost three times as many passes, but the non-penalty xG scoreline was virtually the same: Chelsea 1.59-1.40 Everton. There is no shortage of creativity in their team, especially with Chilwell and James back on the flanks, but Chelsea lack the ruthlessness to kill opponents off when they are in control. Everton hung in and got their reward.
That was also an issue that Potter faced at Brighton, with his side notoriously wasteful in front of goal. It is interesting that the Seagulls have sharpened their goalscoring instincts under Potter’s successor Roberto De Zerbi: only Arsenal and Manchester City have outscored Brighton since the Italian took charge. In Potter’s 21 league games in charge of Chelsea, meanwhile, his team have scored just 21 times, only managing two or more in a game twice.
Up until the 89th minute, it didn’t look as though it would matter. A smart finish from Felix and a confident penalty from Havertz either side of a scrappy Abdoulaye Doucoure equaliser had Chelsea in the lead entering the final stages. But to their credit, Everton kept going and got the equaliser that their endeavour warranted, Ellis Simms speeding past Kalidou Koulibaly before squeezing a shot under Kepa Arrizabalaga to score his first Premier League goal.
Perhaps if Potter had access to a time machine he would use it to transport himself back to the 80th minute and decide not to make the first of three changes that had a destabilising effect on his side. The withdrawal of Felix, the game’s outstanding player, was an admission that Chelsea were happy with their lot. It would have been useful to have him on the pitch for the six minutes that followed Simms’ equaliser.
Some viewed Chelsea’s £10m loan acquisition of the Portuguese forward on a six-month loan without an option to buy at the end of it as symptomatic of both Todd Boehly’s largesse and naivety in the transfer market. But if Felix decides to take up permanent residence in west London in the summer, it might prove to be the best investment the American has made so far.
This was only Felix’s ninth appearance for the club and yet he is already becoming Potter’s most influential attacker. That is no mean feat for a 23-year-old newcomer to English football who has had to delve deep into his memory reserves to remember how to express himself on a football pitch again after years of playing Simeone-ball.
The most noticeable aspect of Felix’s play is his ingenuity and processing speed in tight spaces; he creates space when there is non with a shake of the hips or a drop of the shoulder. Midway through the first half, he drew gasps of delight after pirouetting around James Tarkowski with a subtle outside-of-the-boot flick, temporarily morphing into Dennis Bergkamp at St James’ Park. There was another moment when he slid in to keep the ball from rolling out of play and managed to keep a move going while lying on the floor. He is a fan’s favourite already.
Havertz’s goal, his third in successive matches, will also give him a lift, although his act of hubris towards Pickford after beating him from the spot ultimately came back to haunt him. Poking fun at an opponent is a risky business, particularly when your team is prone to concede late equalisers.
The result leaves Chelsea 11 points off fourth place and four back from the Europa League spots with 11 games remaining. Only once in the last 25 seasons have Chelsea had a season out of European competition – in 2016-17 when they won the Premier League – but maybe that would be beneficial next season. If Chelsea can find a way to add penetration to their possession on the training pitch, a surge up the table next season surely awaits.