KINGSTON UPON HULL, England — Three quick thoughts from Chelsea’s 2-0 Premier League win over Hull City at the KCOM Stadium on Saturday.
1. Chelsea steady the ship in Hull
Such is the way of things, whenever a big team loses a couple of games then reaction will inevitably be strong. After Chelsea were defeated by Liverpool and then Arsenal, doom was foretold, but losses to those two does not an apocalyptic situation make.
Defeat at Hull City might have been a little closer to that, a genuine sign that a team might be in trouble, but Chelsea avoided that with a comfortable 2-0 victory on Humberside, calming the waters a little for Antonio Conte and his side.
This wasn’t an exceptional showing, but they secured the three points with two moments of brilliance. Diego Costa continued his exceptional start to the season with his sixth goal in seven league starts, while last season’s star man Willian showed a little of that excellence with a sensational second-half strike to break Hull’s resistance and Chelsea’s tension.
The day began with a change in approach and formation for Chelsea. Conte had worked with a back three in training this week, an attempt to shore up their surprisingly fragile defence with a formation familiar to him, if not many of his players. Looking at the team sheet before the game, it didn’t look especially likely, but indeed they did line up with a defensive trio, Cesar Azpilicueta slotting in as a third centre-half with David Luiz and Gary Cahill, while Victor Moses acted as right wing-back and Marcos Alonso made his first league start on the other flank.
Chelsea were undoubtedly the dominant team from the off, even if Hull managed to chisel out a couple of presentable chances in the early stages. However, the visitors struggled to break through a stubborn Hull defence, their approach play often stilted and slow. They went in at the break frustrated, unable to make good on their supremacy, looking exactly like a team getting used to working with a new formation. Which, really, is not exactly a huge surprise.
However, after the break the dam broke. N’Golo Kante missed a glorious chance to give them the lead at around the hour mark, blazing over after Costa had hit the post, but they pierced Hull’s resistance shortly afterward. After a neat move, Willian collected the ball on the left side of the area, casually opened his body and stroked the ball high into the net. If it’s possible to thread a shot into the top corner, the Brazilian did it.
It was 2-0 shortly afterward, in not dissimilar circumstances. The Hull midfield parted and allowed Nemanja Matic to stride through, his shot was blocked and fell to Costa, who, slightly closer in but at a comparable angle, put the ball in almost exactly the same spot of the goal as Willian.
From that point it was an exercise in keeping what they have, a footballing holding pattern designed to secure the victory and preserve energy for more-taxing tasks ahead. There will be more taxing tasks, but this was at least a start.
2. Chelsea’s patience pays off
One of Chelsea’s primary problems in the first half seemed to be the pace at which they play. Watching Manchester City this season, their speed of passing is probably the most striking thing to notice, but Chelsea often look so much more ponderous. Everyone seems to take two touches when one would have been preferable, making them predictable.
It doesn’t help that Matic looks like he’s playing with a headache, and a midfield two of him and Kante often means — particularly in the 3-4-3 system they played here — there was a large gap between them and Diego Costa. If Cesc Fabregas could be trusted to maintain some sort of positional discipline, that might be a potential solution, but you can certainly see why Conte wants another creative presence in midfield.
But the good news for Chelsea and Conte is that this is a problem one could easily see improving with time. The more the squad work with Conte, and get used to his methods and style of play, the more fluid they will become. It’s simultaneously easy to see why they have suffered a sticky start to the season — coupled with their assorted defensive struggles — and why nobody really seems to be panicking, at a club where panic is not unfamiliar.
Owner Roman Abramovich reportedly met with Conte three times last week and gave the manager his backing, but with some previous incumbents it might be easy to see darker clouds forming. This time it appears patience is the word.
We saw this improvement in the second half. Hull seemed to drop deeper and become more defensive, but Chelsea found a way through, those two quick goals from Willian and Costa killing the game off. Like Abramovich, they didn’t overreact after a tough start.
Conte was right this week when he said it would take time for things to improve in a team that, let us not forget, spent a decent portion of last season in the bottom half of the table. Whether that will be enough to genuinely challenge at the top is questionable, given the way City and others have started the season, but all is not lost at Stamford Bridge.
3. Patchwork Hull team continue to hang on
Hull famously only had 13 fit, senior players for their first game of the season against Leicester, reflecting a summer that somehow managed to combine inertia and chaos biting them even before Steve Bruce departed in frustration.
Things are better now, a late push in the transfer market at least beefing up their numbers to a serviceable amount, but there are still several square pegs jammed into round holes. David Meyler, usually a midfielder, was at right-back; Jake Livermore continues to fill in at centre-back; Sam Clucas was bought as a winger, but now sits in front of the defence.
The thing is, it’s working — after a fashion. Hull are certainly scrappy, doughty and surprisingly hard to break down — when they keep 11 men on the pitch, anyway, something they didn’t manage in their two previous games — which even with a full complement of players is about the most you can reasonably expect of them.
Everything about this Hull team feels temporary: even the manager doesn’t have a permanent contract, Mike Phelan sounding rather vexed this week as he noted, when asked about his deal, that “one minute I think I’ve got something and the club are happy with it and the next minute it changes.” It feels like they are constantly waiting for their proper team to show up, even though they are stuck with what they have until January.
This is a team held together with brown tape: one wonders how long it will last, and whether it will be enough to stay in the Premier League, but for the moment Hull are doing just about as well as they could be.
Nick Miller is a writer for ESPN FC, covering Premier League and European football. Follow him on Twitter @NickMiller79.