LONDON — Three quick thoughts from Stamford Bridge as Chelsea completed a 3-0 win vs. Bournemouth on Monday to extend their Premier League lead to nine points.
1. Conte’s men keep finding ways to win
A Premier League season has no shortage of methods for exposing flaws in a team with aspirations for the title. Form, injuries, suspensions, scheduling misfortune and unexpected drama on or off the pitch can all pose difficult questions over a gruelling nine-month campaign, and the team that finds the most answers usually goes home with the trophy.
Antonio Conte knows this. It’s why he constantly stresses the need for hard work to find “the right solution” to any problems that may arise, both within individual matches and the wider context of the season. And ever since the shift to a 3-4-3 formation in late September, Chelsea have excelled at the task.
For the visit of Bournemouth they were without the suspended duo of Diego Costa and N’Golo Kante, arguably the two most important players at Stamford Bridge this season. Both had started every Premier League match under Conte, and neither could be directly replaced. In Costa’s absence Conte switched to a false nine system with Eden Hazard spearheading the attack, and also restored the central midfield axis of Nemanja Matic and Cesc Fabregas that powered Chelsea’s run to the 2014-15 title.
The transition was virtually seamless. After a couple of loose passes, Chelsea’s fluid attacking unit kicked into gear, while the presence of Fabregas provided greater invention and incision from the base of midfield.
Chelsea’s breakthrough in the 24th minute was spectacular if not quite inevitable. Short, sharp passes from Hazard and Fabregas found Pedro Rodriguez on the edge of the penalty area, and he curled a beautiful left-footed shot beyond Artur Boruc into the far corner. It was almost like looking at last month’s effort against Tottenham in the mirror.
Perhaps mindful of Conte’s recent complaint about Chelsea “not killing the game,” the home side began the second half at a ferocious pace and were almost immediately rewarded, with Bournemouth captain Simon Francis lured into a rash tackle on Hazard in his penalty area. The Belgian picked himself up, dusted himself off and doubled the lead.
Chelsea continued to run riot on the counterattack, and Pedro added a third in the final seconds, twisting and turning before hitting a shot that bobbled in via a huge deflection off Steve Cook.
Costa and Kante will surely return when Stoke City visit Stamford Bridge on New Year’s Eve, but the ominous sign for Chelsea’s rivals is that despite the different look and feel to their performance on Monday night, a 12th consecutive Premier League win never seemed in doubt.
2. Chelsea’s firepower goes well beyond Costa
Prior to this game, it was hard to decide whether Kante or Costa would be the man whose absence would be felt more keenly.
Kante has been the most influential player in the Premier League over the past 18 months, but it’s hard to argue against the claim that Costa has been the outstanding footballer in England since August. The striker has been directly involved in 51 percent of Chelsea’s goals in the competition (13 goals, five assists) prior to Bournemouth’s visit.
The “point of reference” in Conte’s 3-4-3 system has to make the players around him better as well as simply score goals, so while the decision to keep Michy Batshuayi waiting for his first Premier League start frustrated many Chelsea fans, Hazard’s selection as a false nine made sense.
The Belgian relished his greater responsibility, dropping deep to initiate slick 1-2s while Pedro provided a more vertical threat with his direct running in behind. To illustrate the point, Chelsea’s first goal came from the Spain international drifting into the central space vacated by his superstar teammate.
As Hazard grew more confident and aggressive, tormenting Bournemouth defenders at every opportunity, Chelsea’s dominance increased. One 25-yard rabona shot drew gasps from Stamford Bridge as Boruc tipped it over despite the fact that everyone had heard the referee’s whistle blow for a foul.
Throughout the afternoon Chelsea’s attack was in perfect balance, with Hazard as the central creator putting Pedro — arguably the deadliest finisher Conte has after Costa — in a position to take up primary scoring responsibilities.
Few of the Premier League’s top teams can avoid a significant drop-off when their best strikers are absent. Manchester City frequently struggle to finish without Sergio Aguero, while Manchester United’s recent stumbles have coincided with those of Zlatan Ibrahimovic in front of goal.
Chelsea had won only one of the previous 11 Premier League matches they started without Costa. On this evidence, those problems are in the past.
3. Bournemouth impress but lack firepower
Eddie Howe masterminded a stunning win on his last visit to Stamford Bridge a year ago, and his return was greeted with some very admiring words from Conte. Bournemouth largely justified their young manager’s lofty billing here, even if Chelsea’s superiority was emphatic in the end.
They set up with a deep defensive line to deny the Blues space and used Adam Smith on the right flank to exploit Marcos Alonso. It was a strategy that came close to yielding an opening goal, with only a fine interception from Cesar Azpilicueta preventing Joshua King tapping in a low Smith cross.
Pedro’s spectacular strike changed everything, and Bournemouth found themselves unable to contain the devastating pace of Chelsea’s attackers in transition as they edged upfield in search of an equaliser. Jack Wilshere also produced many flashes in the first half that suggested he could still become the outstanding Premier League midfielder many assumed was his destiny three years ago, jinking past Matic and Fabregas and forcing one excellent save out of Thibaut Courtois.
Overall though, Bournemouth’s glaring lack of firepower was painfully apparent. Their top scorer, Callum Wilson, has just five Premier League goals this season and didn’t even start. King, the man who did start, has just two, and threatened to add to that tally only rarely.
Howe is clearly building something here, and the progress is tangible; 10th place was Bournemouth’s highest ever league position at Christmas. They are ambitious and well coached; now all that’s required is a bit more ruthlessness.
Liam is ESPN FC’s Chelsea correspondent. Follow him on Twitter: @Liam_Twomey.