Maurizio Sarri felt he needed three months to fully acclimate Chelsea to his brand of offence. Through three matches, however, little has gone wrong for the Italian and his Pensioners heading into an intriguing clash with Bournemouth at Stamford Bridge on Saturday.
POTENTIAL STARTING XIs
Chelsea (3-0-0) are one of four sides in the Premier League with the maximum nine points, though they had to put in a volume of graft beyond the volume of completed passes to emerge with a 2-1 victory at Newcastle United last weekend.
Even with more than 900 completed passes and 81 percent possession as Newcastle played five in the back and often had all 10 players behind the ball, Chelsea did not have this match won until an own goal by DeAndre Yedlin three minutes from time snapped a deadlock.
Eden Hazard got his first start and converted a penalty in the 76th minute after Marcos Alonso was felled to bring an otherwise turgid match to life, but it was also clear the Belgium international is still acclimating to his new role in Sarri’s 4-3-3 formation.
“I think he played very well, maybe it’s better for him at this moment to only play 70 or 75 minutes,” Sarri told the club’s official website regarding Hazard. “But after the first goal (Mateo) Kovacic asked to be substituted, so for me it was impossible to let him rest.”
The biggest adjustment for Hazard is staying wide rather than coming to the ball to drive the offense as he did in Antonio Conte’s set-up. “Sarri-ball” has well-defined roles for every player – most notably Jorginho in the middle as distributor – and when Hazard moved inside, it warped the shape of the team to the point where most of those 900-plus completed passes were rendered harmless as Chelsea had only three shots on target.
“Creating more chances from open play is something we will work on, I’m sure,” right back Cesar Azpilicueta said. “We want to control the game and have the ball, and we want to be dangerous in front of the goal. As a team we know we can improve and we will work on that.”
Bournemouth (2-1-0) are not going to be as inclined to sit back and defend with two banks of four. The Cherries are off to their best start in Premier League play and continue to show a staggering amount of resiliency to claim points by any means possible.
The latest example of that doggedness came against Everton last weekend as they fell behind 2-0 at home. They conceded the first goal while having a man advantage and the second after Adam Smith was sent off for denying a clear scoring opportunity as the last man.
But the extra space playing 10-versus-10 allowed Bournemouth the opportunity to utilise their speed through the middle, and they took full advantage. Joshua King converted a penalty to start the final quarter-hour and Nathan Ake slammed home a loose ball on a corner four minutes later as the Cherries emerged with a 2-2 draw which also gave them a Premier League-leading 20 points after falling behind in 2018.
“We’re delighted to achieve another comeback,” manager Eddie Howe told Bournemouth’s official website. “At ten versus ten it was difficult from a mental perspective given how the game had gone. I’m very pleased with the ability to come from behind as it always gives you a chance in a game, but it frustrates us that we allow it to happen in the first place. There’s plenty to learn from it.”
Those lessons still fresh in their heads, the Cherries steamrolled League Two leaders MK Dons 3-0 at home Tuesday. Ryan Fraser, the only starter to hold his place from the weekend, celebrated his call-up to the Scotland national team with a goal, bracketed by ones from Lys Mousset and Jordan Ibe.
The bigger news, however, was the Bournemouth debuts of left back Diego Rico and midfielder Jefferson Lerma. The summer signings – with Lerma’s a club-record £25 million – were a rare aggressive foray into the transfer market by the Cherries, and both gave solid performances in a clinical victory.
“Both of our new players – Diego Rico and Jefferson Lerma – did really well,” Howe noted. “It’s very difficult to come straight into a game and settle in. It will do them the world of good just to have that experience today to feel what it’s like to play for Bournemouth.”
Rico would be the more likely of the two to crack the starting XI if Howe makes any changes, and Lerma was among the reserves against Everton. Where Bournemouth can make hay is by countering through the middle if Jorginho pushes up too far. That allows Fraser to use his pace to find gaps behind Jorginho and in front of Chelsea’s central defence pairing of David Luiz and Antonio Rudiger since N’Golo Kante no longer provides that cover in his new midfield role.
The teams split the two matches last term, with Bournemouth snapping a five-match losing streak in all competitions with a 3-0 thrashing at Stamford Bridge on Jan. 31. Ake, Callum Wilson and Junior Stanislas scored in a 16-minute span of the second half for the Cherries, who have recorded both their Premier League victories over the Pensioners at Stamford Bridge.
Per Ladbrokes, Chelsea are clear favourites at 2/7 odds, while Bournemouth are 9/1 underdogs to pull off a shock scoreline for all three points. The odds of the sides splitting the points are 9/2.
Oddsmakers are also fairly confident in Chelsea getting a high-scoring victory as they are 7/10 favourites to win with an over of 2.5 goals. By contrast, Bournemouth face 14/1 odds on such an outcome, the same as a draw and over 2.5 goals. A 1-0 or 2-0 victory for Chelsea has 7/2 odds, while a 0-0 or 1-1 draw return 7/1 odds. The Cherries posting a clean sheet with a 1-0 or 2-0 victory is the deepest long shot at 25/1.
For first goal-scorers, Morata is a narrow 10/3 favourite over Hazard and Olivier Giroud (7/2). Pedro checks in at 9/2 to make it 1-0 for the hosts, while Willian is listed at 5/1. For those who believe in deja vu, Bournemouth’s Callum Wilson is getting 10/1 odds to give the visitors a 1-0 lead at Stamford Bridge for the second striaght match.
Morata and Giroud are better than even money to score at any point over the 90 minutes at 10/11 and 19/20, respectively, and Hazard is an even-money pick. Pedro (5/4) and Willian (6/4) trail close behind, while Wilson also leads Bournemouth’s options at 11/4, followed by King and Jermain Defoe at 16/5.
This match presents an interesting juxtaposition. Chelsea have shown they can take a punch when ahead and still progress, while Bournemouth refuse to give in regardless the score line. Twenty points from losing positions do not grow on trees, people.
In some ways, this match could be similar to the one Chelsea played against Arsenal, only Bournemouth have a midfield that can link to their attackers. The downside is the Cherries do not have the quality in attack of the Gunners, but they have been a handful to shut down since they have scored at least two goals in all four of their matches.
But for Howe’s team to be successful, it starts and ends with Fraser. He is going to have to play an excellent two-way game, which means using his pace on offence and haring around after Jorginho to not let him get comfortable. The other thing evident about Bournemouth is they enjoy being a team.
Against Everton, Wilson missed a good scoring chance early and had another chance go begging. Perhaps sensing it was not his day, he let King step up and take the penalty to start the fight back. Bournemouth have also scored in pairs… they overtook West Ham with two goals in six minutes and knotted Everton with two in four.
There will be clues to how well Hazard adapts to Sarri-ball starting with this match. Hazard had a full match and now has a perfectionist in Sarri explaining every nuance of how Chelsea are to retain their shape. Whether Hazard can fit into this system is still up for debate, but he has made an impact in all three matches and possesses the nous to mesh the concepts with his individual brilliance.
This match should be hotly and evenly contested since both sides have gaps that can be exploited defensively. In the end, Chelsea appear to have just a little bit extra that will separate themselves from the Cherries.
Predicted final score: Chelsea 2, Bournemouth 1.
Other Match Day 4 previews:
Leicester City (2-0-1) vs. Liverpool (3-0-0)
West Ham United (0-0-3) vs. Wolverhampton (0-2-1)
Manchester City (2-1-0) vs. Newcastle United (0-1-2)
Watford (3-0-0) vs. Tottenham Hotspur (3-0-0)