Chelsea’s youthful revival hints at something special taking root
Nine-man Ajax were majestic but Blues’ comeback was stirring
Chelsea celebrate Reece James’s equaliser against Ajax. Photograph: Catherine Ivill/Getty
Kids, huh? Midway through the second half on a chilly, boisterous, increasingly wild night at Stamford Bridge this game simply fell apart.
Best perhaps just to stick to the numbers. With 62 minutes gone Ajax had no fans, 11 players and a three-goal lead. With 71 minutes gone Ajax had nine players and no lead. They still had no fans. Chelsea had scored two own goals and two penalties. Chelsea had played four at the back (terribly) and then three at the back (progressively). And the score, somehow, was 4-4; as it would stay, somehow, until the end.
The match had passed through at least two distinct eras. First was the age of well-grooved Ajax dominance, the pass-and-move incision that took them to a 4-1 lead. After that came the witching hour, that breath of post-Halloween mischief when suddenly the air began to crackle, the moon shone a strange shade of blue and this wholehearted Chelsea team took the game by the throat.
It was, above all, a brilliantly entertaining spectacle. Chelsea had taken 22 shots at goal and really should have won. But Ajax were thrillingly reckless too. With nine men on the pitch after Daley Blind and Joël Veltman had been sent off during The Happening – a blur of fouls, handballs and yellow cards – they kept on pouring forward in search of a winner. It was majestic, fearless and shot through with a wonderful Cruyffian arrogance.
And, yes, here is an obvious takedown to all the goodwill generated by Chelsea’s ragged rearguard. The fact is they were taken apart for an hour. Ten minutes before that double sending-off, just before Donny van de Beek’s low shot bulged the Chelsea net to make it 4-1 Frank Lampard could be seen already turning away, a horrible smile on his face.
Lampard had watched as Christian Pulisic gave the ball away high up the pitch, as the Chelsea centre-backs, who had played through a mist of confusion all night, left huge untended green spaces inside their own area. Van de Beek had time to take a breath and admire the mist flooding down over the low white roof lights before clipping the ball into the corner.
At that stage Chelsea had not just been opened up. They had been shivved and sliced, meat pulled away from the bones. It was a gentle kind of butchery, one that owed quite a lot to the subject on the blood-soaked bench, a Chelsea team intent on helping to lower the knife.
There seemed an easy narrative, Chelsea’s enforced, ad hoc youth policy schooled in the realities by the European masters of succession. Ajax became a footballing nursery because of something innate to the Dutch sporting culture, an economic necessity, but also a quasi-intellectual rigour. Chelsea have gone down a similar route because they got busted for tapping up other clubs’ young players.
There are one or two differences there and there were differences on the pitch, too. In the opening 40 minutes Mason Mount and Pulisic completed five passes between them. By half-time the same pair had given the ball to an Ajax shirt 11 times, one fewer then they had managed to their own players.
Ajax were too compact, too vigorous, too cute in their movements. Meanwhile Chelsea defended with all the resistance of an overly dunked digestive biscuit, three of the four Ajax goals scored from the kind of spaces that speak to some kind of systems failure, a shutdown, a category mistake.
With five minutes gone it was already 1-1. A Quincy Promes free-kick was deflected in, then equalised by a penalty that owed a pre-assist to Mount’s driving run. At which point Ajax began the orderly process of taking the game away, right up until that 11-minute spell of turnaround.
What to make of all this? It will be tempting to see in Chelsea’s performance only chaos, weak spots, a loss of control. But this is also to disregard something vital about the way teams work. There has been so much talk this week of Chelsea cranking up the purchasing arm straight away if their transfer ban is overturned. It seems remarkable that a club that has finally found a little soul should risk all that by rushing back out to the market. Or rather, it would if you haven’t been watching for the past 15 years.
But there was also something precious on show here. Chelsea gained a point – keeping them level with Ajax – on spirit, warmth and the will to seize the game when the opening came. It might yet come to nothing. Even four points from the final two games could still leave them short of second place. But there was life here, too, for all the raggedness and a sense above all of something taking root. - Guardian