Pace and space

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It’s that time of year again; the bobble hats make an appearance in the press seats as Chelsea visited Watford on one of the wettest early evenings of 2019… and it was a hard-fought match for the Blues, who might have expected an easier ride from the lowly Hornets.

Chelsea won by a 2-1 scoreline, but it wouldn’t have been unjust had Watford scraped an equaliser right at the death when keeper Ben Foster – having a brilliant game with a slew of dramatic saves – came up for the final corner of the match, and headed the ball towards Kepa’s corner.

The Blues keeper dived to his left and fingertipped the ball wide as the final whistle sounded from ref Anthony Taylor, and Foster showed his sportsmanship by embracing the Chelsea goalie and congratulating him on his agility in blocking the attempted equaliser.

It all started so brightly in the 5.30pm kick-off game on Saturday November 2 as the rain lashed down. Five minutes in, with what will rank as one of the assists of the season, Jorginho (saluted in song by the travelling fans throughout the game) slid the ball in a delightful curve to the advancing Tammy Abraham, who hooked it up and over Foster in what is becoming a trademark finish.

Abraham is so good at lofting… but whether he’ll ever properly beef up to become a Didier Drogba Mk2 remains in doubt. He is light and nimble – qualities to admire – but he is often brushed off the ball by defenders, leaving him sitting on his Arsenal and waving his hands helplessly at the ref in a pointless plea for redress.

With the scoreboard reading 1-0 so early, Watford feared the worst and Chelsea had hopes of a rout. Of course, neither happened, although Chelsea’s exhibition of exploiting pace and space through the lion’s share of this game was once again a joy to behold for the Blues young gaffer.

An uneventful first half played out with the only real incident of note coming two minutes before the break when the resourceful and experimental Mason Mount carved out another interesting opening by his doggedness in midfield, and struck the bar – a rocket which, replays showed, was actually one of Foster’s saves of the day, tipping the ball’s flight up and on to the woodwork.

Four minutes before the hour the cries of ‘USA, USA’ rang round Vicarage Road as Christian Pulisic raced in to meet a cross created by Willian and then Abraham, unselfishly thundering it across the goalmouth for a simple conversion.

Job done? Oddly, Watford were not humiliated or downcast, and in their liveliest spell of the match began to get possession and carve out chances.

The circumstances of the Watford goal were strange. On 75 minutes Quique Sanchez Flores took off Daryl Janmaat – who had been booked four minutes earlier for a foul – and put on Kiko Femenia.

It was a decision the home fans greeted with loud boos and cries of ‘You don’t know what you’re doing’ addressed very pointedly at their own manager.

But it worked. Watford turned up the pressure and Gerard Deulofeu (as, so often, the creative force for the Hornets) won a VAR-awarded penalty in the 78th minute. It took forever, and it was another odd instance of the VAR official, in this case Mike Dean, making an award of a spot kick when the ref had pointedly not given it in the first place.

Afterwards Frank Lampard questioned the whole methodology of VAR, and whether its enthusiastic use for overturning what seemed like a legitimate decision by the man in black is correct.

“We’re not in a great place with [VAR],” said Lamps, looking back on the three or possibly four-minute delay while endless replays of Jorginho’s supposed ‘trip’ right on the back line analysed whether the act had been intentional or if the Watford player had been making a meal of it.

“Any [decision] that takes that long means they aren’t sure, so why aren’t we using screens on the side of pitch?” he asked. “If we are saying they are grey areas, and we are overturning decisions because one referee somewhere else thinks it was more of a penalty than the referee on the pitch, then I think we are in a really dangerous place. You’re going to be tossing a coin every week.”

Deulofeu converted, sending Kepa the wrong way, and Watford threatened the leveller right up to the last frantic minute of the five stoppage additions at the end… mostly racked up through that VAR examination.

There was also time for Mount to pick up a late booking for kicking the ball away to deny Watford a quick free kick… a sign of how rattled Chelsea, and the Blues’ travelling army, were by the last knockings of this wet, bedraggled but eminently watchable match which ended – pictured below – with the Chelsea fans staying behind to salute their youthful stars as the home crowd headed back to dry off and watch Match of the Day.

Next up, Ajax at the Bridge in midweek. It never rains, but it pours.