In the final reckoning, Chelsea found it easier to talk about unhappiness in front of goal and anger at a referee who only played two of the allotted three minutes at the end of the first half. Mauricio Pochettino might argue that his stuttering side’s second consecutive defeat at an increasingly angry Stamford Bridge would have been avoided had Jarred Gillett not dismissed Malo Gusto for a risky tackle on Lucas Digne early in the second half, giving Aston Villa the chance would have given them to take control of a game that at times threatened to run away from them.
The problem with blaming those responsible, however, is that Chelsea are no longer in the habit of making their own luck. It was no surprise that they missed clear opportunities in the top positions and repeatedly made poor decisions in the final third. Pochettino’s side have scored five goals in six league games and this game was one-way as Chelsea were down to ten players. Ollie Watkins gave Villa victory with his first goal of the season 17 minutes from time with a cool finish.
Despite all of Pochettino’s recent comments about confidence in the process, it seemed like Chelsea would benefit from having a week to prepare for this game. Villa were left leggy after their defeat at Legia Warsaw in the Europa Conference League on Thursday and Unai Emery soon became annoyed at his side’s carelessness in possession.
Sensing their opponents were ready, Chelsea seized the initiative, with Conor Gallagher providing energy in midfield, Raheem Sterling causing problems on the right and Mykhailo Mudryk in fine form on the left. The Ukrainian hasn’t really hit his stride since leaving Shakhtar Donetsk in January, but the first 45 minutes were certainly Mudryk’s best in the blue jersey. The winger was full of positive ball intent, repeatedly tested Matty Cash and should have had at least one assist at half-time.
One of Mudryk’s standout contributions was the moment he beat Cash and narrowly escaped Enzo Fernández’s fizzing cross at the far post. It was even better when the Ukrainian cut inside, looked to his right and instead opened Villa with a beautiful back pass to Nicolas Jackson. It would have been a nice goal, but this is Chelsea. Jackson’s shot was too close to Emi Martínez and the Villa goalkeeper deflected the ball wide.
Poor finishing remained Chelsea’s Achilles heel. Gusto stormed past Digne and found Fernández, who fired the right-back’s cut-back wide. Sterling repeatedly penetrated the right side just to rush the final pass and Jackson struggled with his attempts to stay onside.
The frustration for Chelsea was that Villa’s attempts to play a high line were less than convincing. Pau Torres was forced into a crucial rebound tackle on Sterling and Boubacar Kamara had to stop a dangerous attack from Jackson.
However, Chelsea didn’t have everything to their liking. There were times when Villa came alive, even with Nicolò Zaniolo a weak presence on the left and Watkins isolated up front. Only the outstanding performance of Chelsea goalkeeper Robert Sánchez, who parried impressive volleys from Digne and Zaniolo, prevented Emery’s side from taking the lead.
Chelsea, who saw Axel Disasi’s header disallowed for offside, did not deserve to go behind. They pressed early in the second half and Sterling continued to target Digne, running beyond the left-back and forcing Martínez into a long-range save.
For all their youthful promise, however, there is a certain naivety to Chelsea. Jackson was expected to be on his best behavior after Pochettino told him to stop contradicting the referees as he had already received four cards for inconsistency this season. The 22-year-old continued to let his manager down and received a yellow card when he interfered with a Villa free-kick. He will also be suspended for the trip to Fulham next week.
Things would get even worse when Gusto tried to win 50-50 a few minutes later. The commitment couldn’t be faulted, but the defender was too high and too powerful as he slid into a scissor challenge on Digne. It was no surprise when the VAR, Andrew Madley, advised Gillett to upgrade Gusto’s booking to red, although the home fans screamed injustice as they saw the incident, which reduced their side to 10 men, replayed on the big screens.
Pochettino had no time to complain. He immediately made a defensive change, Mudryk was unlucky to make way for Ben Chilwell and Disasi moved from central defense to right back. For a while it seemed like Chelsea were comfortable as they held back and restricted Villa to hopeful efforts from Cash and Moussa Diaby.
Chelsea were still dangerous on the counterattack and substitute Cole Palmer almost scored. But then everything collapsed when Villa cleared the resulting corner. John McGinn found Diaby and the winger was able to release Watkins after a slip by the increasingly suspect Thiago Silva.
It was the first time Watkins had space. He ran towards Levi Colwill, who was now playing in central defense after starting at left-back, and the defender blocked his first shot. Doesn’t matter. Watkins simply regained possession, regained space and sent an angled shot low to Sánchez’s right.
How Chelsea could have gotten by with that level of efficiency. They immediately went for an equalizer, Martínez parried Chilwell, but their efforts had little cohesion. Even 11 minutes of added time wasn’t enough for the £1bn-spent team to finish in 14th place.