LONDON — Amid the £220 million worth of summer signings who started for Chelsea, it was their old reliable supporting cast who steered them to the top of the Premier League.
Olivier Giroud and Kurt Zouma‘s goals either side of half-time and a late Christian Pulisic tap-in earned them a 3-1 victory over Marcelo Bielsa’s energetic Leeds. All six of Chelsea’s news recruits started on this Baltic evening in West London, but it was their unsung heroes who were the match-winners on this day.
The supporters — all wrapped up in face coverings and scarves — eagerly greeted the team as they ran out for their prematch warm up. This was their first chance to see Timo Werner, Kai Havertz, Eduard Mendy, Ben Chilwell, Thiago Silva and Hakim Ziyech in person. The sextet are an enticing assortment of footballing riches, but instead it was their familiar French duo of Giroud and Zouma who were the lingering heroes.
Giroud may end up being regarded like one of the Impressionist painters, only truly appreciated once he’s gone. But as reliable as death and taxes, Giroud delivers. He backed up his four-goal haul against Sevilla in midweek with a wonderfully taken first-half goal as he timed his run perfectly to meet Reece James‘ cross to dart the ball past Illian Meslier.
Even with just 2,000 fans in the stadium — who more than made up for their meagre numbers, filling the echoing ground with their chants from the lower tier of the Shed End and West Stand — Giroud is not afforded any quiet subtlety. As he chased down defenders, trying to pick their pocket in a moment of indecision, the supporters roared ‘Girrrrouuuudddd!’ It’s the SW6 equivalent of ‘man on!’ but while there are surely numerous suitors for this dependable 34-year-old, there will be no embrace warmer than his adoring fans in this corner of West London. They love him.
He has scored in his past six Premier League starts, but given this run stretches back to the start of July, that in itself shows the Giroud paradox. There are few in Premier League history who have had to re-prove their class and value more times than Giroud has. Although Giroud is in the twilight of his career, he says he feels 10 years younger: old in wisdom, young in body, and again he proved that against Leeds.
Before the match he spoke of how whenever he hits a (selection) wall at a club — like he did at Arsenal and at Chelsea — he has two options: give up, or charge through it. Case in point, this time last season Giroud was being linked with a move away from Stamford Bridge with his old boss Antonio Conte known to be one admirer at Inter Milan. France boss Didier Deschamps is concerned at Giroud’s lack of playing time ahead of next summer’s European Championships but Giroud will not go quietly and Lampard cannot afford to let him go in January. Against Leeds he broke down their defensive wall with his first-half strike and kept the defence on their toes, constantly prodding and pressing until he was replaced in the 79th minute, to a standing ovation.
Zouma was, like Giroud, linked with a move away from Stamford Bridge during the last year but instead has cemented his spot in the heart of Lampard’s defence. He is flourishing alongside Thiago Silva and though he will be disappointed with his positioning for Leeds’ opener, where Kelvin Phillips’ pass bisected Chelsea’s defence to put Patrick Bamford through and past an on-rushing Eduoard Mendy to score, he has the ability and bandwidth to become a stalwart for Chelsea
Lampard’s other dependables also delivered. Mason Mount was lively and it was his pinpoint corner that gave Zouma the space to score their second, while James is deservedly ahead of captain Cesar Azpilicueta in the right-back pecking order. Alongside James, Chelsea’s defensive reinforcements Mendy, Chilwell and Silva offer a settled feel to their defence with N’Golo Kante omnipresent in front of their back four as he shifted positioning to quash Bamford’s threat in the second half. Meanwhile, upfront, there are still enjoyable question marks over what their best-attacking lineup is. You can imagine Lampard enjoys this conundrum.
Against Leeds their xG of 4.1 was their second-highest in 2020, and even though Hakim Ziyech was forced off through a hamstring injury after 30 minutes, they had the luxury of being able to bring on Pulisic. The American, who got an hour off the bench, kept Luke Ayling on his heels with his tricky footwork and will only get better, having missed the early part of the campaign with a hamstring injury of his own.
“It’s been a difficult period for him with the injury, and he’s been frustrated in a good way,” Lampard said. “To play the period of the game he played and to get the goal — and he has an incredible gift to arrive in the six-yard box at the right time — he’s only going to get better now.”
Werner was again dangerous, flying in off the wings, but is yet to replicate the lethal finishing we saw at RB Leipzig. He failed to score from three yards out — having blocked Giroud’s header off Leeds’ goalline — thanks in part to Meslier’s fingertips, but he’ll continue to grow in this Chelsea side and his relentless work rate paid off as he teed up Pulisic’s late goal.
While Ziyech looked lively before he was forced off injured, Havertz continues to try and find his feet in the Premier League. Speak to those who know him well and they are in no doubt he will end up being one of the world’s best players. While there are glimpses of his Bayer Leverkusen form which led to Chelsea paying £72m, you feel he needs to be played more in the heart of the attacking action to bring the best out of him, rather than playing out wide in Chelsea’s three-man midfield.
Despite the huge outlay in the summer, it’s still that man Giroud who refuses to stay in the shadows. He said he felt like he played with “confidence” and therefore “serenity”. It was an evening where everything clicked for Chelsea and their vocal 2,000 supporters. For those fans who haven’t seen their team in nine months, they left Stamford Bridge encouraged by the future and revelling in the present. “We are top of the league,” they chanted as they filed out into the cold, London night sky and back to their homes. But they saw a Chelsea side who are moulding into formidable title-challengers.
With Pulisic their 13th different scorer in the top flight this season, and Zouma’s goal their seventh from a set piece, Chelsea are showing they are more than the sum of their extravagant spending spree — they are forming a formidable, all-court, title-challenging charge at the summit of the table. But don’t expect Lampard to get carried away. “My job and our job is to see how consistent we can be with this form, I know we can improve,” Lampard said. “We need to make sure we stay grounded.”