In the end the darkness inevitably envelopes all Chelsea managers but for Maurizio Sarri, after his super-charged start to life in the Premier League, this latest defeat was an early warning that this group of players can take a coach on the crest of a wave, and they can also bring him down.
It was a magnificent night for Wolverhampton Wanderers and their manager Nuno Espirito Santo who dared to be brave in his selection, especially with the 18-year-old English boy Morgan Gibbs-White. The England Under-17 World Cup winner was a revelation, creating the first of Wolves’ two goals that came in a four-minute period when they seized control of the game in a thrilling night at the old ground.
This was the first league start of the season for Gibbs-White playing in a version of the false nine position which will have been unusual for a conventionally attacking midfielder but he did it wonderfully well. His pass made the first goal for Raul Jimenez and when four minutes later Diego Jota scored the second – his first of the season – Chelsea seem to crumble under the pressure.
From Sarri there was disbelief at the reaction of his players to the Jimenez goal before which he said that they had been in control. “The goal was an accident but then suddenly we were a team without the right distances [to opponents] and without our [style of] football,” Sarri said. “I don’t know why. I am really very worried about the fact that we didn’t react to the first goal of the game. We didn’t react at all.”Later when he was asked to turn his thoughts to the visit of City to Stamford Bridge on Saturday, Sarri said that the leaders, now ten points better off than his own team, were in “a different category”. He said that they were arguably the best team in the world and should have won the Champions League last season were it not for the volatility of a cup competition. But it was how he thought his players might react to this defeat, their second in three games after an unbeaten start, that was the most telling.The match [on Saturday] is difficult and after this match [against Wolves] we have lost confidence but maybe it’s better,” Sarri said. “Because sometime my players show too much confidence.” With that he was up and out the room and we will have to wait for Friday for him to expand on the answer.
Certainly, he set a high standard early in the season and in recent weeks, starting with the Wembley defeat to Tottenham, Chelsea have struggled to live up to their start. Against Wolves, Sarri gave first league starts of the season to Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Cesc Fabregas and Andreas Christensen and while they contributed, it was in other areas where he will have felt let down.
Alvaro Morata once again looked ill-suited to the intensity of a night like this. He might have had a penalty for a foul by Willy Boly at the start of the second half but then Sarri was not quibbling about the referee Jonathan Moss. Willian, once such a reliable figure, was culpable in the build-up to Wolves’ winner and questions will also be asked of goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga. Loftus-Cheek scored on his first Chelsea league start since April 2016, the one bright spot for Sarri.Chelsea could not handle the second half intensity of Wolves who were without the suspended Ruben Neves. Nuno said afterwards that he was most pleased with the way in which his team kept their shape for the long periods that they were without the ball, and that Gibbs-White was emblematic of a new era in the English game.
“He [Gibbs-White] is one of the best generations of English players in a long time. You have Phil Foden, he’s a world champion too. He [Gibbs-White] is not an example, he’s the reality – of the fantastic job the national team of England are doing. It is amazing what they are producing.”
Gibbs-White gave Wolves a directness and unpredictability in attack where he was given license to run from deep with the ball. Early on, he dropped a shoulder and went past Fabregas and chopped back inside past Willian that showed he was up for the task. Wolves had chances in the first half and Nuno had also decided that the long throw-in would be one of Wolves’ chief weapons. Ryan Bennett flung them in at every opportunity. For the most part it was Chelsea who were in control of the ball.
Loftus-Cheek struck the shot that gave Chelsea the lead – Conor Coady stooped to try to head it away and simply redirected the ball into the near corner. His goalkeeper had no chance. That incident with Boly, a tackle from behind, seemed to be what Morata was contesting with the fourth official when he was inevitably substituted later, as Chelsea’s performance flat-lined.
For the first goal, Gibbs-White chose the channel for his pass perfectly. Jimenez struck his shot low but it was saveable for Arrizabalaga. Then Willian was shrugged away by Joao Moutinho near the edge of the Chelsea area. When Matt Doherty struck a fine ball to the far post, it was Jota who was there to finish and Wolves never looked back.