As good as Alvaro Morata has been for Chelsea, and as much as Eden Hazard has started to rediscover his form, there have still been moments that reflect the fact they aren’t yet fully firing - that they don’t yet know each other all that well.
It was there again in the 1-0 win over Bournemouth. The duo did well together, and there were some fine link-ups but one reason this wasn’t the rout it should have been was because they aren’t yet fully in tune. There is still a slight disconnect, a pass or a run that isn’t right or as either would want. Ultimately, they don’t yet inherently understand each other in the way that Hazard and Diego Costa did.
This of course is not a criticism, but instead an inevitability from the fact that Hazard has been injured, Morata has just arrived, and the Spaniard is himself still learning the very specific role that Antonio Conte wants from him.
Hazard is known to greatly like playing with Morata, but they are still learning about each other. Since they are the side’s focal point, this is all the more relevant because it ripples through the team and reflects it. After a few tweaks and changes in the summer, this is also a Chelsea team finding out about each other again - and trying to find their rhythm.
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It has been one of the lingering frustrations of their season so far, beyond the extra defeats, and one that the Champions League has also brought further into focus.
There have probably only been a handful of periods when the Premier League champions have looked as flowing as last season, when everything was perfectly integrated. One was the 2-0 win over Everton back in August, and another was the 2-1 victory over Atletico Madrid in September.
Other than that, there’s been a bit of a toil to some of their play, and a few more gaps to their system that weren’t there last season. The 3-3 draw against Roma in the last Champions League game probably saw a mix of all of this, the best and worst of them, and the challenge for this Tuesday’s return at the Stadio Olimpico is to eliminate the latter and continue this evolution.
They will likely need it if the Italian side’s performance in that first match is anything to go by, and could well be key to getting through this group and finishing first in it.
Chelsea need to become the searing side they have suggested they can be.
One obvious issue is that so many new players are adjusting to a system that has already been tweaked from last season, with the added complication that Conte has had less time on the training ground due to Europe.
This has had a very tangible effect on how the team move together, since one of the Italian’s most effective working methods is literally grabbing the players and walking them through formations and where he wants them to move on the training ground. It can initially be tedious, but players don’t mind once it starts to take effect, once they realise what they are learning.
There just hasn’t been the scope for that this season, and it can be especially seen with the new players like Morata and Tiemoue Bakayoko.
Bakayoko did start the season well, only to tail off a bit in the last few games and it’s hard not to put that down to the absence of the most important player of all: N’Golo Kante. The midfielder’s influence has by now been well discussed but he makes such a profound difference on a team still learning about itself for the obvious reason that his relentless running so quickly fills so many gaps. He is an almost unique player in that way, and there is a chance he will back for Roma.
It probably isn’t a coincidence that their two most impressive displays this season came against sides so willing to sit back in Everton and Atletico. It afforded them that extra space to play together, to press together.
To recreate that more often is really about space rather than time, though, and in two senses: the extra time to work together and the time it will take for it all to sink in.
Hazard does enjoy playing with Morata and, as with the team as a whole, there are enough signs something very promising is there.
The hope, however, is that it all doesn’t come too late for the Champions League or title challenge.
The greater resilience that Conte has imbued in the team has helped in the meantime. It resulted in wins like those over Watford and Bournemouth and the fact they didn’t ultimately lose to Roma.
They could do with another rousing display, however, to go with that resilience.