Chelsea got their goal and then had some fortune. If both were overdue, it came as a great relief for Mauricio Pochettino, who got just his second win since returning to the Premier League with this comfortable 2-0 victory over neighbours Fulham in the west London derby.
It may just be one night in Chelsea’s long road back to where they want to be under the former Tottenham manager, but there was enough here to suggest that something is finally starting to come together in this young side – not least because of the identity and resilience of their goalscorers at Craven Cottage. Mykhailo Mudryk got his first for Chelsea at long last, amid much criticism of his performances since an £88m transfer from Shakhtar Donetsk, while Armando Broja marked his return from injury and first start in 11 months by doubling Chelsea’s lead in the space of two first-half minutes.
Mudryk was rewarded for his perseverance and it was somewhat fitting that the winger ended Chelsea’s goal drought in the Premier League while also breaking his own personal duck. If Pochettino will hope it is the moment that gives the 22-year-old the platform and confidence to show his true potential, he too was rewarded for continuing to give Mudryk the opportunity on what was his fourth consecutive start. Chelsea hardly turned a corner against Fulham, but Pochettino’s display of faith and patience is what the club will need to get there.
After all, it had not been easy for Mudryk. “It’s about maturity, adaptation,” Pochettino said. “We need to understand that young people need time, need to settle.” It was a reminder that Mudryk’s difficult start at Cheslea can also be put down to wider issues at the club. Mudryk joined a bloated squad last season and a dressing room that could not even fit all of their first-team players. It was hardly an environment where he could arrive and be the “cherry on the cake”, as Pochettino explained.
“It’s about time and to have patience, to trust these guys and these young, talented players, and to build their confidence,” Pochettino continued. His proven record of developing young players suggests the Argentine arrived at just the right time for Mudryk. Because there is a player there, even as the Ukrainian’s flashes come in raw, untamed bursts of speed, his legs and boots often whirring ahead of the brain. But against Fulham there was also, finally, the touch of class at the end, in the moment that unlocked the match and released the pressure on the visitors.
Mudryk was typically electric yet erratic in the opening 10 minutes, running the ball out of play on the left before lashing a wild shot wide after cutting in from the wing; he was taunted by the Fulham fans in the Hammersmith End with chants of “what a waste of money”, and could have allowed his head to drop. But if the forward’s decision-making around the box looked to be in question again, Mudryk then provided the sharp touch from Levi Colwill’s clever ball into his path before finishing under Bernd Leno.
With it, Mudryk had his first goal since his last appearance in the Ukrainian top flight almost 11 months ago, and after a goalless September, Chelsea had their first in the Premier League since a 3-0 win against Luton in August, as well as a rare away win. After a spell of almost 300 minutes without a goal, the second then came in a matter of seconds, and in this final fixture of the weekend there was room for one more “significant human error”.
This time, though, it was Fulham captain Tim Ream who passed straight out to the impressive Cole Palmer, and whose efforts to clear instead saw the ball cannon off Broja’s foot and past Leno. Chelsea will argue that their slice of good fortune had been coming; Pochettino’s side had arrived at Craven Cottage as the Premier League’s great xG underperformers, with more big chances missed than anyone this season, but this was the night where their luck perhaps started to turn.
Pochettino’s team were the brightest before the goal and for once they had quickly built a lead to settle on. It allowed for a night of positivity – Chelsea needed a win after making their worst start to a top-flight season in 45 years, but Pochettino will be more encouraged by some of the displays in his young, although expensively assembled, side.
Palmer, in particular, stood out on his first Premier League start for Chelsea, his left foot all deft touches and clever, slipped passes through the lines. In for Raheem Sterling, who was on the bench due to illness, the £40m signing from Manchester City has laid a claim to be the brightest of Chelsea’s many summer recruits and produced the pass that led to Broja’s goal.
In midfield, Enzo Fernandez and Conor Gallagher, the player of the match, functioned well ahead of the record signing Moises Caicedo, who shielded and screened to allow the other two to burst and drive. As a collective, they outworked and dominated Fulham’s midfield trio of Joao Palhinha, Harrison Reed and Andreas Pereira, which does not happen often.
Fulham, though, were well below what was required on their big night. After finishing above Chelsea last season, they came into this west London derby feeling as confident as they had done before this fixture in a generation. But Marco Silva’s side were blunt in attack and far too open at the back – it took until the hour for substitute Carlos Vinicius to threaten Chelsea’s patched-up defence for the first time when he headed over the bar from close range.
Moments later, Chelsea could have been out of sight. Ian Maatsen, who replaced Mudryk - off due to a minor know - at the break, struck the inside of the post with a first-time effort from Gallagher’s cut-back before Fernandez’s shot was blocked by Leno. Robert Sanchez made his first saves when the Chelsea goalkeeper kept out another Vinicius header and then raised his foot to deny Fulham substitute Saka Lukic, who should have scored from six yards late on. It would have made for a tense finish, but after a difficult start to the season, Chelsea had earned themselves a break.