Chelsea can at least claim to top one table this season, but leading the way for yellow and red cards is going to send head coach Mauricio Pochettino grey at this rate.
Back on the touchline following his own ban, Pochettino watched Chelsea’s captain see red for the second successive week but this time his 10-man team just about managed to come away with all three points.
It was only a few weeks ago that Pochettino bared his chest hair in a pre-match press conference to prove his dark hair is all natural, but it will not be long before he goes grey all over if Chelsea’s discipline does not improve – even though afterwards he insisted he was delighted with the fighting spirit of his players.
Pochettino got involved himself at the final whistle, when both sets of players clashed and Brighton manager Roberto De Zerbi approached referee Craig Pawson and his officials. Adam Lallana, former Brighton goalkeeper Robert Sanchez and Levi Colwill, who spent last season on loan at the Amex, were particularly worked up.
Both managers played down the full-time fracas with De Zerbi claiming he was “congratulating” Pawson, whose decisions he refused to comment on, and Pochettino saying: “It’s football, it’s emotional. It’s normal our reaction and the reaction from Brighton. We all started to talk in the middle, the referee was there, I went to talk and I wanted to talk and ‘oh why you push me’ and it became a massive confusion.”
At least the character Pochettino wanted to see after the Newcastle capitulation was in evidence, as Chelsea clung on with 10 men having almost let Brighton in during stoppage time.
Last week it was Reece James who walked for two silly yellow cards and, against Brighton, Conor Gallagher picked up two first-half bookings to put Chelsea in trouble.
Gallagher was captaining the team in the absence of James, who had already served a ban while injured earlier this season for mouthing off at the officials following the defeat by Aston Villa.
But, just as James has done on a couple of occasions, Gallagher lost his head by collecting two yellow cards in the space of 14 minutes, when Chelsea were coasting.
His first yellow card for a foul on Facundo Buonanotte came shortly after Colwill had given Chelsea a two-goal advantage. And then, two minutes after Buonanotte had pulled a goal back for the visitors, Gallagher earned his second booking for a stupid challenge on Billy Gilmour.
Pochettino questioned the sending-off, but praised his team’s character, which he called on his players to show during his half-time team-talk.
“It wasn’t a sending off, that is my opinion. Maybe I am wrong,” said Pochettino. “This type of period, it happens. We were a little more aggressive after Newcastle. We needed to show our real face. We wanted to play well, be aggressive and show we care. We wanted to win the game. I think the team was really good. The crowd was proud.
“I am so proud of the players and the character they showed. I told them at half-time, OK, it is 2-1 for us, but I am happy that happened because it is a great opportunity for us, it is a massive challenge, come on, now we need to show we are a team. That will improve us.”
Pochettino pointed out that Tottenham had two players sent off against his team earlier this season, but Chelsea’s disciplinary record is the worst in the League. Nicolas Jackson, has as many yellow cards as he does goals (seven) and has already served a suspension. Moises Caicedo and goalscorer Enzo Fernandez collected bookings that meant, like Raheem Sterling, they are only one more yellow card away from a ban.
Chelsea had been on course for a comfortable afternoon before Gallagher’s sending-off, thanks to goals from Fernandez, his first in the league, and Colwill, his first for the home team.
Both goals came from headers, as Fernandez nodded in from close range after Benoit Badiashile did well to hook a cross back over himself and Colwill converted a Jackson header from Gallagher’s corner. Gilmour had tried to keep Colwill’s header out, but the ball crossed the line.
Brighton goalkeeper Jason Steele had made a great save from his own player, Carlos Baleba, before Buonanotte reduced Chelsea’s advantage by cutting inside Colwill and curling a perfect left-foot shot past Robert Sanchez.
De Zerbi made a quadruple substitution for Brighton with just over an hour remaining, sending on Kaoru Mitoma, Joao Pedro, Pascal Gross and James Milner. The change backfired, however, as Milner’s first contribution was to give away the penalty from which Fernandez restored Chelsea’s two-goal advantage.
A lovely move between Sterling and Jackson sent Mykhailo Mudryk through on goal, and he went down under Milner’s attempted challenge. Referee Pawson did not initially give the penalty, but did so after being sent to the screen by Var and Fernandez scored.
Another of Brighton’s substitutes, Pedro, pulled a goal back with a header from a corner two minutes into the 10 minutes of time added on for stoppages to ensure a nervy finish, in which Brighton were incorrectly awarded a penalty by referee Pawson, only for a Var check to show the ball had clearly struck Colwill’s head, rather than his hand.
The moment prompted a post-match shoving contest, which involved Colwill, Pochettino and Sanchez, who walked off the pitch waving to the visiting Brighton fans who spent the entire afternoon singing obscenities at him.
Given this was only Chelsea’s fourth home league win in 2023, the Stamford Bridge fans will not be too worried about how it came. But Pochettino must hope his team stop making life difficult for themselves – if only for the colour of his hair.