Perhaps it would have been more interesting if Todd Boehly and Behdad Eghbali had just stood in the centre circle for 90 minutes, acting out their negotiations with Benfica over Enzo Fernández on deadline day. Instead, no doubt to the disappointment of those who reckon winning a transfer window actually counts for anything, there was a game that will linger in the memory only because of Chelsea’s abject failure to produce the kind of football befitting of a spend of over £500m on new signings.
It must have been quite the comedown for the hierarchy. They gazed down from the posh seats, waiting in vain for any sign of a spark from Graham Potter’s side, and suffered along with the rest of Stamford Bridge. The boos at full-time said everything. Chelsea, drifting along in 9th place after two wins from their last 12 games, were bland, directionless and leaden. Positives? Fernández, who was tidy in midfield, albeit without ever quite showing why he cost £106.8m. David Datro Fofana almost scored. The defence kept a clean sheet.
Being generous, this is merely the start of a rebuild. But Potter needs to inspire more from Myhailo Mudryk, who struggled before being removed at half-time, and he must find a way to make Chelsea’s attack less plodding. A few close misses aside, they barely troubled Marco Silva’s committed and diligent Fulham team, who remain seventh after restricting their neighbours to a single shot on target.
It was impossible to know what Chelsea were going to produce after spending January flaunting their wealth with their frenzied shopping spree. The window had passed by in a blur, eight new players arriving, culminating in the capture of Fernández on deadline day, but whether any of it is going to work is another thing. Opinions remain divided. Is this, in the words of Paris Saint-Germain, a “Class A circus”? Does anyone know what Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang plans to get up to when Chelsea face Borussia Dortmund in the last 16 of the Champions League?
Aubameyang was the initial story, the unlucky individual cast aside when Chelsea handed their revised Champions League squad to Uefa. In: the winger from Shakhtar Donetsk, João Félix and the Argentinian World Cup winner. Out: the striker who joined from Barcelona less than a year ago.
Such is the pace of change. Tributes were paid to César Azpilicueta, who made his 500th appearance for the club last month, and there was a farewell for Jorginho following his move to Arsenal. Reminders of the past jostled with the future. There was the excitement of Mudryk making his home debut and Fernández starting two days after landing in England; but there was also no Aubameyang, a start for Ziyech after dodgy admin scuppered his move to PSG and Kalidou Koulibaly wondering if he has already been replaced in central defence by Benoît Badiashile.
It falls to Potter to untangle this mess. He has been helped by Chelsea’s injury crisis easing, with Reece James back at right-back, and he could take encouragement from Fernández taking little time to adjust. Rustiness did not appear to be a problem for the man pulling the strings for Chelsea in midfield. Fernández was quickly involved, catching the eye with his switches of play, even showing appetite for the battle when he refused to let Aleksandar Mitrovic intimidate him early on.
The home fans liked their new buy. It was Fernández who sparked one of Chelsea’s better moment of the opening period, his ball over the top sending Mason Mount through to cross for Kai Havertz, who stretched and fired over from close range. But clear chances were few and far between. Ziyech went on a run down the right and produced a comical mishit. Conor Gallagher ran around a lot in midfield. Mount kept messing up the final pass. Mudryk never found an opportunity to run at Kenny Tete. Havertz drifted offside a lot.
Fulham, who beat Chelsea at home last month, were hardly outplayed. João Palhinha and Harrison Reed scrapped in midfield. Willian, back at Stamford Bridge, almost teed up Mitrovic. There was a chance for Andreas Pereira, who found space 20 yards from goal and brought the best out of Kepa Arrizabalaga with a stinging low drive.
The visitors refused to show any deference to Chelsea. Palhinha picked up yet another booking after cleaning out Mount and there was also the moment when Fulham’s assistant coach, Luis Boa Morte, exchanged some furious words on the touchline with one of Potter’s lieutenants, Bjorn Hamberg.
In truth, that was one of the highlights. Chelsea suffered from a lack of quality, though they could have gone in ahead. Out of nowhere, a peach of a pass from Ziyech carved Fulham open. Yet Havertz delayed his shot and, although he lifted the ball over Bernd Leno, his lob hit the woodwork and Fulham survived.
Chelsea needed to play with more intensity, to stop playing sideways passes in front of Fulham. At half-time Potter decided he had seen enough off Mudryk. The £88.8m Ukrainian went off and another new signing, Noni Madueke, came on to play on the left. Behind him, the £62m Marc Cucurella would adjust to building another on-pitch relationship.
There was more hope when Conor Gallagher combined with James, whose cross was headed behind by Tete before it reached Madueke. But Fulham hit back. Palhinha’s backheel released Willian, who skated past Fernández and made an opening for Pereira. The shot was blocked and Palhinha drilled the rebound over.
That was Potter’s cue to turn to his bench again, Azpilicueta replacing a tiring James and Raheem Sterling on for Ziyech. It was another twist. Madueke went to the right and Sterling, stationed on the left, became the latest to try his luck against the tenacious Tete.
The frustration grew. Bored out of his mind, Mitrovic then tried to score from the halfway line. Fernández whipped a shot wide.
Chelsea made another change, David Datro Fofana coming on for Mount. With 10 minutes left the young Ivorian striker almost won it, racing through and rounding Leno, only for Tim Ream to clear his shot off the line. At least someone in blue had shown some composure, but it was not enough.