Graham Potter may have benefited from a recent “Glow Up” but his players seem to be experiencing a bit of a messy makeover. Given Chelsea have failed to win any of their last five Premier League games, it has proved somewhat less successful than their manager’s new hair style, as, thanks to Joe Willock’s sumptuously curling winner, Eddie Howe’s renascent Newcastle registered a sixth straight victory.
“I rate Joe very, very highly,” said “an immensely proud” Howe at the end of an evening in which the midfielder thoroughly upstaged England’s Mason Mount and Conor Gallagher. “Joe’s continuing to improve but he’s very important to us.”
Willock and co go into the World Cup break third in the top tier with the domestic season’s impending six-week hiatus apparently the only thing that can apply a brake to the extraordinary momentum which promises to sweep them into next season’s Champions League.
Chelsea’s growing fear of missing out on Europe was reflected by their body language at the final whistle when Kai Havertz briefly found himself at the centre of a finger-pointing melee. Although it began with Havertz squaring up to Newcastle’s Dan Burn the conclusion seemed to be more about his Chelsea teammates losing their cool and arguing with each other. Tellingly such recriminations continued as they headed down the tunnel and Howe’s players began a mini lap of honour.
“It doesn’t get any easier, we’re in a bad place; we need to go away and regroup,” said Potter whose side suffered a third straight defeat for the first time since José Mourinho’s troubled tenure in 2015 and now sit eighth, eight points behind fourth-placed Tottenham.
“It’s not nice to get bad results. But sometimes you have to accept your struggles. There’s been a lot of learning in the last eight weeks. The first half was relatively even but Newcastle are a very good side. Defensively they’re one of the best teams in the Premier League; they don’t make it easy for you. But we made too many unforced errors.”
He blamed tiredness. “You could see the difference in the schedules; we looked fatigued but our schedule’s demanding,” Potter continued. “Newcastle have one game a week. It showed. We’re just hoping the guys going to the World Cup come back in a good place and we can re-focus.”
Chelsea had flown north without Raheem Sterling. The forward has been suffering from migraines but is still expected to join up with Gareth Southgate’s Qatar-bound World Cup squad. Newcastle’s key striker, Callum Wilson, is also Doha bound but he spent most of the evening on the bench after recovering from a virus and watched Chelsea almost imperceptibly lose control of a first half in which they barely created a single chance and Willock won his central midfield duel with England’s Gallagher.
Unlike certain other colleagues the latter was at least industry personified. It was not Gallagher’s fault he struggled at right wing-back in the second period after being relocated to an unfamiliar role following Potter’s attempt to recalibrate his formation.
Gallagher created Chelsea’s sole real moment of menace when he cut inside and stretched Nick Pope to the limit with a curling shot the England goalkeeper proved brilliantly equal to. Howe identified it as a key turning point, stressing that Pope has contributed a great deal to Newcastle’s four clean sheets in the past six League games.
With Bruno Guimarães’s style slightly cramped by Potter’s decision to man mark Howe’s Brazil midfielder, Newcastle’s high possession quotient did not translate into multiple chances.
Even so, Édouard Mendy denied Chris Wood at point-blank range after Joelinton flicked on Kieran Trippier’s cross, while Miguel Almirón conjured an excellent chance Sean Longstaff could only lift over the bar.
Undeterred, Almirón controlled a bouncing ball before dribbling across the area and, just when he seemed set to shoot, overran it and laid it off to Willock instead. As the midfielder sent a first-time shot curving beyond Mendy, any remaining radiance drained from Potter’s face.