Is possession overrated? It certainly seemed so for Chelsea as they manoeuvred the ball up and down a series of apparent blind alleys and cul-de-sacs before ultimately seeing all that effort reduced to nothing when Isaac Hayden headed Newcastle United’s stoppage-time winner.
At times Steve Bruce’s side appeared to have developed an alarming allergy to passing but few occupants of the Gallowgate End were worrying about that as Allan Saint-Maximin collected the fall out from a partially cleared Matt Ritchie corner and Hayden rose above all comers to clinch three precious points.
The game had barely begun before Newcastle’s already extensive injury list grew a little longer. Jetro Willems twisted a knee and landed awkwardly following a tussle for the ball with Callum Hudson-Odoi and soon departed on a stretcher, apparently in tears.
A hip problem had left Andy Carroll sitting in the stands, protecting his ponytail from the bitter north-east January chill with a flat cap. He was nearly out of his seat when Joelinton connected with a perfectly weighted cross from Federico Fernández and powered in an unstoppable, and distinctly Carroll-esque, header, only to see it rebound off the underside of the crossbar.
Had the ball crossed the line it would have been Joelinton’s first League goal since August. That would have left Frank Lampard feeling a little hard done by at a juncture when Chelsea were enjoying around 70% of the possession.
Yet despite some high-calibre crosses and passes from the exciting, intelligent Reece James, Chelsea were largely restricted to half-chances. Granted, Martin Dubravka did make a couple of decent saves from first N’Golo Kanté and then Tammy Abraham, but Newcastle created the better early openings, most notably when Jonjo Shelvey’s fabulous lofted free-kick was headed wastefully off-target by the unchallenged Fernández.
As half-time approached and the sub-zero evening cold intensified, the biggest winners seemed to be Barbour International, the South Shields-based clothing company and winter coat specialists. Barbour have recently signed a new sponsorship deal with Newcastle involving an apparent takeover of the ground’s electronic pitchside advertising hoardings and home players even arriving for the match swaddled in the firm’s insulated jackets.
Too much of Chelsea’s play had seemed semi-frozen, lacking the fluency and fluidity required to unhinge Bruce’s back three. Much as James delighted in reminding everyone that England’s Gareth Southgate is spoilt for choice at right-back, too many of his teammates allowed their undeniable technical assurance to be undermined by the sheer obduracy of Newcastle’s often immaculate organisation.
On this evidence Southgate should sign Bruce up to coach some of those “out of possession” coaching sessions so beloved of the FA technocrats at St George’s Park. Certainly the manner in which Willian was persistently, diligently, and rapidly, closed down looked testament to considerable hard work on the training ground.
As the second-half minutes passed Lampard’s demeanour was that of a man fiddling with the dials on a portable radio, struggling to find the correct frequency in an area with unreliable reception. His team were not quite on the right wavelength and, endeavouring to put that right, Chelsea’s manager replaced Mason Mount with Ross Barkley.
A Newcastle substitute very nearly gifted Lampard’s side the opener. Although Sean Longstaff’s concession of possession presented Abraham with a rare clear-cut chance the striker made a mess of it, his mis-cue seeming somehow emblematic of the entire game.
With James having limped off injured, Chelsea appeared all out of ideas when it came to breaking Newcastle down and they paid for such lack of imagination when Joelinton won that decisive stoppage-time corner, Hayden eluded Kepa Arrizabalaga and Steve Bruce defied a suspect knee and hip to make a celebratory leap almost as high as the scorer’s. Who needs possession?