Can anyone keep up with Chelsea? That is the big question five matches into the Premier League season, and while it’s still way too early to say anything definitive, the answer is looking more and more like “No.” The Blues currently sit at the top of the table—albeit due only to an “away goals in head-to-head matches” tiebreaker over Liverpool—but even that does not do justice to the sheer dominance Chelsea has displayed.
The latest example of Chelsea’s coalescence into a world-beating force came away from Stamford Bridge on Sunday. Traveling crosstown to the north side of London, the team went into Tottenham Hotspur Stadium and, after a shaky first half, beat the pants off of Spurs, 3–0. The victory was more of the same for Chelsea: not really dominating possession, but riding an incredible defense and in-the-box lethalness to a comfortable win against a Tottenham side that, early season Manchester City win aside, has looked a bit lost under new manager Nuno Espírito Santo.
The difference maker, as it often is, was N’Golo Kanté. Though he didn’t start the game, the diminutive French whirlwind came on at halftime and immediately established Chelsea’s iron grip from the middle of the park. While Tottenham enjoyed a handful of dangerous counter attacks in the first half, Kanté’s presence on the pitch put nearly a complete stop to the home team’s attacking jaunts. The difference between the Kanté-less and the Kanté-led team before and after his insertion was glaringly obvious, and his introduction helped bring Chelsea to one of its higher peaks of the young season.
Not content with completely wrecking Tottenham’s attacks while the Blues were defending, Kanté had a major impact on his team’s own forays forward, most notably in the long-distance, deflected goal he scored:
Battering a team of Spurs’ quality away from home is always impressive. What makes Chelsea’s performance over the weekend even more remarkable is how it didn’t even feel like it was the best the team can do. For instance, let’s look at the case of Timo Werner. The German entered the match as a late substitute, and immediately demonstrated the sorts of baffling brain farts that have made him something of a meme during in his time in England. Shortly after stepping onto the pitch in the 70th minute, Werner had a pair of one-on-ones with the keeper; unsurprisingly, he flubbed them both.
Focusing on Werner’s lack of goals—important though that might be—misses something very crucial: Chelsea is much better when he’s on the field. Even while suffering from a bad case of the yips, the German’s runs and link-up play are nearly flawless, which makes him a fantastic complimentary piece next to Romelu Lukaku. Chelsea’s attack flows better when it has the things Werner brings to it, and surely the goals will eventually reflect that. And though he failed to score himself, Werner did assist Antonio Rüdiger for the stoppage-time goal that iced Chelsea’s cake.
Werner isn’t the only player to not get off the blocks yet. Kai Havertz, who had a similarly (though far less luridly) disappointing debut season as his countryman Werner, is still trying to figure out how to contribute his best to the team. Christian Pulisic, characteristically, has been sidelined for much of the season and so hasn’t been able to build any momentum. (Though I would get yelled at by a few of my coworkers if I failed to point out that the Small Sample Size King is second on the team in expected goals per 90 minutes.) Throw in Hakim Ziyech and Callum Hudson-Odoi, two players who almost certainly won’t win a permanent starting spot for themselves but could find niches as super-subs should they perform more consistently, and you’ll see that Chelsea has a glut of attacking talent that could be doing better. And yet it hasn’t mattered at all.
It’s fitting that all three goals on Sunday came from unlikely sources: Thiago Silva, Rüdiger, and Kanté. If Chelsea’s vaunted and expensive attacking corps gets its shit together around Lukaku, who has already been excellent, then even the Liverpools and Manchesters of the league will find it terribly hard to compete. The Blues are legitimately loaded across the field, they have one of the best coaches in England, and they can win any type of game.
Try to bring the game to them, and they will hit you on the counter and on set pieces, as they did to Tottenham. Force them to defend, as they had to do against Liverpool following a controversial red card, and they will simply bunker down with the best-drilled backline in the Premier League. Give them the ball and try to bunker down yourself, and they’ll do to you what they did to Arsenal.
No team is perfect, and the season is long; keen observers will remember that Manchester City was a train wreck early on last season before walking the league in the second half. But the form of Chelsea’s success seems resistant to too much variance. The team is already outstanding, and it still has plenty of room to grow. And if the Blues do grow, then the gap between them and the clubs below them on the league table will only grow, too.