Chelsea moved into the top half of the table with a hard-fought home victory over Brighton & Hove Albion after playing the entire second half with only 10 men.
Their new-found threat from attacking set pieces had initially eased Mauricio Pochettino’s team into a comfortable two-goal lead. Enzo Fernandez’s header put them ahead early on, with Levi Colwill converting Nicolas Jackson’s nod back before the first half had reached its midway point.
Yet Facundo Buonanotte pulled one back and, moments later, Conor Gallagher’s second yellow card saw the England midfielder dismissed and Chelsea forced into a rearguard action.
Fernandez’s penalty midway through the second half, earned after the VAR pinpointed a foul by James Milner on Mykhailo Mudryk, eased some nerves only for Joao Pedro to flick in a second for the visitors deep into stoppage time. Amid the tension thereafter, including a late VAR check which overturned a 100th-minute penalty awarded for handball against Colwill, Chelsea clung on.
Chelsea went into this match bottom of the Premier League’s fair play table. Asked in his pre-match press conference on Friday about the source of their indiscipline, Pochettino pointed to a lack of English top-flight experience in his young squad.
Yet against Newcastle and against Brighton, it was Reece James and Gallagher, two of the most seasoned Premier League performers and the captains on the pitch, whose rash decisions reduced Chelsea to 10 men.
James’ second yellow for fouling Anthony Gordon could easily be dismissed as frustration given his team were 3-1 down. Gallagher sliding in from behind on Billy Gilmour when already booked, with Chelsea 2-1 up on Brighton and half-time fast approaching, was utterly inexplicable.
A furious Pochettino paced and shook his head as Gallagher sullenly trudged off the pitch. His message about balancing Premier League intensity with calm heads has not been heeded by his players, and Chelsea cannot hope to climb the table until they get out of their way.
Picking a defence consisting of four tall, muscular center-backs in true Pulis style may not be the most subtle way to gain a significant advantage at set-pieces, but it is undeniably effective.
All too often this season, Chelsea’s repertoire at attacking corner kicks has been limited to a couple of stiff blocks and a well-timed Thiago Silva run to the near post, or a hanging cross towards Axel Disasi at the back post. Pochettino’s default team simply features too few players who are genuinely dominant aerially to do much else.
Chelsea ran their pet play for Silva with their first corner of this game. Still, it was their second opportunity that underlined the flexibility that more height affords them: Badiashile keeping a floated Gallagher delivery alive at the back post, holding off two players and hooking it back across for Fernandez to head in. If he had not, Colwill was waiting.
Four minutes later they repeated the trick, with Nicolas Jackson this time heading back across the six-yard box for Colwill to nod over the line. Given how few reliable routes to goal this team has, genuine set-piece prowess is nothing to scoff at.
This game, coming so soon after Pochettino publicly lit a fire under his Chelsea players for the first time this season in response to their collapse against Newcastle, was always going to be a particularly telling indicator of his command over this squad.
There can be no doubt that he got the kind of response he was looking for; Chelsea had seized the initiative early against Brighton, imposed themselves physically all over the pitch — too much so at times — and even overcame that large dose of self-inflicted adversity to get a home win they so desperately needed.
Pochettino’s team has real spirit. His challenge is to consistently channel it in a positive direction — rather than, to name but two examples, Moises Caicedo fouling with reckless abandon when on a yellow in the second half, or Fernandez becoming the latest Chelsea player to succumb to the epidemic of brainlessly kicking the ball away to provoke a yellow.
But it was evident in the way Chelsea countered with composure and lightning speed to win their penalty that extended their lead, then just about held on in the face of waves of late Brighton pressure, that this talented group of players have the desire to be active participants in their own Premier League rescue.