If only there was an accountancy trick that could mask Chelsea’s awful numbers in front of goal. Unfortunately for Todd Boehly and Clearlake Capital there is no way to amortise a home defeat to a ruthless Nottingham Forest. As Mauricio Pochettino heard the home fans greet the final whistle with fierce boos, it was strange to think that £1bn has gone into building a side so lacking in nous, leadership and ways to respond against opponents intent on frustrating them at Stamford Bridge.
The problems confronting Pochettino are nothing new given that Chelsea have earned 11 home wins in all competitions since the start of last season. This is a team bereft of edge in the final third, a team of young players who look unsure of themselves in tricky situations, and nobody who has been paying close attention to recent events here could say they were particularly surprised when Forest pounced on one defensive slip and stole the points thanks to Anthony Elanga’s clinical finish at the start of the second half.
Forest had executed Steve Cooper’s astute plan to perfection, defending with discipline before striking on the break, Elanga’s first goal for the club a timely boost after Brennan Johnson’s move to Tottenham. Chelsea, who had made great play about their summer signings having an average age of 20.5 years, looked callow by comparison.
“This type of game will help us to be more mature,” Pochettino said. “It’s not only about having quality.”
He would go on to talk about playing with more aggression and he must have been worried by the way desperation took hold once Chelsea went behind. There was a glaring miss from Nicolas Jackson, a wild swipe from Raheem Sterling and nothing from an array of expensive substitutes.
Pochettino tried everything – throwing Cole Palmer on for his debut a day after the winger’s £42.5m move from Manchester City, turning to the £88.5m Mykhailo Mudryk more in hope than expectation – but there was no way Forest were going to surrender a first away win since January.
“We talked about how we could hurt Chelsea and then after that it was about keeping a clean sheet,” Cooper said. “There is no shame in that.”
There was much to admire about Forest’s defending. Ola Aina neutralised Sterling, who did little to show that Gareth Southgate was wrong to leave him out of the England squad, and Chelsea toiled throughout a tepid first half. There was possession but no incision, the threat limited to a couple of hopeful efforts from Enzo Fernández and the hosts did not look comfortable defending set pieces. Taiwo Awoniyi bullied Thiago Silva at times and the Forest striker missed two good chances to opening the scoring.
Forest’s plan was working. Much is made of their frenzied activity in the transfer market – seven signings arrived on deadline day – but it has not stopped Cooper from making sure his players know how to do their jobs.
Chelsea lacked such cohesion. So much changed during the summer and Forest would take advantage of the uncertainty three minutes into the second half. There was a mix-up in midfield, Moisés Caicedo and Conor Gallagher taking it in turns to squander possession, and Orel Mangala was able to make a crucial interception. The ball ran to Awoniyi, he nutmegged Silva with a clever pass and Elanga, on for the injured Danilo, escaped Levi Colwill before sliding a composed shot past Robert Sánchez.
A hush descended over the home sections. Pochettino looked to his bench for inspiration and removed the £115m Caicedo. Palmer came on to play as the No 10, Noni Madueke moved to the right flank and Ian Maatsen entered the fray. But Forest, whose defence was expertly marshalled by Joe Worrall, were giving little away.
The worry for Forest, though, was that they had blown a 2-0 lead at Manchester United last Saturday. An equaliser looked certain when Sterling reached the right byline and cut the ball back for Jackson, only for the striker to prod the ball over from three yards. Pochettino would soon hear the boos.