The last thing Steven Gerrard needed was to face a goalkeeper who chose this occasion to produce perhaps the best performance of his Major league career. Kepa Arrizabalaga hasn’t had too many of those days since his £72million arrival four years ago, but denied Aston Villa with a fine display of his art, two breath-taking first-half saves from Jacob Ramsey and Danny Ings. These were far from his only interventions, and they meant that Graham Potter, whose side had their worst run of form in his tenure, could claim a fifth successive victory, even if Chelsea hardly deserved it.
They won because Villa, failing to strike a decisive blow on one side, self-destructed on the other. Tyrone Mingo’s glaring error gave Mason Mount the opener at the plate; Both Mings and Emiliano Martinez then had reason to be unhappy with their handling of the second-half free-kick, albeit a superb one from which the same player scored the move. Chelsea’s revival continues apace, but Gerrard has seen the prospect of a transformative result slip away.
Gerrard could hardly legislate an individual error that ruins the best laid plans. Villa started brightly but looked uncertain as Ben Chilwell picked his way inside the box towards their penalty area. Trying to rob his opponent, Ramsey sent the ball into the air; This seemed to offer Ming the usual gap, but he misjudged the flight, his head rolling back and offering Mount a sharp foreboding side kick from close range.
Ings got his first start since August 28 as Gerrard fumbled for a winning combination in attack. It almost paid off inside 65 seconds, but Mateo Kovacic, covering Ollie Watkins lurking at the far post, intercepted the withdrawn striker’s cross. Mingo’s mistake seemed to destroy the mood of cautious hope, but Villa rallied and, given the lapse of time, could hardly believe they weren’t at rock bottom.
A run of fine chances began with Leon Bailey, also restored to the starting line-up, heading John McGinn’s header onto the top of the bar. Then there was an unusual shutdown by Chelsea, who just wouldn’t go despite having the lead. McGinn’s drive was cleared by Arrizabalaga, but Ramsey, taking aim after the rebound, looked set to slot it past him from 12 yards. Instead, he was brilliantly thwarted, the keeper somehow tipping his effort onto the post.
McGinn, who should have done better in a great position after Thiago Silva went down near the touchline, and Ings then forced Arizobalag to further block the ball in succession. Then, in the 31st minute, Bailey came back and sent Ings on the right from four yards out for a header that Arrizabalaga spectacularly tipped over despite having minimal reaction time. The once-maligned Spaniard denied Villa with two fine reflex stops.
Chelsea looked disjointed at the back and unable to consolidate anything further forward. Raheem Sterling’s selection at right-back was reminiscent of the hole created by Rhys James’ injury but failed to work, and amid this flurry of narrow escapes, Potter moved him into the front three, redeploying Ruben Loftus-Cheek to the wing. It mattered, Sterling volleying over the bar from 15 yards after good work from Kai Havertz, but Villa still ended the half on top and Gerrard would surely have called for continuation. The veiled frustration of the home support was occasionally reflected in jeers as his players passed behind, but this time they did them a disservice.
Potter knew Chelsea couldn’t wait to go through the same and his half-time changes, replacing Havertz and the struggling Marco Cucurella for Kalida Koulibaly and Cesar Azpilicueta, were made with the clear expectation that they should step up. It worked to the extent that Villa, still doing almost all of the running, failed to create a clear-cut opportunity early in the second period despite a succession of crosses pouring into Orizabalaga’s box. When Watkins was checked inside on the left and found he liked the position, the end product was a disappointing wayward shot.
Arizalaba held on to McGinn’s low volley, but wasn’t hitting as hard anymore. From Villa’s point of view, it seemed grimly inevitable that they would be ripped away from Chelsea’s first moment of threat after the restart. Mings was again partly responsible, although a clumsy foul on Mount 25 yards out was hardly a pass. Mount’s free-kick was well taken but Martinez paid for taking a step to his side, the ball swinging to his left and under his crossbar.
Chelsea got away with it and could finally operate with a healthy degree of control. Sterling headed wide and forced Martinez to make a save. The latter stages were a non-event, with Villa and, more importantly, Gerrard booed at the end.