And so the pendulum swings again. From dire to delightful in the space of three days, the riddle of this Chelsea squad is no closer to being solved but the pressure on Mauricio Pochettino has certainly eased, if only for a while.
This was a fine performance. Better than fine, actually – it was excellent. They were fast, they were precise, they were tight at the back and they were dynamic. They also fought and cared and carried themselves into the fifth round of FA Cup at a canter.
If that’s not the magic of the cup, then the term requires redefining, because on Sunday against Wolves they effectively marched Pochettino to the chopping block by being the opposite in every regard.
To go from that to this, from one of their worst displays of the campaign to one of their best, was quite the trick and they pulled it off. We await the tweets of Thiago Silva’s wife to see if Pochettino has achieved a thumbs-up, though more than anyone he knows the virtue of going one step at a time at a club prone to heavy falls onto its backside.
For now, it will suffice that, barring a few tricky minutes at the start, they dominated an Aston Villa side that had won 13 of 16 home games this season.
Enzo Fernandez’s brilliant goal crowned a dominant display by Chelsea against Aston Villa
The Chelsea midfielder curled a free kick over the wall and into the top corner of the Villa net
Fernandez stunning effort gave Chelsea a deserved 3-0 cushion during the second half
Your browser does not support iframes.
Conor Gallagher gave Chelsea the confidence of a quick lead, Nicolas Jackson lifted them to the rarefied air of comfort by heading a second, and Enzo Fernandez brought some delirium with a free-kick of the highest order after the break. Moussa Diaby scored a consolation in stoppage time, but that should not conceal the scale of the hiding.
At this stage, it would be absurd to talk of Chelsea’s revival, because precious little about their season warrants such generosity of spirit. We might also suggest that a performance like this will only heighten the exasperation that so many others have been contested at a level fathoms below. But in isolation it was impressive and vitally it was proof, too, that Pochettino can still get a reaction from these players.
Most conspicuous in the improvement was the fluidity of his attack, which had been so static at the weekend but was a blur of moving parts here.
That was typified by Cole Palmer and Noni Madueke, who repeatedly switched positions as two components of the front three and Unai Emery’s defence never came close to a reliable solution. There needs to be more of that unpredictability as Chelsea pursue momentum ahead of their campaign-defining appearance in the Carabao Cup final 17 days from now.
Again, the doubt is whether that will now develop into a pattern, ditto a defence that had morebite and a midfield that pressed the life out of Villa, but this performance could not have come at a more important time for Pochettino.
Indeed, as he disembarked the team bus on arrival, he had been greeted by Villa fans in precisely the same way that he was taunted out of Stamford Bridge on Sunday: ‘You’re getting sacked in the morning.’
Against that backdrop, he sent out a team with notable differences to the one trounced at the weekend. Most glaringly he dropped Silva for ‘performance reasons’ – not necessarily the change his wife meant – as well as demoting Raheem Sterling and Christopher Nkunku.
The latter was a precaution against over-use after his difficulties with injury, but Sterling’s omission rang as an indictment of his underwhelming performances against Liverpool and Wolves.
Conor Gallagher scored his first goal of the season to give the Blues an early lead at Villa Park
Nicolas Jackson doubled Chelsea’s advantage with the striker heading in Malo Gusto’s cross
Jackson’s effort gave Chelsea much needed breathing space in the FA Cup fourth round replay
As for Villa, Emery swapped out Ezri Konsa as a consequence of his knee issue and recalled Matty Cash in the only change to the side that crushed Sheffield United.
That match had been a stroll and in the initial stages here it felt like no great upgrade on the opposition – Chelsea twice presented Villa with free-headers six yards from goal and suffered for neither of them. They would be costly misses as it happens.
Chelsea’s breakthrough occurred around the moment when supporter dissatisfaction was being manifested through a chant for Roman Abramovich.
That sentiment won’t change but the immediate mood lifted with Gallagher’s strike, which followed a quick break after Boubacar Kamara was sacked near halfway.
Nicholas led the attack, squared to Madueke and he laid off for Gallagher, who side-footed to the top corner from just inside the area. It was a lovely hit.
The screw turned with Jackson’s header for 2-0. Credit goes to Gusto for the cross, but Jackson was the master of the move, first with the subtleties of his run into the space between Matty Cash and Diego Carlos, and then with the header. Clenching his fists, Pochettino’s relief was not disguised.
Moussa Diaby pulled a late goal back for Aston Villa with his effort going in off both posts
Chelsea’s victory and performance eases the pressure of Chelsea boss Mauricio Pochettino
The second period opened with a moment of greater class, this time with Fernandez’s free-kick, won when he was brought down 25 yards from goal by Youri Tielemans.
Emiliano Martinez, his team-mate from Argentina’s World Cup-winning side, couldn’t get a touch on a corker of a hit.
It really was that easy, and that unexpected, with the single blemish coming when Diaby crashed in off two posts at the death.