At a time when Christmas wrapping begins to take on more importance, Chelsea found a way against Leeds to paper over the cracks.
Saturday’s 3-2 win at Stamford Bridge was the climax of a difficult week for Thomas Tuchel, who saw his side beaten at West Ham and then denied the top spot in Champions League Group G by conceding a stoppage-time equaliser in Wednesday’s 3-3 draw at Zenit St Petersburg.
They were breached twice more here — make that eight times in a week — in another sloppy display at the back, which continues a gradual erosion of the remarkable defensive record upon which Tuchel has founded his success.
Ultimately, the result was paramount, especially on a day when pace-setters Manchester City and Liverpool each ground out 1-0 wins, both courtesy of a second-half penalty.
But the fact that Chelsea needed two spot-kicks to beat Leeds sums up the growing feeling they are hanging on a bit to the coattails of the top two.
“We were lucky, we needed this,” Tuchel said. “We were unlucky in the last two games conceding very late goals so maybe this is exactly what we needed.”
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In a feisty affair that threatened to spill over at times, the Blues deserve credit for finding a way past a spirited Leeds side who took the lead against the run of play and thought they had snatched a point with an 83rd-minute equaliser.
But there was plenty here to concern Tuchel with such a hectic period ahead. In Tuchel’s first 33 Premier League games, Chelsea conceded multiple goals just once. They have now done so twice in a week — and it almost cost them dearly.
Missing N’Golo Kante and Mateo Kovacic once again in midfield, Chelsea struggled to impose themselves in possession, even with Jorginho fit again to partner Ruben Loftus-Cheek in the middle of the pitch.
Leeds were a threat on the break and, although winger Dan James often struggles to combine his lightning speed with an end product, Marcos Alonso did it for him with a clumsy 28th-minute tackle in the box.
Raphinha converted the penalty and Chelsea looked rattled. Reece James then clattered Dan James with a late tackle as the home crowd began to sound edgy — but Leeds proved defensive mistakes are not the home side’s preserve, losing the ball cheaply to give Chelsea possession on the edge high up the pitch.
Goalkeeper Illan Meslier lofted a pass towards Stuart Dallas, who allowed the ball to escape him as he chested it down, giving Alonso the chance to pounce. Timo Werner picked up the loose ball and fed Alonso, who crossed to the near post where Mason Mount met the ball with a crisp, controlled first-time finish.
The Blues finished the first half strongly and had a degree of renewed impetus after the restart but still required a penalty award to take the lead just before the hour mark.
Raphinha fouled Antonio Rudiger in the box — a decision referee Chris Kavanagh awarded on VAR review — and Jorginho converted, sending Meslier the wrong way.
Yet Chelsea were unable to close the game out. Joe Gelhardt, on as a substitute seconds earlier, scored his first Leeds goal by turning home Tyler Roberts‘ 83rd-minute cross with his very first touch of the game.
It was a product of Chelsea’s inability to control central midfield. Kante’s absence is an obvious loss but it continues to be noticeable how Tuchel rues Kovacic’s unavailability, currently due to a positive Covid-19 test, with exasperation.
Loftus-Cheek remains a player with potential but he lacks the ability to take the sting out of matches and manage tight situations as Chelsea needed here.
The weight of responsibility on Jorginho therefore continues to be high, especially as he battles an ongoing hip problem.
“He is super important — Jorgi sacrifices himself for many weeks, actually,” Tuchel said. “I was aware that this moment will come where he will suffer because he played a Champions League campaign with us, the Euros with Italy, all the qualifiers for the World Cup with Italy.
“There was not only physical effort for him but this was also mentally very, very demanding. He had no pre-season, started the Super Cup game [in August] straight away. I knew we will arrive at some point in the season where he feels not fully fit but Jorgi is fully away of the situation that we miss Kova and N’Golo and he sacrifices.
“He gives his very best every day and spends hours and hours with the physios and medical department to get himself in the best shape possible. It was a big reward today for him because it is not easy to score two penalties in one game.”
In the end, Jorginho was on hand to make the decisive intervention. To underline how desperate things got for the Blues, the Italian’s 94th-minute penalty was their latest winning goal in a Premier League match since September 2009.
It came after Mateusz Klich bundled over Romelu Lukaku in the box, a positive contribution for the €115 million summer signing from Inter Milan, but still one provided from a peripheral role as an 87th-minute substitute.
Tuchel has hinted Lukaku needs time to recover full fitness after suffering an ankle problem but concerns remain that rather than being the final piece in the puzzle of a title-winning team, the Belgian’s presence has changed the overall picture into something else entirely.
That conundrum would not cause the same concern if Chelsea were still as defensively robust as before. Tuchel will now give his players two days off. They won here and remain well in touch of Liverpool and City, but a reset of sorts is needed.