Slack Chelsea has off-day vs. Swansea

Posted by Phil Lythell

Ian Kington/AFP/Getty ImagesIt wasn't the best day for Ashley Cole or Chelsea, but Blues fans should still be elated at the season so far.

After a turbulent week on and off the pitch for Chelsea, it was good to get back to an honest game of football that wasn't mired in controversy and acrimony.

The 1-1 draw at Swansea might feel deflating but at least it was a fair result and a match played in the right spirit -- in stark contrast to last Sunday's destructive Premier League meeting with Manchester United. The Red Devils might have leapfrogged over Chelsea in the table after the latest round of fixtures but there is still little to be despondent about.

For a start, if the Blues had been offered second position and 23 points from their first 10 matches -- including away wins over local arch-rivals Arsenal and Tottenham -- I am certain that every supporter would have snapped the proverbial hand off. Fold in the new brand of football that Roberto Di Matteo has introduced into the club and the opening quarter of the campaign has been extremely encouraging to say the least. Expectation at the beginning of the season was understandably muted, but it must be remembered that the team is still a work in progress.

The performance and result against Swansea was not up to the high standard that Chelsea fans have become used to in recent weeks but it is probably of the type that we might have expected and accepted in August. As a fan, it's hard to not get greedy, especially when your side is laced with exhilarating talent. Yet the team can perhaps be excused on this occasion given that the team was shorn of Juan Mata, John Terry, Frank Lampard and David Luiz.

However, there is no getting away from certain problems that are becoming a regular concern. The ease with which Swansea managed to play the ball inside Chelsea's full backs was a recurrent theme in the first half; Ashley Cole and Cesar Azpilicueta were asked plenty of questions by Pablo Hernandez, Angel Rangel and Wayne Routledge.

Some of these issues stem from individual positional mistakes but it is largely the system itself that is being exposed. The full backs are asked to play particularly wide so as to give the team natural width. The trade-off is that the defensive unit is not as tight together as it could be, yielding yawning gaps between the central defenders and the full backs that both Swansea and Manchester United have exploited in the last week. The idea is that when these these patterns develop the more defensive midfielders drop back to fill in the vacant area, but that is not always happening.

Individually, Cole and Azpilicueta had interesting games. Cole had a rare off-day, contributing little in attack and getting caught out of position on several occasions. It was also his slack pass that lost possession and ultimately resulted in Swansea's late equaliser. Cole remains the best left back in the country but he will want to forget his latest visit to the Liberty Stadium. By contrast, Azipilicueta had a very solid game on his full Premier League debut. He was quick to track any runners that found space behind him and was sure-footed both on the ball and in his decision-making in pressurised situations.

At the other end of the field, Chelsea once again found themselves bemoaning a referee's decision, albeit a difficult one. One of the myriad controversies to have dogged Chelsea this season has been that of alleged diving. Part of that is understandable given the embarrassing way that the burly Branislav Ivanovic tumbled to the ground against Stoke, but those indiscretions have been far outweighed by the lack of protection afforded to Eden Hazard.

For some reason, the dazzling Belgian seems to have gained a reputation for simulation despite not having dived a single time since he joined the Premier League. It's seemingly because he was awarded a couple of penalties in the opening weeks of the season, thus casting doubt on his honesty. Since then there have been at least three occasions -- notably against QPR, Stoke and Swansea -- when he has been denied a definite spot-kick by suspicious referees.

To give Kevin Friend his due, the call on Saturday was a difficult one to make and no official can award a potentially game-changing opportunity without being 100% certain; that said, it was frustrating to see no action taken after Ashley Williams' cumbersome challenge on Hazard in the first half.

The crown might have slipped for the moment but Chelsea are still in an excellent position with three-quarters of the season remaining. Now the focus must shift to a crucial Champions League encounter with Shakhtar Donetsk.

Follow Phil Lythell on Twitter @PhilLythell

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