Those who always trumpet the “November slump” theory for Chelsea just might be onto something.
With Thanksgiving just four days away, the only win the Blues have had so far this month came on a last-second header by Victor Moses to beat Shakhtar Donetsk, 3-2 in their UEFA Champions League group stage game on November 7 in Ukraine.
Now it’s not the end of the world. Saturday’s 2-1 loss to West Bromwich Albion at The Hawthorns was just Chelsea’s first loss of the month and the team is actually 1-2-1 so far this November.
Whether there is some kind of “November slump,” if it’s because the planet Mercury is in retrograde until November 26 or of it’s simply a matter of constantly having to play tough teams that always give you their best game, Chelsea does seem to be in some kind of royal blue funk.
Here are six things I took away from Saturday’s game.
Despite some players being injured and others likely being saved for Tuesday’s Champions League match at Juventus, Chelsea manager Roberto Di Matteo was able to put out a talented and fairly effective starting XI against West Brom on Saturday at The Hawthorns.
Usually substitutes on defense, Gary Cahill, Ryan Bertrand and César Azpilicueta all got the start while Oriol Romeu was a selection in the defensive midfield and Daniel Sturridge and Victor Moses started in the advanced midfield in the team’s usual 4-2-3-1 formation.
With John Terry, Ashley Cole, Branislav Ivanović, Frank Lampard, Ramires, Juan Mata and Oscar all watching from the bench in the beginning of this one, the Blues showed they are deep enough to have a quality starting XI out on the pitch no matter what situations may arise.
Although Fox Soccer Channel analyst Trevor Francis called Chelsea’s starting XI “...probably the weakest side that Roberto Di Matteo has had to put out in a Premier League game,” the starters clicked together from the opening whistle and actually outplayed, out-possessed (65 percent to 35 percent) and out-shot (19-9) the Baggies.
Giving some of these players some minutes together in a crucial league game should serve the club well down the road.
The starting unit was the youngest the Blues have employed in eight years.
Usually a back-up striker, Sturridge started on the left wing with Moses on the right and Eden Hazard in the middle.
In a line-up unfamiliar to each other except for the practice field, the entire starting group played a very good game despite the eventual loss, with Sturridge and Moses working very well together and making a case that they should both get more minutes in future games.
For two guys playing together on a line together for the first in a big game, the two created many scoring opportunities. They played well off of each other despite not scoring or getting an assist against a motivated West Brom side led by Shane Long, who scored the Baggies’ first goal and who now has six in his last nine games.
Let's hope we’ll see more of these two together in the future, although both did blow second-half shots which could have eventually tied the game.
With Belgian advanced midfielder Hazard more used to playing on the left wing and Sturridge better suited and sized to deal with Long and James Morrison in the middle, Di Matteo switched the two at the 35-minute mark of the first half.
Sturridge was more effective playing behind striker Fernando Torres and Hazard seemed more natural on the left. Just four minutes after the manager’s switch, the Blues tied the match 1-1 on a nice pass from Azpilicueta, which was headed in by Hazard.
These in-game moves show Di Matteo understands his roster and the flexibility of some of his players and also reveals he won’t wait too long to make changes if things don’t look right in the first half-hour of games.
Saturday’s 2-1 win by the Baggies makes it nine straight Chelsea matches in which both teams have scored at least one goal.
Blues games are averaging 3.08 goals per game in league play, 4.0 in Champions League and 7.5 in the Capital One Cup to date.
From a betting standpoint, Chelsea games are only 6-6 to the over in the Premiership, but 4-0 in the Champions League and 2-0 in the Capital One Cup, with 10 of the last 12 Blues games in all competitions going over the oddsmakers’ posted totals.
In short, clean sheets for either side in Chelsea games have been few and far between recently, with the last one coming on October 2 in a 4-0 Chelsea shutout win against FCN in Farum, Denmark.
Now just one point behind Chelsea (7-3-2, 24 points) in the English Premier League table with 23 points, West Brom (7-2-3) has proved it is the real deal 12 weeks into the new season.
The Baggies have scored 19 goals and allowed 13 after Saturday’s upset of the European Champions. The Blues have scored 24 and also allowed 13.
WBA is now 6-0-1 at home (14 goals for, five goals against) very comparable, and even better than Chelsea’s 4-1-1 mark (14 goals for, seven goals against) at Stamford Bridge.
With the skilled Long, Morrison, eventual game-winning goal-scorer Peter Odemwingie and Blues-loanee Romelu Lukaku (3 EPL goals), the Baggies have an extremely balanced scoring attack.
Backup goalkeeper Boaz Myhill has now played two straight great games in the stead of usual starter Ben Foster, and manager Steve Clarke and the full-throated WBA fans showed they can hang with anyone in the top flight when it comes to enthusiasm and supporting their club.
West Brom visits west London on March 2 in what will likely be a must-win for the home club.
Chelsea has quickly gone from a pleasant 7-1-0 record and first place in the table to a 7-3-2 mark and third place over its last four games after two losses and two draws.
In its last four matches in the league, the club has secured just two out of a possible 12 points and has opened the door for doubts to start creeping in like last season.
And it doesn’t get any easier for the Blues, with dates with defending champions Manchester City (November 25) and Fulham (November 28) in west London and at trip to upstart West Ham (December 1) in their next three games.
Whether it truly is an 11th-month funk, a matter of a bunch of new players trying to jell together as a unit in one of the toughest football leagues on the planet or a combination of things, Chelsea does need to right the ship in league play.
But the club’s first priority should be doing everything possible to grab all three points from Tuesday’s Champions League group-stage match against defending Serie A champions Juventus in Turin (Fox Soccer Channel, 2:45 p.m./11:45 a.m. PT).
A win or at least a draw here would go a long way to helping improve the Blues' chances to eventually advance to the knockout phase in the tournament with just a home game against Group E bottom-dweller FC Nordsjælland (December 5) remaining.
Follow me on Twitter: @KevinStott11