Before the inquest into Chelsea’s latest implosion begins, it is worth pointing out that Wolves were outstanding. Gary O’Neil, such a bright young manager, outwitted a glowering Mauricio Pochettino. Matheus Cunha, who scored a ruthless hat-trick, and Pedro Neto destroyed Chelsea’s feeble defence. Mario Lemina and Joao Gomes dominated their expensive opponents in midfield. Craig Dawson was a tower of strength at the back. Rayan Ait-Nouri never stopped running on the left.
What a job O’Neil has done since taking over last summer. This triumph, a first for Wolves at Stamford Bridge since 1979, had nothing to do with luck. The difference was while one team had a plan the other merely resembled a group of confused, uncommitted individuals. Chelsea, back in the bottom half after shipping eight goals in two games, were nothing short of a disgrace.
Serious questions must be asked about Pochettino after a performance so lacking in direction and discipline. Caicedo, a midfielder acquired for £115m, looked lost and had to be taken off for his own good. Neto eviscerated the captain, Ben Chiwell. Built at a cost of £1bn, everything about Chelsea was weak and pathetic. It is not an exaggeration to say they look broken under the ownership of Todd Boehly and Clearlake Capital.
Stamford Bridge was an anxious, irritable place from start to finish. Wolves sensed the nerves and immediately hunted for errors. Clever pressing exposed Caicedo at the base of Chelsea’s midfield and led to openings for Neto and Cunha inside the opening two minutes. Caicedo, who had been guilty of dawdling in possession, was relieved to see Djordje Petrovic thwart the Wolves forwards.
Chelsea responded with sporadic bursts of invention. They threatened when Ben Chilwell released Christopher Nkunku, who was denied by José Sá’s brave goalkeeping and Dawson’s alert defending, but there was little flow to their play during the first half. Even the good bits were improvised. There was nothing resembling an actual identity. Wolves were far more cohesive.
That said, there was always a chance of individual quality lifting Chelsea. So it proved when they caught Wolves napping in the 19th minute. Gallagher quickened the pace and linked with Caicedo, whose pass evaded Toti Gomes and ensured that Palmer did not have to break stride as he clipped a low shot past Sá from the right of the area.
The concession enraged O’Neil, who turned to his bench and berated his side’s failure to read the danger. Yet Wolves were unfazed. They pressed again two minuts later, João Gomes picking Caicedo’s pocket and feeding Cunha. Free on the left, Cunha ran at Axel Disasi, cut inside and equalised with a shot that deflected in off Thiago Silva.
The goal sapped Chelsea’s belief and discipline. Gallagher, Caicedo and Enzo Fernández grew ragged in midfield. Raheem Sterling was ineffective on the left flank. Mistakes crept in. Malo Gusto’s slip almost let Rayan Aït-Nouri in. Mario Lemina headed narrowly over. Silva made an important block on Neto.
Wolves kept managing to release Neto by knocking passes behind Chiwell on the right. Chelsea were a mess. Nobody put any pressure on the player making the pass and nobody tried to give Chilwell cover. It was miserable defending and the punishment duly arrived when Nélson Semedo released Neto, who lifted his head before cutting the ball back for Aït-Nouri to clip past Petrovic thanks to a deflection off Disasi.
Loud boos greeted the half-time whistle. Chelsea had to improve but they continued to live on the edge at the start of the second half. While Sterling should have equalised, only to fire wide after outstanding work from Chilwell and Palmer, Wolves almost extended their lead when Neto raced through and forced Petrovic to save. Pablo Sarabia bent a free-kick inches wide.
Pochettino brought Nicolas Jackson on. Caicedo, the man to make way, punched his seat three times as he reached the bench. It was the most aggression anyone in blue had shown all afternoon.
Not that it mattered. Instead of lifting Chelsea, the change was followed by Neto storming down the right, beating a wheezing Silva with embarrassing and pulling the ball back for Cunha to slam a gleeful shot past Petrovic from close range. There is no point asking if any Chelsea player even tried to stop the Brazilian from scoring.
The mood turned ugly. Sarabia missed a chance to make it 4-1 and Jackson fluffed a header at the other end. Enraged, the Chelsea fans began to chant for Roman Abramovich. Unfortunately the club’s former owner had not made the squad. Instead Pochettino brought Carney Chukwuemeka and Mykhailo Mudryk on for Nkunku and Sterling, who walked off to loud jeers.
It made no difference. There was time for Gusto to lose Cunha and concede a penalty with a ridiculous challenge. The anger grew when Cunha sent Petrovic the wrong way from the spot. It briefly subsided when Silva’s header made it 4-2 but even 10 minutes of added time were not enough to save Chelsea.