Chelsea have made great strides in a number of areas over the past couple of weeks – from the attack beginning to click to a long-awaited defensive resilience – but the confident approach from set pieces at both ends of the pitch particularly stands out.
That is why the early concession to Sheffield United on Saturday was such a surprise. David McGoldrick, the Blades forward, appears to be kryptonite to Chelsea, having battered Frank Lampard’s team at Bramall Lane in July.
But his finish came from a short delivery that seemed to take the hosts by surprise as N’Golo Kante and Hakim Ziyech rushed to close down Sander Berge, meaning a lack of cover in the box.
As Ziyech said: “They had a few corner kicks early on and you think always they’re going to put it in the box but this time they took it short. That made it 1-0 but after that we did well, created a lot of chances and scored a lot of goals.”
That it was such a rare error, in contrast to cheap set piece concessions almost once a fortnight last season, stood out.
The aerial presence of Thiago Silva and Kurt Zouma has certainly helped but so too has Edouard Mendy in between the posts. He is a far more assuring presence than Kepa Arrizabalaga, at ease coming out to smother balls from wide areas.
Mendy had one nervy moment on Saturday, coming to catch a ball in from the left in the first period only for it to zoom past everyone. But it is notable that he has come out to punch just once in the Premier League, a move that Kepa favours far more.
Meanwhile, at the other end the options have increased significantly.
Hakim Ziyech’s qualities are obvious as he teed up Thiago Silva for his goal and came short for the delivery that led to Ben Chilwell’s goal. In addition, Reece James went close with a Ronaldo-like free kick in the second half on Saturday, while Chilwell can also offer a left-footed option and Mason Mount often fancies his chances.
“It is something we have worked on and last season we weren’t happy that we conceded too many goals from set-pieces,” Lampard said afterwards.
“They are a crucial part of the modern game, they probably always have been but seemingly so now with blocks and plans to score or to stop you scoring. We looked at it over the course of the off-season and the personnel have certainly helped.
“We are bigger, we are more aggressive naturally through the personnel who have been in the team through the early part of the season. The lads have shown focus in the work we want to do with them on the training pitch, and we are spending enough time on that, but the players have to act on that.
“There is a nice mentality about trying to be as good as we can be at it, which shows you how important set-pieces are because they make the game comfortable.”