So much for the notion that the World Cup would have restorative powers for Chelsea, bringing a reset and a revival under Graham Potter. They might have beaten Bournemouth, but they lost a lead, two points and their way against Nottingham Forest. After delivering a performance of resounding mediocrity, a disjointed side go into a double-header against Manchester City with their chances of a top-four finish dented further.
Such New Year’s honours as were awarded at the City Ground went instead to Forest, who produced a rousing second-half comeback to underline that they are becoming a decidedly awkward proposition on their own turf. It was capped by Serge Aurier’s first Forest goal. Another of their 22 summer signings, Morgan Gibbs-White, was the game’s outstanding player. He was Forest’s record signing while Chelsea were Europe’s biggest spenders last summer. If, at times, it scarcely looked as though some £400million had been spent on these squads, Gibbs-White nevertheless illustrated his quality.
Twelve of Forest’s 14 points have now come at home and, following victory against Liverpool and the Carabao Cup triumph over Tottenham, it was further proof they can bloody the noses of their supposed superiors at the City Ground. They might have been buoyed, too, by the sense they had little to fear from Chelsea. It might have galvanised them at the break.
Potter’s side only took two points from their five matches immediately before the World Cup. Here they had 80 percent of possession in the first half, and 72 percent overall, while mustering a mere seven shots; only one was in the second half and even that did not necessitate a save from Dean Henderson. As they fashioned too few chances, it supported the theory they are over-reliant on Reece James, who went off injured against Bournemouth and was sorely missed.
Even their goal required a ridiculous contribution from Forest’s Willy Boly. Christian Pulisic aimed for Kai Havertz with a cross; Boly contrived to intercept it with a back-heeled flick that looped up onto the Forest bar and back to Raheem Sterling, who hooked in his first league goal under Potter nonchalantly. A flagship signing for Thomas Tuchel, Sterling has been less potent for the German’s successor.
Yet it scarcely spurred Chelsea on. Mason Mount had fired over in the second minute but precious few efforts followed and Mount’s chance, like a shot Pulisic had on the stroke of half time, followed a pass from centre back Kalidou Koulibaly. In contrast, the supposed creators barely created.
And while one side who began 2022 in the Championship, in Bournemouth, had presented less resistance to Chelsea, Forest fought back. They showed more intent after the break. Their pace had brought a threat even before then.
They were inches from levelling when Gibbs-White rattled the underside of the bar from a sweet strike from the edge of the box. It formed part of a performance where Forest’s No 10 showed various elements of his huge potential.
There were twin incisive passes, sending Brennan Johnson sprinting into space behind Chelsea’s high defensive line. In each half, Kepa Arrizabalaga was required to parry the Wales international’s shots. If it pointed to a frailty in Potter’s rearguard, who looked susceptible to counter-attacks, it offered Forest encouragement.
But their goals often stem from set pieces and this followed a trend. Chelsea felt culpable as Havertz met Gibbs-White’s corner with an unconvincing header, Boly won the second ball, and Aurier controlled it on his chest and swivelled to volley in his first goal for Forest. It was a redemptive moment for each, after Boly got an assist of sorts for the opener and Aurier could also have done more to prevent it. It was a goal made in the Ivory Coast and celebrated in the East Midlands. It was a reward for fearlessness and ferociousness in a fractious affair.
At times, Chelsea were rattled. It barely seemed as though Potter had alighted on a winning formula during a six-week break. He stuck with the side and the 4-2-3-1 system that beat Bournemouth, bar replacing the injured James with Cesar Azpilicueta, but Chelsea have made the most changes in the Premier League this season and more may be required to produce something more convincing and coherent.
Mateo Kovacic and Hakim Ziyech returned from the World Cup’s third-placed match to take up seats on the bench. The Croatian was called upon for the final half an hour, but had only just been introduced when Forest equalised. Then Ziyech was introduced in the bid for a winner. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang possibly should have headed in a brilliant cross from the Moroccan but he did not, and Chelsea still have fewer goals than Erling Haaland this season.
They only have three in their last five games and, with one win in seven, are now seven points off the Champions League spots.