One of the biggest cheers on a raucous afternoon at Elland Road was reserved for Edouard Mendy as the Senegal international trudged stone-faced back onto the pitch after half-time, tossing his water bottle and towel into the back of the net before turning to face the Chelsea team-mates he hoped would dig him out of a huge hole.
But this was never likely to end in redemption for the goalkeeper or those in front of him after a first half in which Chelsea had given a disasterclass in self-destruction.
Mendy’s error in the 33rd minute, dallying in possession and gifting the onrushing Brenden Aaronson the ball virtually on the goal line, was so critical that head coach Thomas Tuchel would only refer to it after the match as “an own goal”. The fact it evoked memories of Jarrod Bowen and Karim Benzema gleefully exploiting similar indecision last season raised the unwelcome spectre of the No 1 spot re-emerging as a problem position without an entirely convincing solution.
Leeds’ second goal, four minutes later, was more conventional in nature but also fell into a worrying broader trend as Rodrigo Moreno rose unchallenged to glance Jack Harrison’s inviting free kick delivery into Mendy’s far corner. Chelsea have been startlingly passive defending set pieces this season, giving up their six-yard box to three Tottenham players for a 96th-minute corner kick last weekend. These post-match words from Tuchel landed like a message to his assistant Anthony Barry: “Set pieces are something we need to defend better, urgently. We need to reach the same level as last season because it is not good at the moment.”
The third, converted from close range by Harrison, was borne of a desperate tactical switch by Tuchel, who introduced Christian Pulisic and Hakim Ziyechin place of his starting central midfield and sacrificed all semblance of tactical structure in service of conjuring a goal through sheer weight of attacking numbers. He barely considered it worth mentioning in his post-match assessment, which focused on Chelsea’s familiar attacking issues prior to Mendy’s howler.
“I think we lost it in the first 20 minutes,” Tuchel insisted. “We created enough chances, half chances, chances to be 1-0 or 2-0 up. Then we lost the discipline, the repetition in what we wanted to do and what we did OK in the first 20 minutes. Instead of 2-0, it became an even match and in that even match, we gave two goals away that were cheap and unnecessary.”
The numbers did not quite back up that view; Chelsea’s expected goals rating of 0.71 at Elland Road is the worst they have registered in any Premier Leaguematch since January, when champions Manchester City utterly smothered them en route to a comfortable 1-0 win at the Etihad Stadium.
Yet the home side were hardly being battered before Aaronson saw Thiago Silvapass back to Mendy and smelled blood. Mendy’s touches became more frequent as the first half wore on, in part because Chelsea were struggling to advance the ball to their forwards, beaten back and disrupted by smart pressure and selfless running.
In the absence of N’Golo Kante, Jorginho attempted a startlingly low 27 passes during his 64 minutes on the pitch. Next to him, Conor Gallagher, making his first start for his boyhood club, endured a sharp initiation into life in a high-possession team; caught in possession several times, his 76.7 per cent pass completion was the lowest of any of Tuchel’s starters.
Whether it be defence, midfield or attack, there was evidence at Elland Road for those minded to look that Chelsea have an urgent need to sign players of the profiles of Wesley Fofana, Frenkie de Jong and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, even if a sullen Tuchel was in no mood to indulge such talk with the wounds of humiliating defeat still fresh.
Performances like this one will do nothing to improve Todd Boehly’s negotiating position over the next 10 days or so, and it is particularly difficult to see Leicester City giving up one of the brightest young defenders in Europe in time for him to replace the suspended Kalidou Koulibaly against them at Stamford Bridge next weekend. Barcelona have different pressures as they search frantically for a way to register Jules Kounde, but they have been anything other than predictable this summer.
In any case, Chelsea’s current problems cannot be solved by a chequebook alone. The biggest benefit of Fofana’s arrival might be to persuade Tuchel to stop picking Reece James on the right of a three-man defence, limiting the attacking contributions of the most consistently dangerous attacker in the squad. Then there is the fact that the top three central midfielders in this squad are all physically fragile and the two below them, Gallagher and Loftus-Cheek, are natural No 8s.
Meanwhile, the dynamic attacking trident of Mount, Sterling and Kai Havertzhas registered a grand total of zero goals and one assist in the first three Premier League matches of the new season. Is the solution a 33-year-old who was virtually driven to the nearest airport by Arsenal coach Mikel Arteta in February, or are there broader, systemic reasons for the struggles of all of Chelsea’s forwards?
Defeats of this kind would have triggered alarm bells in Roman Abramovich’s boardroom at Stamford Bridge. Those days are over, and Tuchel is being given every available resource by the new ownership to lead Chelsea into a glorious new era. That path is lined with too many challenges to keep suffering self-inflicted wounds.