The most compelling thing about this game was the battle for Chelsea’s identity. There was the sensible, humble, hard-running version that occasionally resembled a Mauricio Pochettino team, an impression formed by the pressing that smothered Fulham before Cole Palmer cleared the path to victory with a burst of creativity at the end of a dreadful first half.

This is surely the way forward for Chelsea if the gamble on hungry young players is going to work. This was their third consecutive win in the league, a run that has taken them to three points off sixth (from one game more than West Ham), but it was hardly glamorous. If momentum is building, perspective is needed. Away from the flicks and tricks of Palmer, who was once again the most captivating attacker on the pitch, there was plenty to concern Pochettino as he watched his side attempt to recover from their embarrassment at Middlesbrough in the first leg of their Carabao Cup semi-final.

Chelsea’s head coach will have enjoyed another solid goalkeeping performance from Djordje Petrovic, a clean sheet and the energy of Conor Gallagher, Enzo Fernández and Moisés Caicedo in midfield. He will have loved the moment when Palmer sparked a counterattack by lobbing Antonee Robinson. He will be pleased that the injury crisis had eased sufficiently for him to respond to Fulham’s late pressure by introducing Carney Chukwuemeka and Ben Chilwell.

Equally, though, there were times when Pochettino looked ready to blow. He glowered after a couple of minutes, turning to his assistants to grumble after a wasted free-kick. Desperate for urgency, he howled when Gallagher turned back and played a safe pass to Axel Disasi.

Palmer aside, nobody in blue looked willing to take a risk. It has long been a weakness for Chelsea in winnable home games. They take too long to make decisions and a criticism of Pochettino is that there has often been little pattern to Chelsea’s attacking play.

That left Chelsea needing individual brilliance to penetrate Fulham. Fortunately there was no sign of Palmer feeling sorry for himself after his wasteful display at Middlesbrough. This is a 21-year-old who takes responsibility. Chelsea were labouring before Palmer turned provider just before half-time, his disguised pass finally unbalancing Fulham’s defence, Raheem Sterling running through to win a penalty off Issa Diop.

Cole Palmer’s creativity was crucial to Chelsea breaking down a stubborn Fulham team. Photograph: Harriet Lander/Chelsea FC/Getty Images

The relief was immense when Palmer, who has 16 goal involvements since leaving Manchester City in the summer, scored his fifth spot-kick of the season. Yet Chelsea could have been down to 10 men by then, the video assistant referee mysteriously choosing not to intervene when Malo Gusto caught Willian. Later, in a further sign of this side’s raw nature, there would be silly bookings for Disasi and Fernández.

Enter the silly, Boehly-fied version of Chelsea that threatens to stop Pochettino from making genuine progress. There is nothing quite like it. Weirdly, for all their spending since Todd Boehly and Clearlake Capital’s takeover, Chelsea have not chased stars in the transfer market. They buy young and talk of organic growth. Lurking beneath that ethos, though, is a restlessness that could undermine it all.

It feels erratic. Even if Pochettino’s position is not under threat, there are times under this ownership when Chelsea have come across as tacky and celebrity obsessed.

How else to explain the scene behind Pochettino here? Why were a few young men in velvety green Bond villain blazers sitting in the lower tier of the East Stand? They stood up, delivered a salute and sat down. A few minutes later they got up again and ostentatiously started reading from a book.

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The third diversion featured all of them brushing their teeth, as is tradition at the football. It was tempting to report them for persistent standing. It was hard to know why they were pushing Palmer out of the limelight.

Unless, that is, you knew that it was all a publicity stunt for Argylle, an upcoming film produced by one of Boehly’s companies. Starring Dua Lipa, who had the honour of attending Stamford Bridge for this classic, it might be good and it might be bad. It doesn’t matter. People were here to watch the game. The idea that anyone cared about Boehly’s side project was insulting to paying supporters.

But this is Chelsea now, where football apparently has to compete with Hollywood for star billing. Indeed, that phenomenon is glimpsed in an approach to the transfer market that can make it seem the arrival of another new signing is as important as a win. It will not be a surprise if Chelsea spend big on a striker after Armando Broja’s inability to trouble Fulham’s defence.

The battle goes on. Chelsea have renewed hope of qualifying for Europe, are in the FA Cup and will reach the final of the Carabao Cup if they can recover in the home leg of their semi-final against Middlesbrough. Pochettino can argue he is building something successful. It may come down to which version of Chelsea wins out.


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