Chelsea are in a groove that allows them to make attacking football look easy.
Pace, directness, good passing and nice angles. It all adds up to a potency that has propelled Antonio Conte’s team on a six-game winning run in the Premier League and taken them past Liverpool to the top of the table.
A side who looked ordinary not long ago look special at the moment. They played some lovely football here and the understanding between a group of players who are also prepared to work very hard was evident throughout. The only mystery was how they didn’t win by more goals.
The usual suspects starred for the Blues. Eden Hazard and Pedro were like ghosts, appearing out of the gloom right across the Chelsea front line. At times Middlesbrough couldn’t track them and when they could they couldn’t catch them.
Diego Costa, meanwhile, scored the winning goal and led the line manfully like a proper No 9. Costa can be a nasty, sly footballer but here the Spaniard showcased only the admirable side of his game. He was brilliant and maybe the penny has dropped. He doesn’t need to indulge his dark side to get where he wants to be.
And there were other shining lights. Both wing backs, Victor Moses and Marcos Alonso, were a nuisance all afternoon, for example. It was a complete Chelsea performance, one that should have been illuminated by a wider winning margin.
The winner was rather scruffy and unmemorable. But it still highlighted some of the league leaders’ most important attributes.
Coming just before half-time, it originated at a corner. Costa seemed to win the aerial battle but his header struck a defender and ballooned into the air. With four Middlesbrough defenders and goalkeeper Victor Valdes within swiping distance of the ball, there should have been no danger.
But as the players in red hesitated fractionally, Costa never took his eyes off the falling ball. To use a cliche, he seemed to want to reach it just a little bit more than his opponents and this desire, allied to perfect technique, allowed him to take a stride forwards and volley it into the net from an angle at the near post.
His 10th goal of the season, this one won’t win any beauty pageants. It was important, though, as prior to that Chelsea had found Valdes to be in obdurate form and some of their own efforts in front of goal did not often match their build-up play.
Valdes has reinvented himself impressively since his disastrous time at Manchester United. He played very well here and produced one of the saves of the season to deny his former Barcelona team-mate Pedro shortly before the goal. The build-up to that chance was typical of what Chelsea did best. All afternoon, Conte’s attacking players passed the ball sharply and simply, creating angles and overlaps with the intelligence of their running.
On this occasion, Hazard — clattered crudely and dangerously by Adam Clayton early on — ran laterally across the top of the penalty area to play the ball into the path of Moses on the right. The ensuing pass back towards the penalty spot was perfect and Pedro struck his shot true only for Valdes’ fingertips to touch the ball over the bar.
There were other impressive moments from Valdes in the first half. He saved sharply at his near post from Alonso, for example, while his first contribution of the second period was to drop sharply to his left to turn away another shot from the same player.
That the Chelsea wing-backs were able to progress so regularly was indicative of the way Conte’s new 3-4-3 formation works for him. However, it also pointed to Middlesbrough’s problem with tracking runners.
Karanka’s team never gave up and the crowd did not lose hope. Boro struggled to command possession but when they did move forwards they caused Chelsea some problems.
Late on, for example, Adama Traore broke to shoot over and then set up Alvara Negrado for a sharp volley that Thibaut Courtois did well to save.
Still, though, it was Chelsea who threatened more regularly. One super move that saw a diagonal David Luiz pass headed back by Costa ended with Pedro rattling the bar. That would have been a memorable goal.
Then, soon after, Moses and Costa led a charge from deep that ended with the former lifting the ball over the bar when it looked easier to score.
So this was not a perfect Chelsea performance. There are things on which Conte will wish to work. But this is a Chelsea team moving forwards on the back of sound principles and lovely, expressive football. They will get better, too, and that is an ominous thought.