Pat Nevin: Learning what we can
column Tue 3 Oct 2017
Three days on from the Man City game, it is time to look at the fixtures to come reckons Chelsea legend Pat Nevin, but he does reflect on one of Saturday’s performances in particular…
And breathe! Well at least the fans can breathe a bit now while most of the players head off on their various international duties. There is a little sour taste left in the mouth after the loss against Man City and even the points dropped the other week against Arsenal stick in the throat a bit, but to be honest September has to be considered as a block in retrospect, from one international break to the next and from this vantage point, it was pretty good.
Away wins at Stoke and Leicester are never to be taken for granted, and there is the no small matter of the 100 per cent record in the Champions League with that memorable win in Madrid a very special result in any circumstances. So yes, the two Manchester clubs have a bit of a gap in the league but it is very early days still and any expectation of the league being a cake walk was never seriously considered by anyone anyway. City in particular are the benchmark for quality right now and if they keep up their skill levels, speed and style from the start of this season then they will be very hard to catch.
That does not mean to say it will be impossible, we have a very good-looking league run between now and the end of the calendar year, one in which we could really put some pressure on the current leaders. I reckon Chelsea are outright favourites to win every one of those games with the only arguments being Manchester United at home and Liverpool away, and even those are probably evens at the bookies. I am not saying we will win every one of those games but there is a great opportunity for a great run and I think the players know this.
To do something special in that period we are going to need Alvaro Morata back and hopefully that hamstring problem is only a tweak. He certainly seemed to stop immediately after he felt it; it didn’t look like a ‘ping!’ moment as we say in the game. The tell-tale signs are familiar to all players and most fans when a hamstring strain is a bad one, so I would be mildly concerned as opposed to genuinely worried, but we will see.
Other players will be needed as well, but once again a so-called ‘stand-in’ cruised into the team on Saturday and had a blinder. After the eye-opening start by Davide Zappacosta and the continual improvements by Tiemoue Bakayoko and Toni Rudiger, it was Andreas Christensen’s turn to steal the show against Manchester City. I know he is anything but a newbie, in fact he has been one of us for a very long time, but that looked very much like a breakthrough performance to me.
We were under huge pressure in that game and plenty of decent sides have completely buckled under that sort of City onslaught this season, but Andreas marshalled the troops incredibly well in that central area. You can’t turn off for a millisecond when the likes of Silva, Sane, Sterling, Jesus and De Bruyne are buzzing around in top form. With two-thirds of the possession to the opposition, most of it in our half, the loss of only one goal is actually pretty impressive when compared to City’s current average output. Had we sneaked a goal at the end when we had the odd chance then I think many more people would have been talking up the Christensen performance.
There was a moment when he broke out of defence with the ball at his feet in the second half when he looked imperious. It is always good to have a centre-back being extremely comfortable with the ball at his feet, and he certainly very rarely looks flustered. So in the circumstances David Luiz was missed slightly less than I would have expected for such a big game. I think most people believe that we now have another player who we would trust implicitly in any of the games coming up.
Another talking point was the decision to go for the 5-3-2 formation again. When you consider we looked better when we reverted to 3-4-3 late on, there will be those who think that it might have been a mistake to change last season’s winning formula, but I reckon that is an over-simplistic reading of this game. For one thing, Manchester City were going at 100mph for the first 70 minutes and they definitely didn’t have the same energy levels to press high later on, so there was more space for the likes of Cesc as the game progressed. Also, teams that have been too open against City this season have been destroyed; think of Liverpool at Anfield when they went down to 10 men and still tried to have a go. The ensuing 5-0 drubbing could have been 7-0 or 8-0 in the end.
Remember also that the 5-3-2 had worked well against Atletico Madrid in the week and it is a system that stresses certain players less in terms of expending energy. Had we gone with a 3-4-3 with City that bit more rested than us, then the gaps behind our wide midfielders could have been monumentally shown up in the first half.
I could go on, but it is probably best to move on from this game and learn what we can from it. I am sure Antonio has already done just that and he probably will not spend every minute of the two-week break concerned with it. We lost 1-0 against a good side, we have a winnable run coming up and if I was a Palace player right now, I would already be worried.