Pat Nevin: Marking the marking

In his column this week, Blues legend Pat Nevin explains how he judges old-school defending and how it may be of benefit in games to come…


Let’s be honest, the match against Man City was pretty painful to watch for most, if not all Chelsea fans, even if City are quite capable of doing that to literally any team in the world on their day. Having watched little old Wigan find a way however, there was at least some hope that maybe we could too, but it did not seem likely as the game progressed.

With Spurs, Liverpool and Manchester United creating a little gap now, the upcoming Premier League run of four from the next five games at home has become the defining part of the season for the club.

A win against Palace at the weekend is an absolute necessity I suspect, if we want to be realistic about any top-four hopes. Three points there will allow the following league game against Spurs to become the biggest derby of the season by a distance. Then and only then will we be back in the mix with the top four and all it entails. There is however precious little wriggle room, even if all the others will drop points here and there.

Up until losing the goal moments after half-time on Sunday, it was backs to the wall but with very few chances coughed up and maybe the looks of a plan that just might work.

The problem is of course that had Antonio opened the game up, by either taking off a centre-back or moving to a 3-5-2, then maybe an unlikely scraped point would have been won and hailed as a great result, but he knows fine well that any team who plays open football against City at the Etihad generally gets picked off and the word naïve is then bandied about regarding the opposition coach. Conte is anything but naïve and he clearly wasn’t willing to step into that particular trap.

My own mood hasn’t been helped by a relatively annoying travel week. On Tuesday I went to Swansea to cover their game against Sheffield Wednesday which was very poor and also very, very cold. The upshot was that the weather closed in and I finally got home on the Saturday night, a delay of well over 70 hours. Actually, I can’t get too upset as I am writing this heading off to Paris for the PSG v Real Madrid game, weather permitting obviously. So as usual I will expect and deserve no sympathy.

Hence I will cheer up and try to consider a Chelsea man of the match at the Etihad. Azpi was his usual diligent self and Marcos Alonso, like a number of others, put in a steady shift mostly in a defensive role, but it was Antonio Rudiger who stood out for me.

I do accept there will be the odd raised eyebrow at that last sentence as his distribution wasn’t exactly of a Cesc Fabregas standard, but to be fair there wasn’t always a lot on in front of him. All the defenders and midfielders where caught on the ball and on the hop by City at one point or another. It is particularly difficult when there isn’t an easy out-ball.

You may also have noted that Toni gave away a few fouls and was booked in the end for his troubles, but that was part of the reason why I was impressed. He was utterly committed to his work, which was to stop Sergio Aguero and co. as well as he could. His marking and his tackling were generally exceptional, rarely did anyone get past him. On a few occasions his pace was tested against Leroy Sane and Kyle Walker, but he wasn’t found wanting and those are two of the very quickest in the business.

I tend to judge a defender not by his diffident manner but by how hard I think it would have been to get past him myself (when I was a little younger of course!). The German is a real old-school defender’s defender in the very best sense of the phrase. He clearly loves tackling and I bet that being given a man-to-man marking job would sound like an early birthday present to him. He is rapid obviously when he sprints but he has lightning reactions when good players try to turn him too. He is also pretty damn hard, which you really ought to be if you play back there.

For all that Andreas Christensen has had a very good season and generally glides along like a Daimler in cruise control; there is much to be said for the more-rugged Dune buggy approach, even if it is as a foil for the Dane. When you consider the big games coming up and in particular the trip to the Nou Camp with those ultra-skilful fast-thinking forwards, then I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it was Antonio Rudiger whose name was pencilled in first on that team sheet.

Some may have headed for the team bus with their shoulders a little slumped up in Manchester, but he can throw his back and be proud that he stopped almost everything that a very good team could throw at him for 90-odd minutes.