Pat Nevin: Off the mark thanks to Marcos and more

Careful planning paying off, energetic new additions and unassuming match winners. Pat Nevin sums up the win over Spurs in this week’s column…

 

To describe the win at Wembley at the weekend as pleasing is to considerably understate the feelings of the Chelsea fans, players and indeed the manager. Antonio’s reaction at the end said it all, the passion was there and you could not fail to notice just how much it meant to him. His recent feelings have been interpreted by everyone, with much consideration taken of his laughing during the week. I dare anyone to watch it and not be infected by his giggles.

Football management is a stressful occupation and the odd release is good, but the most important thing is to make sure that when the pressure is on and the stakes are ramped up, you continue to make good decisions. Antonio’s decisions in the build-up to the Spurs game were exemplary and although it looks like just 90 minutes of graft, we all know there was a huge amount of preparation. With a squad missing players, we travelled that well-worn road to the north of the city knowing a way had to be found that needed solid tactics but also an entire week of training ground concentration to make them work. 

I got fed up last season trying to explain to people that Antonio isn’t a 3-4-3 man to his core, but a manager that can and will adapt intelligently to any situation along with the very best of them.

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The reason why the system rarely changed last season was because it didn’t need to, it just kept on working. Clearly that will not always be the case, especially when you consider injuries, suspensions but more specifically Champions League ties over the coming months.

So all week the positional work will have ensured we were ready for a game with limited possession and with plenty of crosses coming into our box. It was no surprise then that the huge number of near-post blocks by Dave, Andreas Christensen and Antonio Rudiger carried on throughout the match. That was what Spurs were being ushered to do.

It was also no surprise that David Luiz consistently won back possession in the midfield; the stats said he did that more than anyone else on the field. That tactic had clearly been drilled deep into his brain. Normally in the past when David cruised elegantly into that area of the midfield he would spray passes forward all day long, but this was a totally different job being done from precisely the same area. Again constant preparation on the training ground which paid off not just well but perfectly. 

Consider the winning goal when David Luiz won possession and played it out left to where we scored the goal. No wonder Antonio was super delighted. When a plan you work on works so spectacularly well it is the most satisfying and exciting feeling in the game.

I will admit to being quite delighted myself as I guessed some of the formation in this column last week, writing: ‘What on earth do we do in midfield against Spurs if Bakayoko isn’t fully fit yet? David Luiz could cruise in there of course and leave Dave, Rudiger and Christensen as the back three.’ 

Antonio decided to do just that even though Bakayoko was available. I might get half of it right but the boss takes it a level further and sees more complexity!

Which brings us nicely on to our debutant and his first outing. Nemanja Matic has gone and has made a fine start at United, so well done him. He did a great job for this club and we are grateful for that. Many were quick to suggest it was a mistake to let him go, but if Tiemoue is as good, he is also crucially six years younger and that counts for a great deal when you are building a squad. 

His energy levels on the day were bordering on superhuman considering the lack of training and match fitness. You can only guess at what else he will have to offer in the future when you see him striding away from top players who are many weeks, or even months, ahead of him in their season’s fitness regimes.

The team was as solid a unit as you could hope for throughout which bodes well for the future when the squad is back to a more reasonable size. Could you imagine the mayhem Eden Hazard alone would have caused had he been ready, even for just a 20-minute cameo in that setting? That said, he would have done well to outperform our left winger on the day, Marcos Alonso. He was outstanding in every part of the game and I must say when I read one newspaper give him a mark of only 8/10, I thought it was as tough a marking regime as being followed by N’Golo Kante all day.

There are some players you are always delighted for when they get man-of-the-match awards and he is certainly one. Unassuming, uncomplaining - the perfect professional who quietly goes about his business with phenomenal reliability while usually letting others grab the headlines. The two big moments on Sunday will however linger long in the memory. When he galloped into the box in those last minutes having horsed up and down that pitch all day (only N’Golo ran further for Chelsea), you would have given him a standing ovation even if he hadn’t scored. What phenomenal spirit!

The other moment of course was the free-kick and how many Chelsea fans felt what I did before he hit it? I leant to the person next to me, my daughter as it happens, and said, ‘It is either going to be a goal or else it will smash off the crossbar with the keeper flailing helplessly at it.’ Yes, I think we all thought that and Lloris probably thought the same because there was absolutely nothing he could do about it.

It was a glorious day all round with the only downer being the unfortunate lost goal, which I am going to sadly take credit for spotting again. The last line of last week’s column was: ‘As ever, stop Eriksen and there is every chance we can get off the mark at Wembley.’

We got off the mark anyway and in hindsight, if you had said at the start of the season we would get three points out of the first six, I know precisely where I would have wanted those points to be gained!