Pat Nevin: Flexible football
column Tue 5 Dec 2017
Chelsea legend Pat Nevin is licking his lips for what he thinks could be Champions League action at its best at the Bridge tonight…
Like me on the flight from Scotland to come to Stamford Bridge, the games arriving frequently right now. The biggest decisions for Antonio are who to rest and when, which leads directly onto prioritising some games just slightly over others. Clearly the Newcastle game and three points was a top priority because Eden Hazard and Alvaro Morata were tasked with making the three points secure as soon as possible. They are the go-to guys right now and they certainly aren’t letting anyone down, scoring all three goals between them on Saturday.
When you consider that they are a fairly new partnership, there is no doubt they are striking fear into the hearts of every defence they are set loose on while still surprising many. Had Eden stayed fully fit against Liverpool after a series of fouls on him, I am convinced we would be two points better off than we are just now. That said, the much-discussed run of eight very winnable league games has now started and it has been a pretty damn good launch with six points out of six against Newcastle and Swansea.
The question is what level of importance does Antonio give tonight’s game against Atletico Madrid? We are already through but winning the group will probably have a positive effect when the knockout draw is made, but it is only a probability not a certainty. In that Eden was replaced almost as soon as the game was safe against Newcastle, it is clear the boss feels the Belgian will be crucial against the Spaniards.
It is obvious that Eden is in effortlessly brilliant form right now and the temptation for Antonio is to just get him out on the pitch as much as possible, but then again, the last thing you want is burnout after the turn of the year. There is no scientific right or wrong; the science, the stats and the medics will all have a say, but it comes down to gut feeling and experience from the manager in the end. Remember Eden has had quieter patches in his career, which I suspect were mostly down to injury, but tiredness and burnout could also have been factors. So this is the time to be careful because Eden would play every game for every minute if asked, even to his long-term detriment.
One way or another, the teamsheet will be incredibly interesting tonight, especially as we know the visitors are absolutely desperate for a win. They can still go through but need Qarabag to do them a favour and they need a win. Because of these circumstances, we could see a very open game and another special night under the lights at the Bridge.
As Antonio has been at pains to point out, the fixture scheduling hasn’t been kind to Chelsea, the early Saturday kick-offs being a particular hardship after midweek games. So Newcastle at home and then West Ham and Everton away make it three times in a month Chelsea have had to cope with this. It is sub-optimal, but I actually really enjoy watching and guessing how we will change it about for each game. There are enough good players to turn to, but importantly there are now different systems and styles that can be employed with ease by Chelsea. We stuck to 3-4-3 last season most of the time, but I always knew that Antonio would adapt more this season. He did this incredibly successfully with Juventus and he is proving the importance of adaptability again now.
In the English game, historically there have only been two reasons for tactical system changes from game to game. First was that the team is on a losing run and it was worth trying anything just to change the fortunes. The second was when teams just play a slightly more robust defensive style away from home no matter what.
Right now, Antonio and also Pep Guardiola will change the personnel and sometimes the system for more subtle, complex reasons. It usually involves finding the opposition’s weakness and undermining it. And of course you change the team to keep your own players in the best physical shape possible for the season by using rotation wisely.
One of the other great benefits of being unpredictable in this way is that your opponents aren’t 100 per cent sure how to plan to stop you, while they build up for the game.
For this one tonight however, the wily Diego Simeone will know that he can’t afford to get affected by second guessing. He must try to get his team on the front foot dictating the play, if he is going to have any chance of getting all three points that he needs. He will be buoyed by the knowledge that for all the talk of their poor Champions League campaign, they have lost only one competitive game so far this season and that of course was against Chelsea. In fact, they have probably been an even better side away from home of late, so they will not be low on confidence arriving at the Bridge.
Chelsea are through but this is not a dead rubber and it has the possibility of being as entertaining a game as you will see in our Champions League campaign so far. Part of the reason for this is that for once there is less pressure on the result from a Chelsea perspective and that usually goes one of two ways in football. First the team might not be fired up and primed enough, which I think is unlikely with our passionate boss prowling the touchline. The second possibility is that being freed from pressure, there is a more relaxed, creative feel to the play. I expect the latter attitude and if it is, then it should be highly entertaining. So come on lads, give us a show!