I was walking into Stamford Bridge on Saturday and somehow something felt a bit different. The sun was shining and it was mild, well that was different for a Scotsman in late September for a start, but there was something else, something less obvious. There was excitement of course, but when is it not exciting when a big match against Liverpool is only hours away?
It took a while but I think I finally got it; there was that excitement but there was little or no negative nervous tension. It wasn’t an arrogant self-confidence from the fans either; the most common prediction from the fans I talked to was for it to end up in a draw, just as it did. It was something else in the air, a light-heartedness bordering on casual happiness. What was going on, shouldn’t there have been a fear of losing against one of our greatest rivals or an anxiety about maybe coming up short in one of our first big tests in the league so far this season?
Okay, some would have been a little nervous but there is definitely a different atmosphere around the club at the moment. Some of the stress has been released and it can only be down the influence of one man, Maurizio Sarri. I go to a lot of grounds around the continent each month. I was at the Bridge on Saturday and will be back on Thursday with Hoffenheim sandwiched in between and then a Spurs v Cardiff match next Saturday. When you do that amount of travelling to games you start to get a feel for football clubs and how they feel about themselves even before you reach the ground.
Chelsea’s atmosphere is a delight right now. Of course winning makes a difference, but it can still be filled with nervous tension when you are winning every week if there is an inbuilt fear of defeat at the club. At Chelsea just now, fear and negativity are anathema to the outlook coming from the coach’s room, moving into the dressing room, then out onto the field before seeping right up into the stands and indeed onto the concourses outside.
This positivity must be in part coming from the football being watched that is entertaining and obviously being played with a freedom, fabulously demonstrated by the form of everyone from Eden Hazard to David Luiz. Smiling seems to be a very fashionable look on the faces of the Chelsea players and it seems to suit the group perfectly.
As a player throughout your career there are lots of things that determine whether or not you are in your best form at any particular time. Clearly age, fitness, freedom from injury, style of the team, the system, the tactics, the quality of the players around you and how the fans relate to you all influence, and the list is almost endless after that. The relationship you have with the manager however and whether or not that suits your personality is a crucial one.
There actually isn’t a right or wrong way to do it and the player to manager relationship has changed over the years, but the personalities have to gel if you are going to get the best out of all concerned.
I played under some managers who I simply didn’t like or indeed rate. I still gave everything every week, but it was always more successful when he and I got on and when we both had a level of belief and respect for each other’s qualities. So with Sarri it’s all very well saying that he is a fine tactician and that he has helped engender a good team spirit but it has clearly gone further than that. There is a total buy-in by everyone involved with the attitude and with the style of play.
Anyone can see giving creative freedom to Eden, Willian and Pedro has been a good thing, but David Luiz at the back is benefitting as much as anyone at the moment from the same positivity and trust. I thought his display against Liverpool was totally deserving of the man-of-the-match award. It looks as though the coach isn’t trying to change him or anyone else into something they are not comfortable with, but just allowing them to be, and helping them to be, the very best versions of themselves.
They are being trusted to make their own decisions and some of the ensuing passing moves from tight situations at the back had the Chelsea fans purring with appreciation. But, and it is a big but, you have to know when that isn’t the right thing to do and there were a few David Luiz lusty clearances that were as important and nearly as impressive as those two fabulous long passes that sent Willian through on goal.
Decision making is crucial and there is a lot to be said for any coach being able to understand the levels of each different player’s decision-making capabilities, instead of drilling in a completely rigid set of rules that everyone has to abide by in every situation. That was a very ‘British’ way of coaching for years, indeed decades, but those more rigid tactical methods are now looking very antiquated when you look at who is winning the top trophies in the world of football.
Apart from it not being particularly successful at the moment, it’s also not as much fun watching the over-structured football in comparison to the more fluid styles now in vogue and favoured by the likes of Sarri, Pep Guardiola and yes, Jurgen Klopp too among others. Maybe this is why everyone walked into the Bridge with their proverbial hats tipped at a jaunty angle and why when we walked out, though disappointed at the late equaliser, we were far from devastated.
After all, it was great entertainment and it promises to continue to be so. Roll on Thursday and every game from then on.