Pat Nevin: Pushing to the edge

Rapid improvers, returning favourites and a brilliant former player in his thoughts are the subject of Chelsea legend Pat Nevin’s column this week…

Prior to the game at Burnley it looked as if it might be a very tricky 90 minutes. No Eden Hazard and Sean Dyche’s men are famously tough to beat at home. On top of that they were desperate for a result. What followed was a superb display by a Chelsea team that was to a man, on or near their best form.

It is tough to know where to start but Alvaro Morata, Ross Barkley and now Ruben Loftus Cheek are all improving at an exponential rate. They have scored 10 goals between the three of them in the last five games. It can’t be just down to luck because we are well into the season and the initial good start in terms of play and results has come to look like the norm as they all get better.

There was a moment when Alvaro got a hefty hit at the weekend and it seemed to have two effects. Firstly, it got the home fans on his case and secondly, it riled our striker into giving as good as he got. As for Ross, he has clearly had a breakthrough few weeks that have increased his confidence and it would be no surprise if he just continues in this vein and maybe even improves further.

Some of the reasons have been covered on this page already, but on top of his fitness, the learning under Maurizio Sarri and the quality players around him, there is also another factor I can see affecting Ross. Instead of always playing the killer ball because the expectation is so high, as it was for him at Everton, he simply plays the right ball more often. Not being the star of the show, or expected to be the star of the show all the time, has improved his all-round game.

It may be that Ross’s improvement is one of the other reasons why Ruben has had a breakthrough week too. With Ross muscling his way into what seemed a totally settled side, it has shown his younger England compatriot that there is actually a way in, it isn’t impossible after all. That way into the side isn’t complicated, it’s simply that you have to be good when you get your chance and you have to keep the levels up for the entire game, and then a run of games after that.

Ruben’s four goals in two games and his performances on top of that have made it impossible to leave him out of the match-day squad.

photo of Pat  Nevin Pat Nevin

Against the admittedly limited Bate Borisov side, during the Chelsea TV commentary, I was imploring Maurizio to keep him on the field no matter how tired he looked. A past problem has been that he has faded out of games after a good start and that has to be partly down to match fitness. So yes, he looked leggy near the end but that is a good thing because next time he will last longer at his best level.

Some in modern football like to get players off if they are tiring in case there is the possibility of an injury and I understand that thinking. On the other hand, the very top athletes learn how to manage the infamous ‘red zone’ and more importantly how far they can push their bodies. Everyone’s breaking point is different and you have to get to know where your capabilities are in that area. Try watching tennis players like Rafa Nadal, Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic and consider how much time they spend in that red zone right beside exhaustion. All three have had to deal with injuries but there would have been no way they could have got near Roger Federer over the years unless they pushed the envelope right to the edge.

If you are one of those very rare sportsmen that is world class but can still make it look effortless a lot of the time then it is a bit easier, but those are rare beasts indeed. The aforementioned Federer was one but another who springs to mind is Glenn Hoddle.

Glenn is at the forefront of our thoughts just now as he battles against the serious illness he fell to on Saturday morning. I watched him play and of course played against him throughout my career and he really did come close to making brilliant football look like a stroll in the park. Our hopes and prayers are with him right now.

Another great midfielder of ours who is much on our minds this week is Frank Lampard of course, as he prepares to bring his impressive Derby side to Stamford Bridge tomorrow. Maybe he didn’t make the game look quite as easy except in one rather important area, scoring goals, which is not a bad thing to be effortlessly brilliant at. He will of course get a fantastic reception and doubtless he and Jody Morris will feel slightly odd turning up on the opposition bench at the Bridge. One thing he will undoubtedly have noticed is that area of the field that he made his own for 13 years is now looking pretty impressive.

It would be grossly unfair to draw any long-term comparisons but Frank will have watched Ruben and Ross arriving in the box recently and scoring from that left midfield no.8 positon and think, ‘Yeah, I can relate to that’. I will be keen to hear his thoughts on them and Chelsea in general after the match has finished. Actually, I have no idea if it will be either of those two or Mateo Kovacic who starts but whichever Maurizio goes with I will fully understand. I reckon each would jump at the chance of a start even if it is ‘only’ the Carabao Cup.

Chelsea youngsters Mason Mount and Fikayo Tomori have been superb for Derby as well and of course they will be welcomed back at the club tomorrow with open arms. Even these two can look at the likes of Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Ross Barkley and think, ‘In time why shouldn’t that be me?’ If they are good enough then it certainly will be them under the management of Maurizio Sarri.

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