Pat Nevin: Blossoming Blues

Potential being fulfilled and tactics being taken on board are subjects addressed in Pat Nevin’s latest column…

Most Chelsea games at the moment have huge similarities with the previous games. There is the usual glut of possession and lots of deep defending in numbers by the opposition whether it is home or away. After a while somebody on the other side switches off or makes a mistake and one of our lads strikes like a heartless cobra. For Southampton at the weekend, a momentary change of system from a five-man backline to a four by Mark Hughes left a little gap and Ross Barkley pounced to find Eden Hazard. The rest was inevitable.

It really was a breakthrough moment not just in the game but also for Barkley. He has looked sharp all season and his goal that then followed will have released any latent tension felt by the England international. He must have had a huge boost of confidence after being given the starting berth in front of Mateo Kovacic, a deserved reward for his superb attitude in his limited time on the field so far.

Having watched Ross very closely from his breakthrough at Everton as a teenager, there suddenly seems something different about him right now. Like others in the squad he has been fulsome in his praise of the methods being employed at Cobham this season. His recent comment about being coached better than he has ever been before was telling. It has led to an adapted mind set.

His talent has never been in doubt but that almost intangible thing, ‘game awareness’, was the only real question mark still being raised in the business when considering just how far he could go. Clearly that has improved exponentially in a very short period of time under Maurizio Sarri. It was very noticeable against PAOK where he consistently found the weak areas in their packed defence and added to that, his blossoming understanding with Eden Hazard has been a joy to behold.

There is also a growing influence in the air from corners and free-kicks. I suspect he rather enjoyed his part in the goal at Anfield where he was unlucky not to score with the near-post header but it ended up in the back of the net anyway via Emerson.

There is another less obvious difference when you watch Ross at the moment. In the commentary with Matt for Chelsea TV for the MOL Vidi game, he said that he thought Ross was ‘glowing’ and I knew exactly what he meant. There is a more obvious confidence about the way he carries himself now, but it is even more than that, his physique looks far better than it has ever looked. Now this is thin ice I am walking on here so I will explain it very specifically.

He has never been overweight but he has always had a powerful bulk. This is not always a bad thing in the rough house that is a Premier League midfield, but his physical appearance looks more defined now and he looks fitter than I have ever seen him. That is some going as his fitness was always good anyway.

In simple terms he is in the best shape of his life. He said as much himself after the game at Southampton. It gives any player a huge inner belief when you have the knowledge that in the first minute or the 90th, few if any are going to be stronger than you. All Ross needs now is to keep himself free from injury and he will continue to be in the running for a place in the starting 11, for Chelsea and for England.

His comments about learning tactically at Chelsea were maybe surprisingly echoed by Cesc Fabregas last week. Considering Cesc’s history, experience and knowledge it is intriguing to hear his glowing comments about working towards an entire new style under Sarri. Having won what he has in the game, to then sound like an excited 18-year-old is testimony to the respect he has for the new Chelsea style.

So Ross will pitch up at the England squad this week with his most positive mind set of his career so far, and it must be tempting for Gareth Southgate to start him. For all that England maximised their potential at the World Cup in the summer there was definitely a creative hole in the midfield area. Young Foden at Man City is being talked about as the man to do that job and then there is our own Mason Mount on loan at Derby also pushing for a look in. Ross however has more experience than both and maybe should be given the first chance to make the position his. There are a fine bunch of youngsters coming through and he would still love to be part of it. At 24 he isn’t exactly ancient himself.

It is fantastic to even talk in these terms about Ross after the difficult times he has had, mostly down to huge initial expectations but also due to some grotesque bad luck with serious injuries. He was on the cusp of breaking through at Everton at 16 when he had a leg break and last season was seriously curtailed as he recovered from his latest problems, but they all seem to be behind him now.

I will admit I am also slightly surprised how quickly this improvement has come about this season but then again, who hasn’t been surprised by just about everything that has changed so quickly down at Chelsea of late? I suppose the fact that even the boss is surprised by the speed of the progress means that it’s okay for the rest of us to be taken aback as well.

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