Pat Nevin: A most interesting time

In a special Christmas Eve column, Chelsea legend Pat Nevin is not reading too much into some statistics, but is envisaging a cracking top-four race to come…

What was it Sir Alex Ferguson said? ‘Football, bloody hell!’ I am sure Jose Mourinho used even fruiter language when firstly he was sacked and then his players immediately delivered their best performance of the season. Just when you think you know what should happen, even the best in the business are surprised in this game. Who realistically thought that Manchester City would get only three points from their past nine available in the Premier League, even if one of the games was against the Blues down at Stamford Bridge?

It is often so counter-intuitive that trying to make sense of it leads you to look anywhere for meaning. The constant cry from statisticians is to look to their ‘good books’ for answers and concrete evidence. Some answers are there, but they are often hidden deep in those mystical texts. Some would argue that they only highlight the statistics that fit their arguments and even then they are adapted to suit their point of view, which is certainly the case with some of the practitioners of the art.

So Chelsea beat Man City 2-0 with less than 40 per cent of the possession but when we increased it to over 72 per cent against Leicester, the reward was a 1-0 defeat. Likewise, against Wolves away from home, there was a hugely impressive 70 per cent possession stat for Chelsea but a less impressive score line and yet again, no points to show for the efforts.

A few weeks ago Chelsea’s defence was getting a hard time, but it was smack bang in the middle of seven hours without shipping a single domestic goal in a home game. Oddly, that stat wasn’t mentioned at the time by the doom mongers. To be honest, to some level we all use and stand by statistics that back up our beliefs. Was Jose Mourinho a great Manchester United manager? Well he did have the second best win stats of any boss at Old Trafford behind a certain Scotsman, but any United fan who wasn’t keen on Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s predecessor could throw another bunch of stats at you to prove the opposite was the case.

None of us believe we are susceptible to this confirmation bias but to be fair, most, if not all of us are. I dread to use the ‘B’ word in the UK, but with absolutely no political agenda at all. How many people on either side of the Brexit debate have really changed their minds no matter what the cascading Niagara Falls’ level of statistics have said. The only stats that are usually considered are those that chime with our own initial beliefs.

The best statistics are usually the longer-term ones and in football, that means the league position and I really do think Chelsea are exactly where we should be at this point of the season. It is a long way from being perfect and seriously challenging for the title seems an even longer-term goal than for this season. I still think that battle for the top four is going to be a cracker however and we will be involved right to the end.

It has looked like four from five but United changing their manager could end up being a disrupter bringing it back to a big-six shoot-out. They have a run of games, having hammered Cardiff and looking forward to Huddersfield and Bournemouth at home followed by struggling Newcastle away, which together gives them a chance of dragging themselves back into the conversation.

It is the most interesting time however and as many in the game have said over years, and yes it probably was Sir Alex who said it first, the real battle for trophies starts after the Christmas and New Year period finishes.

It is hard to argue against the importance of the period, with the Carabao Cup semi-finals against Spurs, the six games in 12 days and the FA Cup starting for us too. We will be a lot clearer about how the season looks as January unfolds. In theory this should be when the benefits of our strength and depth of squad comes into play.

Not every player loves this period and as many of you sit down with a full to bursting stomach and trying hard to find more space for an extra mince pie or a glass of something relaxing, elite footballers will have no such fun. Without looking for sympathy, as they are fairly well remunerated after all, spare a thought for those preparing for Watford on Boxing Day, it might not be the prettiest game of football they will ever play in.

There are two very challenging games coming up. Watford are a stunningly strong and fit side who are exceptionally well-organised and Crystal Palace have of course just beaten Manchester City at the Etihad. Though I think it is unlikely that Palace will continue to score goals of that standard every week, they are both away games and therefore by definition in the Premier League, not easy.

If we do not win these games and United win their two at home, the gap between us would only be two points which would add to the building tension. Chelsea are still in a decent place of course but another negative stat is that we have lost three of the past six in the league. Right now I think the stats are much less relevant due to the effects of player rotation and the pressures of less rest than usual for all concerned.

On the other hand, I hope you all have a good rest and enjoy Christmas and New Year as much as you possibly can.

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