Pat Nevin: On the front foot

With the team back on the winning trail, columnist and Chelsea legend Pat Nevin spots some advantages we may have in what is shaping up to be a tight contest at the top…

There was quite a lot of pressure put on Chelsea and specifically Maurizio Sarri before the Fulham game. I said last week following the defeat in the game at Wembley that the knee jerk reactions being suggested sounded a bit unnecessary. Considering it is now only one defeat in 21 competitive games so far in the season, and that was against a top-four side away from home, some perspective was needed.

Sarri didn’t blink and the temptation to make wholesale changes was resisted, I suspect very easily resisted, by the boss. The inclusion of Pedro was obviously a decent decision in that he scored after four minutes but in the build-up to that goal there was another possibly more interesting moment. N’Golo Kante, playing in that position further forward than most pundits want him, won the ball high up the field before feeding our speedy Spaniard who put it away neatly.

We all know how good N’Golo is at breaking up play and nicking the ball off players in the deeper role, but if he can do it more often 50 yards further up the pitch, then it only takes one pass to lay on a chance. It could be that this is the role that Maurizio sees him capable of playing and improving at as time goes by.

To be fair, it was a long way from being the most engrossing derby you will have watched, particularly in comparison with the Arsenal v Spurs match that followed it. That one was a more passion-filled occasion right from the off. This had more to do with the position of the sides in the league than their proximity geographically. Fulham is a derby for us but our games against Arsenal and Spurs will always have more needle because they are top-of-the-table clashes as well.

'Already this season the breakaway appears to be happening with the top five leaving the rest behind.'

photo of Pat Nevin Pat Nevin

With a fair wind you could see Manchester United clawing their way back into the fight and with a bit more of a gale, maybe even Everton, but it looks awfully like the top-four spots could be a battle between Man City, Liverpool, Spurs, Arsenal and us.

It is going to be tight but I think Chelsea have a couple of advantages that haven’t fully come into play just yet. First of all, I really believe we have a better back up 11 than any of the other challengers apart from City. Eventually that is going to have an effect as the season wears on.

There is also the European situation for those other clubs. If they actually manage to get to the knockout stages, they will be stressed and tired by the competition. Spurs and Liverpool are up against it already but then either or both could drop into the Europa League with Chelsea and Arsenal. The thing is that those games have little effect on Chelsea as we regularly make nine or 10 changes from the league team to the European team, whereas the others might struggle to do the same and win through.

Spurs played at their very best against the Blues last week, but they crumbled against Arsenal after the exertions of that 90 minutes and the midweek struggle against Inter Milan. That sort of result is precisely the reason why you do not make panic-ridden decisions after one bad game the way it was suggested by many that we should. I bet Spurs will not be in a hurry to drop Kane and Eriksen!

There are ups and downs but if the basics of your philosophy are sound, you just have to roll with the highs and lows to a degree. Currently we are sitting in third position, how does that square one week on from the extreme criticism that was laid on the Blues as a team, as individuals and as a Sarri-driven football philosophy?

So yes, Chelsea did not play to the optimum against Fulham either but adrenalin will be pumping by the weekend and the visit of Man City. If that game doesn’t go our way then doubtless all the flak will fly again, but I remain to be convinced by the ultra-negativity even if I accept that the project is young and imperfect as yet.

Maybe the biggest concern against Fulham was Eden Hazard and Marcos Alonso both looking slightly out of sorts. That left-hand side has been so potent this season so far, but created fewer chances this time. With Eden I was convinced from the start that he seemed less than 100 per cent fit. His twisting and turning wasn’t its usual dynamic, extreme style and the burst of pace was also less pronounced. Plenty of players have to play when hampered a little through injury but you have to manage it and adapt to be effective with what you can do. In the end Eden still managed to lay on the assist for Ruben Loftus-Cheek that finished the game as a contest. That is a real test of top quality, having an effect when it isn’t your best day for whatever reason. As for Marcos, his quality crossing will be back soon enough.

Ruben himself was a revelation bursting into the box late on, in much the same way as Ross Barkley has been at times this season. Once again it will be a tough a week, first facing Wolves and the game against the magic of Man City which will be a very serious test.

One thing is for sure, Maurizio Sarri will not be parking any buses in either game. Chelsea will try to play on the front foot whoever it is against. I suspect he would rather lose having a go at three points than grind out a boring, stale 0-0 draw and nicking an undeserved single point. It is not the professional, business-like attitude many have in modern football but I am all for that philosophy.

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