After a weekend when he felt relaxed watching Chelsea collect three important points, Blues legend Pat Nevin writes about the method used and some big performances…
To misquote a line from the Bible, ‘Oh me of little faith!’ For a quite a few weeks I have been saying to everyone who would listen that Liverpool were the team Chelsea had a chance of catching even if it was a pretty remote chance. It still is quite unlikely as the Reds are well capable of beating Brighton at home, but Sunday’s win will have sewn further seeds of doubt into Jurgen Klopp’s mind.
I did however have 10 minutes of doubt at the start of the game at the weekend. Why were we so negative? It looked to me we were docile, too sluggish and slow to take the game to them. After a few minutes I adapted that to submissive, we were letting them have all the possession. What possessed us to have that attitude? Then it dawned on me, we were being something else slightly different, we were being passive in the midfield and this suddenly made sense. It was a tactic and a very intelligent one.
The idea was that when we didn’t have the ball we retreated to not only a back five, but on top of that the three midfielders Tiemoue Bakayoko, N’Golo Kante and Cesc Fabregas were not engaging the opposition high up the park, instead sitting off them to give them fairly easy possession in their own half. The reason for this was to stop them breaking on us at pace which would have suited Mo Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino.
There was the added tactic of putting Antonio Rudiger almost man-to-man on Salah who has been brilliant all season. As soon as I figured out this was the game plan I sat back and relaxed, Salah for all his genius was up against precisely the last person he would want to be facing. A superb defender who is quicker than our former striker and Antonio stuck to him like the proverbial limpet when he had the ball. Salah didn’t get past him once in the entire game and I’ll be honest, that didn’t surprise me one little bit, he is a brilliant man-marker.
When Olivier Giroud scored at the near post (I am fed up saying he is probably the best on the planet from that particular area) I honestly thought there was only one danger and that was a monster mistake from one of our defenders. However Gary Cahill was faultless and totally focused while Azpi was, well Azpi, utterly trustworthy from the first to the last minute. Rudiger probably deserved to be named man-of-the-match for his performance, with some apologies to Eden Hazard who was yet again at his mercurial, impish, delightful best.
I understand that a one-goal lead against a free-scoring Liverpool team sounds risky but at half-time on Chelsea TV I was very bold with commentator Ben Andrews. I was not in the slightest bit worried, in fact I was very comfortable about the outcome and simply couldn’t see us losing it. And so it turned out and if Marcos Alonso had just one degree more of swerve on his back-post volley, everyone else could have sat back and enjoyed the show along with me with no pressure at all.
In short it was a superb display from the team but it was another tactical masterclass from Antonio Conte, one of his very best in his time with the club. Those three points capped off a great weekend for the club with the Ladies winning the FA Cup in great style at Wembley and the Under-18s with Jody Morris at the helm once again winning every domestic competition that they entered.
On top of all this, Chelsea with their superb recent run have created some interest at the top of a Premier League that felt as though it was going to be a damp squib until the end of this season. Of course it does all depend on us winning the final couple of games against Huddersfield tomorrow and Newcastle at the weekend with Liverpool slipping up again, but I will admit to having great hopes for both our games in the form we are in right now.
Another special mention must go to Tiemoue Bakayoko who had a splendid match in the midfield. Considering how difficult he was finding life adapting to the Premier League, especially just after the New Year, it is a very good upturn in form. It certainly helped that the Stamford Bridge crowd were quick to give him huge support when he made a few fine early tackles and started to show some classy footwork.
His confidence grew with every involvement and the fans should know they played a massive part in that. There are times at all clubs when a player having a bad time is made the scapegoat even when he begins to play a bit better but that hasn’t happened here and it is to be commended.
Some players cruise into a new club with new team-mates in a new league in a new country while managing a new culture. Others, however, take some time to acclimatise and I will not be at all surprised if Tiemoue becomes a vital and integral part of the Chelsea team over the next few years. We really have only had glimpses of his ability and power so far. His willingness to get into the opposition box ahead of everyone else is pretty special. I hope and suspect that his recent form will be a harbinger of many more fine performances and indeed goals in the coming seasons.
In the immediate future, there is the tough nut to crack that is Huddersfield Town. They will be doing all in their power to get that precious single point that will keep them in the Premier League. They battled well to get a draw with Man City on Sunday and when you consider that Spurs also lost to West Brom and Man Utd lost to Brighton, it once again makes you think that maybe, just maybe, Brighton could raise themselves again at Anfield and do us a favour. Let’s hope so.