It was interesting to see two games at the weekend. On Saturday I was at the Emirates to watch Arsenal v West Ham before winging it north for the Chelsea visit to Newcastle.
Actually, I now feel as if I went to see three games because the first 76 minutes up north looked like one game, an incredibly one-sided game at that, then the final part was diametrically opposite in style.
Yes I know there are those who were furious with Rafa for parking the bus, especially at home and I am regularly one of those who is dismayed by something that steers dangerously close to cowardice. In this instance I do think it was more like sensible pragmatism. Had they not set out a system which was deep set 5-4-……….1, then Eden Hazard alone would have destroyed them on the form he is in.
By the way, the large gap in the aforementioned system is not a typing error, it just emphasises the space between their alleged midfield and their lone striker. Poor Salomon Rondon, he must have been checking himself for body odour problems. His team were keeping so far away from him he looked forlorn.
Doubtless their striker in reality smells of the most expensive men’s product on the market, but he was still left very lonely with only the occasional brief visit from his team-mates throughout his time on the field. It is a ploy that many have used at various points in games and we should know it. Let’s be fair, in the past there have been Chelsea managers who had no problem with being ultra-defensive, but that was usually when the game had been won, or we were resolutely defending a slender lead.
So I was disappointed in Rafa’s tactics, but I actually respected them this time and to be honest they were fabulously well-drilled until that penalty-kick. This of course is one of the problems with playing so deep, the opposition have a lot of the ball and much of it in the last third. It only takes one moment of lost concentration and the entire plan is up in smoke, or at least the referee has a decision to make!
I often played against fairly packed defences and knew that if you ran with the ball using fast, close control in towards the penalty area, then with so many flying boots and knees there was a fair chance a clumsy one would make contact. So the possibility of penalties and free-kicks on the edge of the box are among the downsides you must accept if you set up so negatively.
From our point of view the most impressive thing is that we didn’t seem to panic even as the team probed continuously for a way through. There seemed to be a belief in the team that physical and mental fatigue from their defenders would eventually lead to opportunities and they were right. It is very easy to say that but hard to do it, with the temptation always to lump lazy balls into the box even when our striker is being marked tightly by two, or more often three, defenders.
It is no fluke that those sort of defensive displays yield goals late on and Maurizio Sarri gambled on it on Sunday. It was however a calculated gamble. What was interesting was the role of Marcos Alonso in the outcome, he is still one of our wild cards. As Chelsea have changed to a 4-3-3 formation it was widely thought that Alonso would have to curtail his more attacking instincts, which were so apparent when he played as a wing-back over the past few seasons. Well it would appear that nobody has got round to informing him!
At Newcastle he won the penalty, hit the shot from the right-hand side that eventually struck Yedlin to win the game, he has been overlapping constantly since the start of the season and he hasn’t stopped attacking the back post when our play is going up the right-hand side.
There has been much chat about the full-back role in the current game, with Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester City all having players there who are lauded every week on the TV and radio. There is no complaint from me there as I have been one of those extolling the virtues of Benjamin Mendy at City and Andrew Robertson at Liverpool, but in a golden age of attacking left-backs, Marcos Alonso should not be ignored for the effect he has on games.
Even though we had plenty of players on good form against Newcastle and Eden was brilliant, particularly when he was fresh in the first half, I gave Marcos the man-of-the-match on the radio station I was working for. Reports of the death of his attacking role have clearly been exaggerated.
So nine points from nine and plenty of goals and chances created in each game, it has clearly been a very good start indeed. The players are getting to know the system better each week, there is a great feeling around the club and the next thing to look forward to is the draw for the Europa League on Friday in Monaco. I will continue to say it until I am blue in the face, I like the Europa League and always have done. The only teams who do not value the competition in the entire continent are some English sides. It does come across as arrogant sometimes from those on the outside looking in.
Yes, you would prefer to be in the Champions League and for some specific sides, say Burnley, they might not have a big-enough squad to be able to give it a real go while resting some players for a Premier League scrap. Having said that, I look at our squad and believe not only can it cope with the Europa League but is a great help to those top players not playing every week.
Ruben Loftus Cheek, Ross Barkley, Danny Drinkwater, Cesc Fabregas as he regains fitness, Davide Zappacosta, Ethan Ampadu and many more need games that mean something if they are to keep in the right shape to challenge for a place. So they will be looking forward to the draw and so will I, and as usual I will be hoping for one thing only. The last thing I want is for Chelsea to draw a Scottish team in either Celtic or Rangers. I would explain why, but it would probably take another 100 words, so I will save you that torture.
Suffice to say I would like some exciting ties in far-flung places rather than staying so close to home. We will see what we get.