Pat Nevin: A passing interest

They may not hand out points for style but with the maximum haul available for wins taken so far, Chelsea legend Pat Nevin is enjoying watching the way the Blues are dictating the play, and reaping the rewards…

It is probably time to sit back and take a short overview of the start of the season for Chelsea, now that the international break is upon us. Clearly the four wins from four makes for good reading and the style of the defeat to Manchester City in the Community Shield can be better considered in a more reasonable context. Maurizio Sarri was clear back then and continues to say now that there are improvements to be made, but even he might admit that the programme of change seems to be ahead of schedule.

The transformation is quite remarkable but the position at the top of the league is not the most impressive thing. That has to be the immense change in the style of the play he has introduced compared with last season. Taking nothing away from Antonio Conte’s achievements, this is the most pleasing-on-the-eye spectacle that the Blues have produced for a very long time. Yes it is early days and yes there will be downturns and yes there will be many tougher challenges ahead, but having watched others praised for the attractiveness of their football, it is a real treat to hear Chelsea getting the same type of acclaim.

Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp were rightly lauded for their intelligent and modern methods but so far this season you really have to put Chelsea in that bracket. In four games we have had 73 per cent, 81 per cent, 62 per cent and 63 per cent possession with two of those being away from home. This shows a real dominance and a huge belief in the abilities of not only the players themselves, but also in the capabilities of their team-mates. Jorginho’s influence is obvious from his personal passing statistics but he also has to have team-mates always ready, willing and able to receive the ball at every opportunity.

It is no great surprise that Jorginho has made more passes than any other Premier League player so far this season, nearly 50 more than his nearest rival. This is amazing for any player, never mind one who is new to the team and the league. It should not however be about passing for the sake of it as that can be self-indulgent and self-serving in the wrong circumstances. Over-passing can give opponents time to regroup but when this sort of player can dominate the tempo of a game, speeding it up and slowing it down at will when the time is right, it is almost always beneficial.

Very few players in world football have the ability to dictate games to this level but Jorginho is showing he can do that. His countryman Andrea Pirlo did the same, from the same position, but they both have subtly different ways of doing it.

So his stats tell one story but to underline the other part of the narrative, look at the official Premier League stats for the 10 top pass-makers in the league so far. Five of them play for Chelsea! That exclamation mark is deserved because it is such an unusual occurrence. So let’s name them: David Luiz (third), Antonio Rudiger (fourth), Cesar Azpilicueta (eighth) and Marcus Alonso (tenth). You get the feeling that Eden Hazard would be in there too if he had played a full part in all four games.

So clearly Sarri-ball, as some have called it, has been a change of epic proportions. Last season only Cesar Azpilicueta from Chelsea troubled the top 10 in the completed passes stats by the end of May. This of course doesn’t mean that Chelsea are definitely going to win everything and dislodge Man City but it does mean that the message is getting through very quickly and that there is a plan which is clearly defined and is being bought into by the entire group.

Even if you are not actually playing it can be inspiring. I can just imagine Cesc Fabregas sitting watching all of this as he comes back from injury and thinking, ‘this is a style that could have been specifically designed for me and my skill set’.

I will admit that I didn’t expect it all to go so well so quickly and maybe it has surprised the manager as well. The temptation to play long balls if it isn’t producing goals right away is often hard to resist, but the patience being shown has been impressive. If you continue to play that passing style at pace then opponents will tire physically and mentally as the game progresses. You are far more likely to create chances the longer the game goes, but it is vital to be patient however alien it seems to the historic British culture in the game.

For all the controlling of the possession and the tempo of the game, it does also need a spark of brilliance now and again. Eden Hazard has provided that every time he has been on the field this season with a pleasing regularity at important moments. Of course he can do it with a whole bunch of defenders around him, but it is much easier to do it against tired opponents. For all that Jorginho has controlled the tempo of our games so far; Eden with his different match intelligence has understood implicitly when his opponents are tiring and when the gaps can be taken advantage of.

Every Chelsea fan will be able to look back at the crunch moment under Antonio in that infamous game away from home against Arsenal when he changed to a 3-4-3 formation, and how dramatically different that made everything that season. Well that was clearly a stunning and successful tactical move. The change of style from the current manager may or may not be as successful in the long term but it is certainly more extreme and to be honest, even more enjoyable to watch…well so far anyway.

Long may it continue and I just wish the Cardiff game was this Saturday because on this sort of form the last thing you want is a break. The one pass we didn’t need right now was passing up a weekend’s Premier League football for the internationals.

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