Pat Nevin: What I would most want if I were playing

It is crunch time in the crush for those places up for grabs in the top four. Chelsea legend and columnist Pat Nevin looks for patterns in late goalscoring and highlights what might make a crucial difference…

Well that was a narrow squeak at the weekend for Chelsea, wasn’t it? Thanks to Cesar Azpilicueta, Ruben Loftus-Cheek and to be fair, a couple of inattentive officials, we clung on by our fingertips in the race for the top four. Maurizio Sarri accepted a modicum of luck was needed on the day but then you just have to look around Sunday alone to see that this is far from uncommon.

Jurgen Klopp was first to admit Liverpool’s three points against Spurs needed a huge dollop of good fortune, aided and abetted by Hugo Lloris with another massive error by the World Cup-winning goalkeeper. There seemed to be no problem with Jurgen talking about this dependence on lady luck now and again.

I was actually at the Celtic v Rangers derby in the east end of Glasgow that day. After a game that lurched one way then the other, a schoolboy error by Rangers’ best player handed the points on a plate to their great rivals. Three massive games in quick succession in one day that were each decided as much by dumb luck as sophisticated, classy football.

The other thing in common was the lateness of the goals that decided these three games. Celtic hit the net in the 86th minute, Liverpool in the 90th and Ruben popped up at the back post after 91 minutes. Sometimes in reports you will read that the team were ‘lucky to get away with it’ while other times it apparently shows ‘great character’. Of course if at any time Manchester United score late on then it is celebrated as Fergie time, as witnessed lately in Paris (Rashford 94 minutes), and suddenly it has nothing to do with luck. Instead it is apparently in the DNA of the club.

Why are these goals more likely to be scored late in the games, if indeed they are? Well there is the desperation argument. The dominant team is more desperate if they haven’t bagged all three points so they try to increase the pressure and maybe even add more attackers to take a risk or two. Klopp did this by going to a brave 4-2-4 this week.

Opponents naturally fall further back to protect what they have, that’s normal human behaviour, but that psychology allows the dominant team more time in your area. It is not a great tactic in reality but it happens all the time. There is also obviously the mental and physical tiredness argument. The later it gets the harder it is to make all the right defensive decisions as quickly, especially if you have been trying to chase the like of Pedro, N’Golo Kante or Eden Hazard for well over an hour already!

It is worth looking at some of the Premier League statistics for this season to see if it helps us prove the idea that more important goals are really scored later in games. The word important here is, well…important. I expected there to be a little difference in the number of goals scored on average in the first 15 minutes of a game compared to the last 15, but there isn’t, instead there is a massive difference. In fact 12.4 per cent of all goals are scored in the first 15 and just about precisely double that number is scored in the last fifteen, 23.9 per cent!

Now I’ll be fair and flag up a minor anomaly. Those ‘last 15’ will probably mean the last 15 to 20, as the injury time goals will all be lumped here too. Even so it is still an inordinate disparity. Is this important or just an understandable statistic that we should file under ‘I bet Radio 4s’ statistics programme More or Less would have a field day with this?’ Or is there an underlying salient point? I think it might be the latter.

Apart from Liverpool, Chelsea have scored the most goals in the final 15 minutes of Premier League games this season, with 18, while the Reds have only one more. For us, is it down to desperation because we have left it too late to get our combined acts into gear or is it because the style of play takes that much longer to wear teams down? I suppose that is a completely subjective question and the answer depends on your own viewpoint, but it is an interesting argument.

I must admit I thought Man City would be up there with most goals late on, but to be fair they have usually had their games done and dusted long before then so can take it easy by the end if they like. As for the famed late-comeback-kings Manchester United, they are little better than okay in the late-goals league this season having notched 13.

Who knows, United might get a late winner again tonight, a game I will be at against Wolves, but I wouldn’t mind at all if Chelsea did the same tomorrow in a dour struggle against Brighton down at the Bridge. This battle for the final four is still wide open and will probably be decided by the odd goal here or there. This is why under pressure, even with some of the games being frustrating for our fans, which some have been, we still have to stick by the team and encourage all the way to the end of each 90 minutes, or indeed 95.

Chelsea fans have always done this brilliantly and with only seven league games to go and at most a handful of Europa League games, total support for the players is necessary. When the season is done there will be time for further debates but as a player, right now I know what I would want more than anything - the noise and support when the pressure is on to help us scrape every point possible. This atmosphere and this positivity might still be the difference between a successful season and a disappointing one.

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