Pat Nevin: So many performances

Quality across the park ensured a sparkling Stamford Bridge win last night writes Pat Nevin in his latest column, and he focuses on a few of the displays in particular…

What a fantastic week for Chelsea and not just at the Bridge.
This campaign has had incredible highs and lows, including lurches in form that have gone from pretty dull to fabulously entertaining in the space of a few games. Actually that has happened within games too. The thing is it is not just with Chelsea, it is the same with Spurs, Man United and Arsenal among many others.

I was at Wolves last week when they turned Manchester United over and at Goodison Park when Everton out-fought Arsenal in every single position to rightly grab the three points. As both of those sides suddenly look jaded, Chelsea have just had two of the most sparkling performances of the season.

Brighton and West Ham weren’t great but the real reason for that was down to our lads making it impossible for them to play. Against West Ham last night there were so many performances of 8/10 and above that the only real surprise was that with a minute to go it was still only 1-0.

Ruben Loftus-Cheek was overrunning a midfield that included Declan Rice, who has been doing so well this season many think he should be England’s new sitting midfielder. I reckon the young Hammer will just be delighted that Ruben is an international team-mate instead of an opponent, he was so out-classed on the night. It has taken a while but finally for the first time this season, just at this moment, you feel that Ruben is just ahead of Ross Barkley and Mateo Kovacic in the battle for the left-midfield berth.

Toni Rudiger was so dominant and so fast that all four attack-minded players from West Ham had all but given up even trying to beat him by the end of the first half. In fact he was so on his game that David Luiz beside him could have been sitting on a sedan chair with a Havana and a glass of something refreshing for the vast majority of the 90 minutes.

I have been trying for some months now to start a serious debate on whether or not you would actually want N’Golo Kante back in the defensive midfield area considering the incredible standard of his performances in that advanced roll now.

Clearly in the media I am in a minority of one saying I would not move him back there, but I smell a little sea change.

photo of Pat Nevin Pat Nevin

I would love to think it was partly because of my campaign but suspect it might be more to do with the fact that N’Golo has been having more and more brilliant performances in that position.

I am acutely aware that many of you reading this would still like him further back. I get that, I understand that point of view and I respect it, but it really is worth looking closely at what he is doing right now. His skill set is growing. Did you see the turn in the first half last night that Lionel Messi would have been proud of? He is winning the ball higher up the field, in fact sometimes too high as there is often only one person ahead of him in blue when he wins it. He is arguably too good at that particular part of the job for it to be totally effective! It may be that the team has to somehow adapt to his winning the ball so ridiculously close to the opposition goal.

It helped that Jorginho had a brilliant game controlling the play behind N’Golo and playing a mesmerising array of short and long passes, often under pressure but always with slick, sharp precision. In many ways it was the epitome of Sarri-ball, what the manager would like to see every week, what he used to see his Napoli team deliver but has been harder to replicate here over the last few months. I can hear the concerns already, ‘it was only West Ham’. Fair enough, but to go into third place and do so with such flair and imagination, it bodes very well for the future.

It bodes well with one rather large and obvious fly in the proverbial ointment. In fact it is more like a fully grown shark hanging about in the swimming pool in your back garden on a beautiful sunny day. We simply cannot ignore the fact that there are plenty of rumours about Eden right now. Those rumours will grow and grow as the weeks go by and if he keeps on doing the sort of things he did last night, then it will just get worse.

Read: Sarri hails a ‘big’ Chelsea performance and discusses future of top-level Hazard

When you have been writing a column for Chelsea during these years that Eden Hazard has been here, it is hard to resist waxing lyrical about him every week. On the other hand, is it fair to ignore his brilliance just because it surfaces more regularly than everyone else? I try to keep a balance, but sometimes I find that as difficult as Mark Noble found it keeping his balance last night when he was in proximity to Eden. It was an extraordinary display and a goal that was worth the 1000-mile round trip on its own. Actually it was worth that trip had I walked rather than flown.

For a certain type of player it is the dream goal, something that looks so beautiful, so natural and so easy when it happens that you wonder why he doesn’t just do it every single week. The problem is those situations do not crop up that often. The stars have to align, you have to visualise the complexity of the possibility and then you need to be able to make everything happen just perfectly with skill and confidence. You also have to be able to adapt in a split second as the situation develops. When it works perfectly it actually feels like it is all happening in slow motion, you seem to know where everyone is and what everyone is going to do.

The fact that he does it so often is underlined by the debate on whether it was a better goal than the one against Liverpool or the one against Arsenal etc. Doing it more regularly than anyone else in England is the reason why he is quite simply accepted as a truly world-class player.

Whatever happens this season, whether we get top four or win the Europa League or do neither, any success will have been down to Eden more than any other player. So once again thanks Eden, whatever happens next season. I hope it is here and if it is like it was last night, you might even enjoy it more than elsewhere.

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