It was a momentous day at Stamford Bridge on Sunday. Frank Lampard’s welcome was as warm and as welcoming as we knew it would be, and the start to the game was stunning to say the least. The pace and the precision of the play was awesome and it was tempting to get carried away. I did however ask the question on my BBC commentary, ‘How long can Chelsea keep this pace up?’ It was almost long enough because had the score been 4-0 after 20 minutes it wouldn’t have been at all unfair.
There was so much to admire: Giroud’s hold-up play including an exquisite back heel that almost gave N’Golo a goal; Jorginho biting into tackles and playing laser-guided forward passes; N’Golo his usual brilliant self, and Kurt Zouma attacking every ball and winning the lot. Mason Mount however was stealing the show and almost scored a couple of Lampard-like goals on top of the one he did tuck away after seven minutes. The second goal didn’t arrive and in reality the dip was always likely to come.
Leicester couldn’t get a kick as they were overwhelmed by our work rate, especially in the midfield area, but the problem in retrospect was obvious - the trip to Istanbul. 120 minutes of high intensity work late into the night, in the stifling heat against the current European champions, followed by the morale killer of a penalty shoot-out defeat. Leicester players were probably lounging back in their armchairs at home watching our lad’s efforts and enjoying the rest as well as the game. It was a very good game and we were extremely unlucky not to win it.
So was that the only reason why we tired so obviously? In truth, it often takes four or five competitive games to get up to full match fitness no matter how many pre-season games you play. Three intense matches in eight days will help in the medium term, but the second half against Brendan Rodgers’s side will probably turn out to be the most physically demanding of the first part of the season.
There was also the dilemma of players not getting enough full 90-minute outings in pre-season. Nothing much could be done about this. Frank had to find out about the players, so many had to be given chances, and there simply weren’t enough games to give everyone enough minutes. N’Golo Kante for example because of injury had only played 18 minutes of pre-season football! So it was understandable that even our French midfield machine was showing signs of fatigue by the end.
Playing the high tempo game Frank wants and that we are already enjoying is not easy. It is interesting to see that Jurgen Klopp adapts his heavy metal football tactics when he thinks his players need a little break. This dilemma of weariness v work rate may not be a concern for a few weeks now, but it will return when the Champions League group stage starts. Playing on a Tuesday or Wednesday and then returning to face a rested side at the weekend is something that has to be managed.
'This is who we really are and it was great to hear, fans who have absolutely no bias against colour'
— Pat Nevin
When too many players are tired the game opens up, the play gets stretched and because of that James Maddison in particular got acres of space in the number 10 position on Sunday, something that should never be allowed. Is this a huge worry going forward? I really do not think it is because by the time we get to Norwich this weekend, the players should have recovered, and certainly the Canaries will not have anywhere near the same advantages that the Foxes had in terms of extra rest.
The system itself was bold once more, with Kante pushing forward from the right of the midfield and Mason Mount playing left midfield but attacking as often as possible. It was the Frank Lampard position of doing a box-to-box shift but most interested in the opposition box. The same players could easily shift from a 4-3-3, to a 4-2-3-1, to a diamond in midfield. The biggest problem wasn’t tactical in the end, it was the fact that we had to make some changes after the hour, but to be honest there were just too many tired players out there. Giroud, Jorginho and Pulisic were subbed but I would not have batted an eyelid if it had been Mason, or even N’Golo or Pedro. The latter two both had injuries to contend with to add to the tiredness. That is the game at the top level, and it is all about finding answers to these sometimes seemingly intractable problems.
It is disappointing to have only one point after two games, so we are now desperate for a win in the next one. A start of one or two points out of nine would be the last thing Frank wanted. Fortunately there is a willingness to understand the difficulties and there is unlikely to be any real pressure coming from the stands in the short term, which really helps the players. In tough times having the Chelsea fans onside makes a huge difference. There was moment in the first half at the weekend when Kurt Zouma won a tackle, broke through another couple and started charging up the left wing. He lost it eventually but the fans roared not only their approval but also in that moment voiced their backing after Kurt had given away that penalty at United.
There was another moment when the Chelsea fans at the game showed their true colours. Tammy Abraham came on as sub and got a rousing reception. Clearly that was to say we are still behind our own Academy boy after missing that penalty in Istanbul. More importantly it was a message to those keyboard warriors who had racially abused him online. This is who we really are and it was great to hear, fans who have absolutely no bias against colour. It was also great to be broadcasting to the nation and be able to underline what was happening in the ground. All true Chelsea fans are behind you Tammy.
There will be teething problems with the team, we all know that, but if we can simply extend that first 25 to 30 minutes a bit longer with each game, then very soon we will be a force to be reckoned with.