Columnist

Pat Nevin: You may stop one, but you’ll struggle to stop them all

Columnist and Chelsea legend Pat Nevin looks at the beating of Newcastle, how space opened up for certain players on the pitch, and how the win set up a major game this coming weekend…

Ever though there was the odd grumble before, during and even after the win against Newcastle, including from the manager, the overall plan seemed to work well enough. Rafa Benitez allowed his team a bit more rope, so they were more positive than most expected. Maybe that caught a few people off guard, but even so it was a well-deserved win.

The biggest concern from some of the fans I talked to afterwards was the three little guys up front and us having no recognised centre-forward to aim at for much of the match. Having said that, Willian and Pedro both scored and Eden Hazard made an assist. I was desperate for Eden to add to his goal haul this season and then all three small forwards notching would have been hard to argue with. On top of that, Pedro could easily have scored a couple more and Willian likewise. So that side of the plan worked well enough on the day.

There was also the cloud for some that Cesc Fabregas’s vision and extraordinary long-passing ability will never again be available as an option, even just from the bench. Once again though, it was a case of cometh the hour cometh the right man with a fantastic ability to play a pinpoint 60-yard ball to create a goal. David Luiz’s no-look pass for Pedro’s opener was something Cesc would have been very proud of.
 

It wasn’t just that pass either, there were a couple of other equally impressive pings that were called offside which had VAR had been in operation, it would have disproved. On top of the stunning assist against Crystal Palace when he set up N’Golo Kante and his goal against Man City, our David is going through another purple patch in his Chelsea career.

There were, to be brutally honest, a few grumbles from the stands aimed at Jorginho as he lost possession a little more often than we have come to expect. Even the manager had words about this afterwards; Maurizio demands very high standards from his first lieutenant. The reason why it is happening is clear though. Our opponents have decided Jorginho must be crowded much more than before and not be allowed to easily control the tempo of entire games with impunity.

Read: Sarri discusses our mentality in win over Newcastle 

Remember Spurs doing that at Wembley in the league game with some success? They tried it again to a degree in the Carabao Cup tie last week, but much less successfully. Liverpool also detailed Firmino to drop deeper to harass Jorginho in the league game at the Bridge because they also understood his importance to our game plan.

The thing to understand is that there is often a price to be paid for focusing too much on stopping one player above the others, Space develops elsewhere. On Saturday, Newcastle striker Rondon when not in possession was asked by Rafa Benitez to go back 20 yards and try to squeeze Jorginho. Admittedly it worked to a degree on the midfielder but it left another Brazilian with acres of space. David Luiz had all the time in the world on the ball with absolutely no pressure from Rondon and we witnessed exactly what he was able to do with all that time and space. He looked up and picked off passes that could have led to four or five goals instead of just one.

I’ll be honest. I, like everyone else, was getting a bit frustrated that Eden Hazard wasn’t able to get as involved as much as we all want him to. He was up against three centre-backs on his own most of the time which made that understandable. As a counter to that frustration, it meant Pedro and Willian had more ‘one on ones’ than usual. Clearly that plan worked eventually as well when Willian curled the winner into the corner. He was left with only one marker at the edge of the box as Eden had sucked in most of the others.

So yes, there were a few grumbles, but it is worth considering the upsides and the subtler effects that emanated from the shape we played. The biggest upside being of course the three points we gained and the extra pressure piled on all the other sides fighting for the top four. With Arsenal and Spurs both faltering, it turned out to be a perfect weekend with the exception of a slightly ominous Manchester United continuing to get their act together.

I think we all believe that this system with Eden as a striker is a short-term fix, or eventually just another option that is used in specific circumstances. We all know that it will be severely tested in the next two games against Arsenal in the league and Spurs in the second leg of the semi-final of the Carabao Cup.

There is a huge amount of pressure on Arsenal who will be desperate not to allow the Blues to gain even more clear blue water between us at this crucial time. Arsenal have been up and down and as such, are hard to gauge but their home record in the league is actually pretty good, if not perfect.

It will lead to a very interesting starting 11 decision regarding who is chosen up front for us this time. It may well be that former Gunner Olivier Giroud is a real temptation for Maurizio if he is fully fit. Whatever his scoring ratio, he will always tie up at least two defenders and that may be just what Eden Hazard in particular needs right now.
 

Having played most of my career out wide, there were also quite a few occasions when I was asked to play up front, usually alongside a big striker. I loved playing there and to be honest preferred it as that was my actual position before I joined Chelsea, but oddly there was always another lift when I moved back out wide again.

It was like getting your own car back after it has been in the garage, even if the replacement was a fancier model. You know exactly what to do and when to do it. You don’t even really have to think about your position in the driving seat because it is all so familiar when you are back in your comfort zone.

In those circumstances, who would you drop against Arsenal if one of our ‘big’ strikers is to start? Willian and Pedro both scored against Newcastle and a fit Eden is not droppable. Despite any grumbles, maybe it is not a bad problem to have in the short term, especially with that six-point cushion on Arsenal. If we could make it nine then it would be a long way back for our north London neighbours.
 

More from Chelsea