We know this about Christmas: that the games come thick and fast; that it’s a uniquely hectic period which puts resources, both mental and physical, under immense strain; that, in the busy circumstances, random and startling outcomes inevitably occur; and that it’s a time in which things can sometimes prove very frustrating indeed.
And, funnily enough, what’s true for those of us spending the festive period at home with our families is also true for football. Especially the bit about things sometimes proving frustrating. And especially when (like last night) you’re watching your team pouring all over Southampton without managing to score a goal.
But, of course, it could have been much worse. In football, even more than among families, Christmas often produces proper shocks. This year, for example, Manchester City came unstuck at home to Crystal Palace, Tottenham lost it big time against Wolves and Arsenal seemed to catapult back to the later Wenger era for a short spell. See how the weird magic of the season operates. At Christmas, it’s not just on the trains that normal service is suspended.
In many respects, then, we got off lightly. Last night’s disappointing misfire bore all the classic hallmarks of the leggy and imaginatively exhausted consequence of playing four league games and a Carabao Cup tie in a tight bunch – yet we still emerged with a point. For this to qualify as a genuine plum Christmas gift, complete with a ribbon around it, Southampton would have had to stick one away from distance in injury time.
The 1-0 defeat at home to Leicester, albeit early in the schedule, had something more like the typical features of a piece of Christmas nonsense. Yet even that nearly wasn’t a 1-0 defeat. Indeed, factoring in that last-gasp, one-on-one Marcos Alonso shot, we were one unfortunate rebound off the inside of the post from going unbeaten through the most treacherous period of the year. All things considered, it could have been far shabbier.
And bear in mind that the schedule always did have a disconcertingly odd look about it. This was the first time in six years that we weren’t at Stamford Bridge on Boxing Day, and it certainly felt different. When you’re used to spending that fixture at home, you settle into your ways – have those little traditions and rituals which you always cling to. Being at Watford, accordingly, was a bit like having Christmas dinner in someone else’s house when you have grown accustomed to doing it yourself. The roast potatoes aren’t up to much and they don’t do bread sauce. I mean, it was lovely – don’t get me wrong. But it’s all about what you’re used to, isn’t it?
We didn’t even get to host anybody in that difficult between-Christmas-and-New-Year period. Instead, on the Sunday, we had to get in the car, head down the road and drop in on Crystal Palace. Paying anyone a visit on December 30th is always fraught with its risks. Likely as not, the house has taken a bit of a battering, the decorations have begun to lose their lustre and the hosts have long since finished the Quality Street, except for the strawberry ones.
Nevertheless we won, of course, as we did at Watford. But the dominant theme against Crystal Palace was the same as in all this year’s Christmas gatherings: a difficulty scoring goals. And the story was perhaps best encapsulated in the fate of Olivier Giroud, who actually scored a brilliant one with an utterly world-class finish, only to have it incorrectly ruled out for offside and while turning an ankle in the process, which meant that he eventually left the ground on crutches.
As the Robert Webb character says in the famous festivity-related argument in ‘Peep Show’: ‘That wasn’t very Christmassy.’ Except that, in football terms, it WAS very Christmassy – extremely Christmassy. Indeed, it could only have been more Christmassy had Giroud twisted the ankle in the process of protesting the offside decision.
Still, in that area, it’s highly exciting news about the signing of Christian Pulisic from Borussia Dortmund. I must admit, I was rather hoping he would be able to start work earlier, what with a place in the top four and three cup competitions to be fought for between now and the end of the season, and what with the business about Giroud and the crutches – and, indeed, what with Southampton proving so strangely hard to break down.
But one understands, more or less, how these things work, and we’ll just have to wait until August. Also, Pulisic is only 20, so it’s not as though the clock is running down.
Of course, even though he’s not joining up for a while, he will receive an early summons to duty. Borussia Dortmund, where our new striker will remain on loan for the rest of this season, play Tottenham in the next round of the Champions League. I’m sure that many of us will regard that, to some extent, as the US international's Chelsea debut and will be looking forward to seeing what he can do in an invisible blue shirt over those two legs. And hopefully by then some people in actual blue shirts will have started scoring a bit more freely, too.