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Pat Nevin: Positive signs and pivotal moments

Blossoming partnerships and potentially crucial tactical tweaks are just a couple of the topics covered by former Chelsea winger Pat Nevin in his latest column.

It was an odd sort of atmosphere down at the Bridge on Saturday. It was subdued but also expectant and this was, I suspect, mostly down to us losing 4-0 at Bournemouth, with the hope that there would be an equal and opposite reaction against Huddersfield. A more than equal reaction of five goals certainly had a partially soothing effect, but it may be that this encounter didn’t teach us too much about the business end of the league.

Chelsea fans are not daft; this was a visiting side that is clearly on the way down and struggling to find their personality under a new manager. I have rarely seen such a naïve and open display from a Premier League side in the past few years. Yes, it led to entertainment and it is certainly preferable to those sides that sit deep and refuse to budge, squeezing all the fun out of the game, but there has to be a level of common sense in the way a team sets up. There was no middle ground for Huddersfield, except for the vast expanses of ground available in the middle of the field in the second half.

As it was, Eden Hazard had those acres of space to enjoy himself in and entertain us, which he did royally. Maybe the most obvious thing learned is that he and Gonzalo Higuain look like a pair who want to work together. It is always the first thing you look for when you come to a club, someone who can operate on your wavelength, and clearly the Argentinean striker has clocked Eden and knows a good thing when he sees it. Other defences will be sturdier, but those sort of link-ups were just what were needed so early in their relationship.

I was on the BBC’s Football Focus before the game and talked about Gonzalo’s movement on his debut against Sheffield Wednesday. It was uncanny that early on he then made the same movement from almost the same square yard of grass to almost score. Minutes later, he actually bagged his first goal in front of the Shed End and yet again it was from precisely the same spot.
 

If you play with a player who has certain runs he particularly likes to make, then it is that much easier to find him. You don’t even have to look before passing; you just know he will be there. The lovely little pass by N’Golo Kante for the opener showed it perfectly. N’Golo notched two assists on the day, something I am not sure he has done before in Chelsea blue. Actually, I am not sure he has had a double assist in Leicester or French blue either. It just goes to show once again how much he is growing into this new role.

Other teams will have noted Higuain’s movement into that ‘inside right’ area so it was great for our new striker to send another alternative message in the second half. If defenders want to drop a bit deeper to stop that little darting run he makes between the centre backs, well he can always just pop out to the 18-yard line and curl a cracker into the top corner from there instead.

So the new striker had a fairly immediate impact, but were there any real tactical changes to the team? In that there had been a well-publicised heart to heart between the players and the manager following the Bournemouth game, everyone was primed for a little tweak here or there? Actually, a long discussion with the team is normal after a big defeat, if you just ignored it and carried on it would seem a bit weird, to be honest.

I was tickled at the way the players lined up at the start of the game in what looked like a 4-4-2, instead of 4-3-3! That would be a huge gear shift from the manager. It actually lasted five seconds into the game and might just have been one or two of the players having a little tactical laugh!

During the actual game, the passing did seem a little sharper and there was certainly no likelihood of the team taking it easy after the second goal went in, but that is more about the mindset than the tactics. Obviously there were a few personnel changes, but once again I am not sure that adapted the tactical outlook. Andreas Christensen is a different player to Toni Rudiger, but they ended up doing a very similar job. You could argue that Jorginho was marginally quicker to play the ball forward to change defence into attack more readily, so maybe that was a little tweak there.

My other gripe on Football Focus was that we do not get to the by-line enough; certainly nowhere near as much as other possession-based teams like Manchester City and Liverpool do. Well that went some way to being answered in the first half when we did get into those areas, particularly on the right-hand side, far more frequently.

One fairly interesting little move came late on from Maurizio Sarri. More than once he has mentioned the problem of having someone to replace Jorginho if he is injured or not available. Cesc Fabregas was his obvious choice before leaving for the South of France to join his old mate Thierry Henry, briefly. So who could step into that position now? Ethan Ampadu has certainly been considered, you suspect David Luiz could control games from there to some degree as well. There is, however, a huge difference between being able to play in the deep midfield role and being able to control large parts of the game in Sarri-ball style, from back there.

Enter Mateo Kovacic after 70 minutes, who immediately took to it as if he had played the role his entire career. The coach has obviously been toying with this idea and yes it was only 20 minutes at the end of an easy and very open game, but it did look very good. His passing was sharp, incisive, intelligent and often forward. He is also is clearly very comfortable receiving the ball with opponents around him, an ability that is vital in this style of play.

So there were five goals, the new striker is off the mark and we are still hanging on in there in the top four, but in the long term it might have been Mateo’s cameo that was the most important moment of the entire afternoon.

 

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