Columnist

Pat Nevin: There’s one downside to such a good squad

The winning run came to an end on Sunday but there was plenty in the performance against Tottenham to have former Blue and columnist Pat Nevin confident the resources are there to negotiate a crowded fixture programme, but there are selection debates to be had…


I am sure I am getting this slightly wrong, but the feeling after the Spurs game on Sunday was ‘so near yet so..near’.
Maybe there wasn’t a great deal in the first half between the sides, although I thought we shaded it, but in the second half we were ultra-dominant against Tottenham, the team at the top of the league.

When I say so near, I am looking specifically at the opportunities we were centimetres away from converting. In the first half Timo Werner was just a smidge offside before pinging the ball into the net off the back post. This isn’t the first time he has had a goal chalked off, but I am not sure it is always the German’s fault for ‘straying’ into that position. He moves so quickly that there only is a split second to play the ball and there is no way he can check his run. This is not a concern. If he keeps doing that then the goals will keep on coming.

That was a close one but most of the near misses in the second half involved Tammy Abraham. There was a succession of sensational crosses in the second half, first from Reece James as usual, but also from the likes of Hakim Ziyech and Timo Werner.

Each time Tammy was very close to hitting the net. Strikers are gauged by their goals of course, that is why they dominate the headlines both good and bad, but Tammy was consistently getting into the right place at just about the right time. He was desperately unlucky not to score the goal that would have given us the three points, but then Olivier Giroud had just as presentable an opportunity in the last moments.

So yes, it was a case of so nearly winning and getting to the top of the league but there were plenty more positives than negatives. I reckon those positives can roll on to tomorrow’s game in Seville. The Spaniards are a seasoned top European side, if a little more celebrated in the Europa League than the Champions League, but this is exactly the kind of test that Frank Lampard would want his side to face now. The more experience in these situations for our young players, homegrown and those brought in, the better for them in the long run.  

There is limited jeopardy as we have qualified anyway, but of course we would prefer to qualify as group winners for the time-honoured reasons. It is a great position to be in, but there is no chance Frank will take this anything other than totally seriously. I said laughingly the other day when the team was named against Spurs that if none of those players were starting, the alternative 11 would be not far from just as good. So how about this for an alternative line up from Sunday.

Kepa

Azpilicueta           Christensen     Rudiger                    Emerson

Jorginho             Gilmour

Hudson-Odoi                      Havertz                                 Pulisic

 Giroud
 

I mean seriously, that is an incredibly strong side to send out against just about anyone in the Premier League. And in Europe! They would be just as likely as not to do the business against most teams in the group stage. My apologies to Willy Caballero, Marcos Alonso and Fikayo Tomori, but of course any of them could step in and not weaken that side at all.

This is the reason I am feeling very good about this season right now. The number of games and how close they are together is brutal at the moment, but along with Manchester City, I think we are best equipped to deal with the pressures because of the quality and the depth of the group. There may be eight games in December, but few are better equipped to cope than us.

Also, is there one player who we absolutely couldn’t do without in a crisis? Of course you always want N’Golo Kante and Thiago Silva in the side, but can we cope without them? I reckon the answer is yes most of the time. Can you say the same for Liverpool without Salah, Spurs without Kane. Even, to some degree, Manchester City without a fully fit Sergio Aguero are a much-diminished team.

Right now the clean sheets are a joy to behold. The fact there has only been one defeat in open play this season, and that was against the league champions, is another reason to be excited. What was also noticeable, when you looked closely, was that in the huge game against the current table toppers Frank turned to three of the homegrown contingent to get the result. The most important thing is it is no longer even an eyebrow-raiser that Frank starts Reece James, Tammy Abraham and Mason Mount when the most important games come around.

When we do Matchday Live on The 5th Stand app, the question always comes up about the team Frank has chosen on any given day. Against Rennes, Callum Hudson-Odoi was given a start. Was that the right call? Well scoring and probably being the man of the match (he certainly was the best player in the first half) seemed to suggest a decent decision, but then Callum didn’t even make the bench against Spurs!

This has almost made me start shrugging my shoulders when Frank sends a team out now. The quality is so high throughout and the fact that each player in each position has slightly different strengths, I am honestly finding it hard to think what would constitute a clear and obvious error in team selection, whoever he goes for.

Had he picked Marcos Alonso against Spurs I would have thought, ‘Yeah I get that, he hasn’t played recently but he is always brilliant against Spurs and they do struggle when we set up with a 3-4-3 against them.’

So I am looking forward to the line-up tomorrow and hope it will be good enough to get us a result. There is only one downside to having such an incredibly well-balanced squad - making sure as many as possible stay match fit. For that reason alone I expect, and to a degree hope for, Frank to make quite a few changes on the team sheet from the weekend. After all, you can always make a bunch of substitutions, and it will be a mighty bench he will see when he looks behind him.  

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