The Thomas Tuchel international man of mystery guessing game regarding his team selections was well on show at the weekend, and he threw everyone yet again. Did anyone apart from TT himself have Malang Sarr, Trevoh Chalobah and Ruben Loftus-Cheek all in their proposed starting line-up before the Brentford game? Every reaction I noted when the team was announced was the same - ‘Interesting!’ With maybe even a raised eyebrow emoji thrown in there too.
Once more it worked, even if there were some hairy moments near the end. It is extraordinary how many changes he has had to make, particularly after international breaks, yet somehow the obstacles are overcome and a path is found.
By the next day I was up at Newcastle for the visit of Spurs. In amongst a monumental number of stories and events on the day, it was noticeable that Nuno Espirito Santo kept exactly the same team that won their last outing against Aston Villa. Nuno clearly doesn’t feel he can afford to rest or rotate any of his core players, even if they had been playing in the jungle city of Manaus in Brazil just a few days earlier. That will surely come back to haunt them in time as eventually the stresses catch up.
'I say this with the greatest respect to the ‘goalkeepers’ union’, how many teams have two goalies that are truly top drawer? '
— Pat Nevin
Thomas Tuchel on the other hand has hopefully got quite a few recovered top-class players to call on tomorrow night against Malmo. The medics will advise the gaffer on fitness levels but this is an art, not a science much of the time and the boss has the steady hand of an old master at the moment.
I do tend to mention this problem regularly and that is partly because I am a little weary myself with the travelling. Right now I am in Bruges for the Man City game but will be back in London for the Malmo match. Travelling via Scotland-Holland-Belgium-France-England and then back to Scotland is wearing and that is nothing compared to those who travel and have to play games too. Granted the players are a bit younger than me with comfier seats on their flights but even so, they need to be checked constantly for wear and tear.
I’m not complaining for a moment about my travels, other than the days of planning and PCRs that are needed (rightly so!) for the jet-setting. What is clear is that any player who looks sharp and has been rested has to be considered for the starting line-up. Ben Chilwell fell squarely into that category.
After a stuttering start when Marcos Alonso was the go-to player, Ben was ready to step up as soon as his Spanish amigo needed a break. The results have been spectacular. Three goals in three games is stunning but what was really spectacular was the winner against Brentford. Over the last few weeks we have witnessed some incredible finishes, Mo Salah’s mazy wonder goal being the pick of a brilliant bunch. Don’t however underestimate the quality of Ben’s banger.
The technique was impeccable, the ball was still rising from the bounce, the conditions were zippy to say the least, and he couldn’t lash at it. He had to concentrate on perfect technique under pressure, strike through it perfectly and he nailed it. I’m not sure we will see a cleaner strike by any player this season. It was a goal worthy of winning any game.
Even though it was that good and Ben is in the middle of a deep purple patch, he still couldn’t grab the headlines. Those of course went to Edouard Mendy for a display that every goalkeeper dreams of and every striker playing against him has nightmares about for weeks after. We all witnessed the breath-taking blocks, with the tip over the crossbar from the overhead kick being merely the most spectacular of the lot. It might not even have been the best save and it was only close to his bravest moment of the afternoon.
You sometimes hear about players ‘growing’ in confidence. Against the Bees, Edouard grew in confidence but also looked like he was growing physically too. It was one of the most memorable performances in recent years by a stopper, not just at Chelsea but at any top club.
As time has passed he has become a better, wiser and more considered player. The slightly over-enthusiastic sweeper-keeper moments that cropped up now and again seem to have been ditched. I still recall with a shudder that moment at Sheffield United back in February which ended up in a Toni Rudiger own-goal. I remember it but it’s a fading, distant memory now, one that looks unlikely to be repeated any time soon with his growing ability to read the dangers in the game.
The man to applaud first and foremost for these improvements is Edouard himself, but top-quality counselling and help in the keepers’ art is always on hand out at Cobham. Surely he is the one player who cannot be rested for the Malmo game? It’s unlikely but then if Kepa did start, would we really be totally gobsmacked by the boss’s decision? I’m not sure we would as Kepa’s recent appearances have shown that his game has also improved immeasurably with the training ground tuition.
If you look around closely, and I say this with the greatest respect to the ‘goalkeepers’ union’, how many teams, even at the very highest level, have two goalies that are truly top drawer? It’s fewer than you think, and even if the reserves are capable, there is a difference between that and the real international-class operators.
Part of the difficulty is obviously that unlike other areas of the team, rotation isn’t that common for this unique position, apart from domestic cup games and that often isn’t enough to satisfy one of the real big guns. That is one of the many tough decisions the boss has to make for every game. He also has to somehow keep both relatively happy, which is a balancing act I wouldn’t fancy trying.
Whoever it is between the sticks, it’s pretty close to being a ‘must-win’ game if we are going to have a chance of winning the group. It is not a given that these are going to be three easy points, but the chance of a win will be good if everyone is in shape, ready, on form and in the right frame of mind. Few people predicted how tight the opener against Zenit would be and more often than not, the ‘smaller’ sides give someone a fright at some point in the group stage.
What would be preferable is an early Blues goal for once in the Champions League, so we could cruise to some degree and enjoy the game with as little stress to the players and indeed the fans as possible. And anyway, with the travelling I’m doing (not that I’m complaining mind) I fancy a bit of relaxation on the job for once. Wouldn’t that be nice.