Pat Nevin: What you can never tell and which Chelsea player is leading by example

In his column this week Pat Nevin reflects on changing fortunes for teams and players alike, and explains what is needed to get through a sticky patch, even if he hopes we won’t be offering Arsenal any olive branches tomorrow...


Football teams, even the best ones, can’t know beforehand when they are going to have a dip. Playing at 95 per cent and above all season just isn’t possible, but trying to guess when that group gasps for air is anyone’s guess. The medics behind the scenes will tell you about red zones and that might be an indicator of impending danger, but there have been plenty of times when red zone players have still managed to be red hot when the adrenalin has kicked in.

Our little dip happened over the two games against Brentford and Real Madrid at Stamford Bridge. Brentford was just weird, with the visitors scoring just about every time they got into our half, but it was still a more subdued performance than we had been used to. I was at Wembley on Saturday to cover the Liverpool v Man City game and even though the Sky Blues had a few important players missing, that wasn’t the full reason why, frankly, they looked awful in that first half. If I am honest, they were not a great deal better in the second, even if they did scrape a couple of goals back.

Pep said his team were tired, but that level of capitulation was almost unimaginable earlier in the campaign. So sometimes you don’t see it coming, but how you react is all important, and our last few games against Southampton at St Mary’s, Real Madrid in the Bernabeu and then Crystal Palace at Wembley were as impressive a run of three games in a row that we have put together all season. What happened to that tiredness?

We watched that form dip and struggled to understand why, then a few days later watch the team look imperious from back to front and from start to finish. We were similarly confused as to why it is suddenly all so effortless again.

By the second half against Palace and certainly after Ruben finally scored again for us, it was a case of men against boys. They may have missed a great chance at the back post after Mason Mount had made it two, but it never seemed in doubt to me after we got our noses in front. There was a grown-up control that was very comforting. When the FA Cup final does come around, being able to deliver that sort of confident display will be necessary against a team who are overflowing with self-belief at the moment.

But wait a minute, can anyone remember all the way back to last weekend? In the first half of their league game at Man City, Liverpool looked like a particularly timid bunch of rabbits sitting on the outside lane of the M4 bedazzled by the headlights. They were as jaded and lacking in belief as I have seen them for years. It was that old problem again. As Chuck Berry memorable sang, ‘You Never Can Tell’. Except, this time, it is when that team torpor is going to descend?

It has happened to everyone this season in the frenzy that is the Premier League. Man United’s dip just happens to have lasted a lot longer than everyone else’s in the top third. Even Spurs after their impressive Kane and Son-inspired run have stumbled as the finishing line has approached. Maybe more noticeable has been the recent capitulations from their north London neighbours. The Gunners were going great guns and then bang, their balloon burst with three points from the last 15. Could they have seen this coming? Not many outside the club did as they became the media darlings, but they have struggled to regain their stride after the initial stumbles.

They will come to Stamford Bridge tomorrow night with a win or bust mentality. For us, a win or even a draw makes the chances of Mikel Arteta’s team catching us very unlikely to say the least, but our attitude will be far from the desperation the visitors bring.

Maybe that will help them. After all, weren’t we in a win-or-bust situation when we played Real Madrid last week, and look what that (nearly) led to. It was without doubt one of the best performances over the past few seasons.

I think it unlikely the Blues will be having many, if any blips between now and the end of May. The real reason I believe this is the reaction of the team when Thomas Tuchel made those three substitutions after Mason’s goal. Hakim Ziyech, Romelu Lukaku and N’Golo Kante came on and we cruised away with the game.

There were three separate moves down the left late on that could and maybe should have led to Romelu tap-ins. Timo Werner was usually at the heart of things, but once Romelu pulled out to the penalty spot, just when the ball was pinged invitingly across the unguarded goal. Then he did get on the end of a cross from the left but couldn’t quite guide it into the goal. By the time the third one flashed across the goal and he was a yard too late, he must have been cursing his luck. In another time he would have been walking away with a hat-trick and the match ball after being lauded for a world-class cameo.

Like all the teams, players have their ups and downs. There are times when it is so easy it is effortless and then other times when your legs feel like lead. Some days every decision you make is blessed and you pick up tap-ins like a five-year-old picks up chocolate on an easter egg hunt. Other times your actions seem cursed and nothing you do is right, even when you do what has been the right thing all your career.

The answer is the same for the players as it is for the team: you just keep working, keep on doing the right thing, don’t blame anyone else and accept this is just something to work your way through.

Maybe the best example is our man of the match in the semi-final, Timo Werner. He has had to face plenty of stick, abused in the media for missing chances and pilloried for being apparently ‘born’ offside. He has, however, come through the other end and because of his work rate, team spirit and faultless attitude it is all coming good right now.

It is coming good not only on the field but with the fans as well. That is what happens when you react the right way to a difficult run, even if you have absolutely no idea what caused it in the first place.

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