Chelsea season ticket holder and our supporter columnist Giles Smith reviews the final month of 2021, a fixture-filled and frankly exhausting December when Covid spread, if not much goodwill…
I don’t suppose many of us will be unhappy to see the back of this December, a veritable mudslide of fixtures and injuries, played out against a permanent backdrop of plague and pestilence, the sum total effect of which is that, having begun the month proudly leading the Premier League title race, our team has now suffered a vertiginous and horrifying slippage, all the way to (checks table)… second place.
It was also, by the way, the month in which, during a match at Old Trafford between Arsenal and Manchester United, the referee Martin Atkinson saved football - although so quickly do events accumulate and so rapidly does the story move on that nobody is even talking about that anymore. We’ll come to that little episode later, though.
First we need to ponder the upshot of December’s relentless schedule which has provided us with a whole new definition of the term ‘fixture congestion’. The month obliged our players to play nine games, with a tenth to follow directly on 2 January. So, that will be 10 games across three competitions in 33 days – or pretty much a game every three days for an entire month. And one of those games, by the way, was in Russia, just to lob a little excess travel fatigue into the mix.
All of which might have been fine – or certainly finer - if we had felt that everybody else was in the same boat, or on the same plane, or in the same mudslide, and going through more or less the same thing that we were. But we didn’t feel that. We didn’t feel that because it wasn’t true.
When does a Covid outbreak inside a squad merit a match postponement and when does it not? Asking for a friend. The Premier League, caught on the hop by a global pandemic which has been with us now for the best part of two years, still seem to be working on the fine print surrounding this administrative matter and no doubt they will get back to us with their findings in due course. In the meantime, as our players continue to serve out their various self-isolation periods and ease themselves back into training after their various illnesses, we can only stand mutely to one side and contrast the December we just endured with that of Manchester City and Liverpool, who both played eight games this month; with that of Arsenal, who played seven games, on an exclusively domestic diet; and with that of Tottenham, who played just six games.
And let’s also contrast Burnley, who, in the 25 days between December 5 and December 30, didn’t play at all. The Aston Villa team that we successfully saw off on Boxing Day – chiefly by throwing on a player with a knee injury and another who had had flu for 10 days - hadn’t played since December 14 and had technically had an entire and luxurious winter break into their season in which to prepare at their leisure for our arrival. We, by contrast, had fitted three whole matches and an outbreak of Covid into our schedule in that period. Different clubs, different diaries.
And oh, those injuries. They were inevitable, really, in the circumstance, given all those overworked sinews, and yet I started to blame myself at one point. Basically, anyone whom I might have been tempted to describe as ‘absolutely pivotal’ to the smooth running of our operation endured some kind of damage very shortly after I made the claim. Mateo Kovacic, Romelu Lukaku, Ben Chilwell, N’Golo Kante, Thiago Silva, and now, of all players, Reece James.
Look, I’ve done what I can: I’ve stopped describing players as ‘absolutely pivotal’, even within the privacy of my own mind. But it’s too little too late for the affected parties, of course. And too little too late for our points total as well.
On the subject of which, people will inevitably be lamenting the 11 points dropped in this period, and certainly that wasn’t part of the plan, I’m assuming, or even especially likely when the month opened. And it can’t be denied: how much better the table would look if a few of those draws had been the wins they probably ought to have been, and we’d held onto even, say, six of those 11 points.
Yet surely, looking back now, the fact that we have somehow lost only once during this blizzard of fixtures and physical misfortunes – and that to a freak goal from a mis-hit cross - and are still in a position to field some kind of competitive side against Liverpool on Sunday amounts in my view to something like a Christmas miracle.
Because, let’s face it, when you’re confronted with 10 fixtures in a month on top of an injury crisis and a Covid outbreak, what you’re basically involved in is damage limitation. And, set in that context, limiting the damage to the extent that these wearied players have done over the past five weeks is nothing short of heroic. Bear in mind that this was a month in which we were obliged to plunder the Academy for last-minute recruitments, and in which players who, in an ideal world, would have been at home in bed, were required to come off the bench for half an hour, or more. And yet time and again we saw those players somehow clinging on while everything seemed to be going wrong, and simply refusing to leave with nothing.
After about 80 minutes in the draw against Brighton, there was a break in play and I cast an eye around the pitch. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a team look so visibly shattered. Everyone appeared to be have been hollowed out. Everyone, that is, except Cesar Azpilicueta, who doesn’t know what exhausted is and who becomes, even more than commonly, the role model at such times. How much worse, one reflected, it could all have been. We owed the points we did get in this difficult period to extreme degrees of commitment, to a unity of purpose and to what appear to be encouragingly large reserves of resourcefulness among this present group of players in the face of extreme adversity.
And, of course, we also owed it to Jorginho’s exceptional cool when confronted with a match-altering penalty to take. To successfully despatch two pens in the same game and against the same goalkeeper is, of course, a special feat of nerve. To do that twice in the same month – as Jorginho did in the games against Leeds and Aston Villa - is to demonstrate self-control on another level altogether. Jorginho is apparently now the only player to have scored 10 penalties in a calendar year – and even though I don’t really believe in the calendar year as a measure of anything useful in football, I feel extremely pleased to know this.
What with the fixture list planting its mines, and Omicron blowing up, everything about December was exhausting - even the Champions League draw for the round of 16. We’d come out against Lille, but then the whole thing had to be scrapped and redone because someone had put Manchester United’s plastic ball into the wrong Perspex bucket, or maybe it was Villarreal’s – I’m not sure. Either way, we were all invited to come back a couple of hours later to see who we would get this time.
As it happened, we drew… Lille again. What were the chances? Quite high, actually, given the limited number of options. One in four, to be exact, just as they had been the first time. But don’t let’s spoil the story. Along with the sight of Toni Rudiger dancing a one-man Can-Can along the goal-line in front of the Matthew Harding end after Jorginho’s late winner against Leeds, it was a heartwarming moment of magic in a month that rather needed them.
But at least Martin Atkinson saved football. And where would we all be now if he hadn’t? You will remember the incident, surely. An awful lot has happened since, but even so. It was on a Thursday night, right back at the beginning of December, when an Arsenal corner fell into Manchester United’s penalty area and David de Gea in goal, who may have been trodden on slightly by one of his own team, dropped to the turf. The ensuing clearance was booted back into the goal from the edge of the penalty area by an Arsenal player into what was now a largely unguarded net and Atkinson signalled a goal.
Cue aggrieved protests from United. Yet, after lengthy on-pitch deliberations and an extended period of review, the goal was allowed to stand and, by extension, the sport we love was saved. Because imagine if the game had to be halted every time a goalkeeper decided to sit down on the floor. And imagine if there was a prominent top-flight precedent for that. We would probably never see a legitimate goal scored again. Yet, thanks to Atkinson and the VAR screen-boffins at Stockley Park, goalkeepers now know very firmly that you can’t halt play that way, and that it’s not even worth thinking about. And thus, praise be, football as we know it is free to continue.
And continue it most definitely does. There are six fixtures scheduled for us in January. You’d say that looked like a comparatively light workload – a walk in a sunlit park, indeed, after December. Except that five of those six games occur in the first half of the month – between now and January 15. Blimey. It simply never stops, does it?