Season ticket holder and long-time columnist on this website Giles Smith is back for the new campaign giving his fan’s perspective on all things Chelsea, and he has no shortage of talking points to get his head around after our first home game…
Well, there’s nothing like a gentle introduction to the season at Stamford Bridge. And Sunday’s game was nothing like a gentle introduction to the season at Stamford Bridge.
On a day to melt the hardest half-time Kit-Kat, we got a flame-grilled London derby, featuring a blistering team performance, not one but two hyper-contentious equalisers from our visitors just to add a bit of value, and, on the final whistle, an absolute crowd scene in the technical area, or ‘mosh pit’, as we might start thinking of it.
And while it’s always galling to drop points to a 96th-minute equaliser from a set-piece that shouldn’t have been allowed to happen in the first place – and even more galling when you’ve already conceded a goal from another passage of play that shouldn’t have been allowed to happen either – the overriding feelings afterwards were, surely, respect, admiration and not a little anticipation for what could yet lie ahead for this exceptional group of players.
Of course, historically, a first home game against Tottenham would be the very definition of a ‘gentle introduction’ – a nice, easy slope into the tougher challenges that lie ahead, with points in some quantity pretty much guaranteed.
For, as all the world knows, Tottenham victories in the league at Stamford Bridge are among the rarest of events on the astronomical calendar. They tend to happen just once in 30 years, in fact, meaning that people can spend half an adult lifetime with their telescopes trained vainly on the skies in the hope of glimpsing one. (The next is due in 2044, if you can bear to hang around that long.)
Yet, as we were told over and over in the build-up, this time could be different. Here was a Tottenham side with a new solidity about them and allegedly, since the summer, the most formidable front three in the Premier League. It was hard to find any pundit who wasn’t describing Tottenham as ‘a different proposition’ on this occasion. A ‘less Spurs-y’ proposition, indeed.
We, by contrast, seemed to be getting judged on a somewhat bitty performance on the opening day at Everton – a bitty performance, incidentally, which earned us three more points than we got at that ground last season, and the one before that, and the one before that also, but never mind that. The point was, if ever there was a time when Tottenham might surprise astronomers… well, this was it.
And I confess, I was a little taken in by this narrative as Sunday afternoon drew near – and maybe you were, too. Walking very slowly through the heat to the ground, an amount of trepidation replaced the casual lightness of heart that would normally accompany a Chelsea fan to games with Tottenham, whether home or away and, frankly, whether early in the season, late in the season or slap bang in the middle of it.
So much for narratives. The story, as it happened, was our side’s performance - its pace, its co-ordination, its climate-defying energy, its gentle suggestion from Reece James that, if you’re looking for the most complete right-back in English football, your search is over, and its instant embedding of Marc Cucurella and Kalidou Koulibaly, both of whom already have songs to their name after 90 minutes in front of a home audience.
That devastating Tottenham front three we were warned about? Those lightning counter-attacks? All suffocated by our relentless press – snuffed out by various combinations of Jorginho and N’Golo Kante and Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Mason Mount with the members of that brick-wall back line. The game got played overwhelmingly in Tottenham’s half, and the single penetrating and unchallenged run I recall Son Heung-Min being able to make was the one in the 79th minute that took him across the pitch to the touchline to be substituted.
Of course, it was said in Tottenham’s credit that they were still there at the end. And I guess that’s true, although it very much depends what you mean by ‘there’, and also what you think about how they came to be ‘there’. Because, but for two unpunished acts of foul play, they wouldn’t have been there at all.
First Kai Havertz, breaking for goal, gets scythed to the ground: ‘Play on,’ say the officials. Then Cucurella, defending an incoming corner, gets dragged over backwards by the hair: ‘Nothing to see here,’ say the officials.
Well, we all make mistakes, of course. But if only (and I’m just ad libbing wildly here) there were some kind of video review system to which clear and obvious errors by the on-field referee could be referred for examination and, if necessary, correction. Would that be beyond the bounds of technology? I mean, there are so many television cameras at games these days that surely…
Oh, wait! We actually have that! And it actually had a look – certainly at the assault on Cucurella. But still nothing happened. Rest assured that VAR will let the referee know loud and clear if so much as a quarter of a centimetre of our new defender’s hairstyle ever finds itself in an offside position. Yet when someone has got a clump of that hairstyle in his fist and has hauled its owner over backwards while a corner kick is on its way into our penalty area, VAR doesn’t object. Strange times.
Now, I’ve never been a fan of VAR. Indeed, over the last couple of years, I’d have voted resoundingly in favour of heading over to the PGMOL bunker in a rented van, dismantling the whole operation with a screwdriver and redistributing all those valuable television screens around needy care homes where people might get some entertainment out of them.
But here’s a fresh thought for 2022/23: perhaps I’ve had it wrong all along. Perhaps the problem isn’t with VAR after all. Perhaps the problem is with the people operating it.
Certainly those invisible operatives entrusted with the technology sometimes give the impression that they’re sitting on a wealth of features which they are unaware of. It reminds me of explaining to my dearly remembered mother that her new television gave her the power to pause the programme she was watching if she needed to and then return to it exactly where she left off. It took a while, but I got there. Perhaps someone needs to have that conversation with the remote refs, but about VAR.
And by the way, the culpability of Cristian Romero is not the point here. At that stage in the game, six minutes into injury time, it mattered to me not a jot whether Romero received a yellow card, a red one or even Sky’s Man of the Match Award. The only outcome that mattered was the giving of a free-kick to Chelsea for the patent infringement.
Because, very obviously, if a free-kick had been awarded, bingo: Tottenham’s players would have trudged mournfully back down the pitch to where they had spent the rest of the game, Edou would (eventually) have booted the ball up the left-hand side in the direction of Armando Broja, the whistle would have gone, the injustice surrounding Tottenham’s first equaliser could have been graciously overlooked, and we would have got three points which our exquisite performance so clearly merited.
Instead of which… well, you know what happened. Tottenham were handed another go from the corner flag, as if Romero’s hair-pull hadn’t happened at all.
And I know: it’s just a couple of isolated incidents, and just a couple of blown points, in only the second game of the season. At the same time, these things have implications well beyond the sphere of this one match on this one afternoon. Not for us, maybe: on the evidence of this performance, we’ll be fine. But for Tottenham, by the looks of things, those two points could mean the difference between sixth and seventh place at the end of the season. These little things matter.
Ah well. On the positive side, injustice can breed solidarity, a sense of mission – something binding and emboldening to carry our players forward. They already looked pretty well-bound to me, and also brilliantly bold. But maybe this could make them even more so – a thrilling prospect. It could turn out to be a gift, in other words – and a gift handed to us good and early, in August.
Meanwhile, with the weather remaining hot, I’m just grateful that our next fixture is a calmer, lighter prospect, unencumbered by the forces of history and entrenched rivalry.
Yes, it’s Leeds away next.