Chelsea legend and website columnist Pat Nevin has been around the block long enough to know not to make huge judgments on small sample sizes, but he believes there were signs against Aston Villa the Blues are getting back on track…
We all love a snapshot, and it is not just those greedy centre-forwards. I nearly fell into the trap at the game I was at the other day.
I was high in the stands at Anfield, Liverpool were 1-0 up at half-time and if West Brom defended any deeper they would have been playing at Goodison Park, Everton. This could be 4-0, 5-0 or even 6-0 if the Reds get another goal.
Then there was the caveat. Football is mad this season and West Brom have that wily old campaigner Sam Allardyce in charge. A change in the game was unlikely, but it was still possible.
Forty-five minutes later it was 1-1, Liverpool almost lost it and from discussions online beforehand about them running away with the title, questions were raised about their inability to put away one of the weakest teams in the league, despite having 85 per cent of the possession. Be careful of making decisions on a snapshot of any point, be it half-time, the end of a game, or even a little run of games.
Leicester, Spurs and of course Chelsea each dropped points unexpectedly in the space of 24 hours, showing us all that these snapshots are dangerously misleading for every team.
Having said that, it was still hugely frustrating that we couldn’t quite get over the line against Villa, after what was a very disappointing performance at Arsenal.
The goal we lost to Villa was partly due to being a man down of course, with Christensen injured, but if it wasn’t a foul, annoyingly the referee was right to allow play to continue. I wasn’t massively impressed by the rest of the ref’s performance, he is one of the breed that gives free-kicks so easily that players start throwing themselves to the ground at the slightest contact, spoiling the game as a spectacle.
It would be wrong however to say he was the reason for us not getting three points. The draw was probably a fair result in the end and Frank will be tearing his hair out wondering where that attacking edge has gone over the past few weeks. I have talked on this page about the importance of creativity in the final third, which leads directly to the missing influence of Hakim Ziyech. But to be fair we didn’t rely on him all season, he was unavailable at the start.
Timo Werner has missed a few very scorable chances and Kai Havertz has struggled to get back to his sharpest self after his tough time with Covid-19. Again, it can’t be all about them, we have other players who can come in and do the business. So is it time to panic? I don’t think so, because against Villa I thought there were a few positive signs that had been missing in the games at Arsenal and Everton in particular, and also at Wolves to some extent.
After Olivier Giroud scored at the near post, we certainly lifted our game to a decent level. By the way have I ever mentioned that Olivier is the best near-post striker on the planet? Well apart from mentioning it every other week, even going back to his days at Arsenal. I actually decided to see if I could find any analysis I did on him, and yes there it was online, for the BBC, September 2013! He was the best then and he still is now.
Olivier Giroud’s near-post classic finish was one of the big positives, but in reality it was the entire build-up to that goal that gave me some hope that things might click back into gear quite soon. Olivier’s flick was superb at the start of the move but when Pulisic got the ball he had to do precisely the right thing at the right time. He drew the defender perfectly before slipping the ball to the overlapping Ben Chilwell flying towards the byline. His perfect cross was then nodded in, but it is that partnership and understanding on the left which broke the lines of the Villa defence. It was on show on a few other occasions, too.
Often the biggest problem in the game is getting beyond defenders, whether that is with a piece of intelligent movement and a defence-splitting pass like Pulisic and Chilwell manufactured, or a bit of individual skill with a player getting past one or two defenders and destroying their defensive structure. We haven’t done much dribbling or using pure pace to leave defenders behind of late, but that intricate passing is the next best thing.
Have a look at Manchester City over the last number of seasons. Most of the time they are trying to manipulate a situation to get one of their players on the ball on the opposition’s byline between the six- and 18-yard line. The cutback from there is the most dangerous ball in football. Defenders hate it as suddenly, unlike the cross from much wider and deeper, they are now second favourites with the forwards running in seeing the whole picture.
Pulisic managed to do it again in the second half and we were just unlucky that the ball rolled between everyone and the chance was lost. Frank knows perfectly well we have to make this happen more often, but at least some of the signs were there against Villa. That is the biggest reason he has turned to Callum Hudson-Odoi lately, because this is a massive part of his game when he is playing at his best. The evidence is there - look at the goal Callum made for Tammy in the dying embers of the Arsenal game.
There have been plenty more examples lately when we scored from these sorts of positions, for example Giroud and Pulisic against Leeds when Werner and Reece James were the players who got into those dangerous wide areas.
This has been a dark little period in terms of league results, particularly as the chance to get to the top of the league was just opening up in front of us. It has however only been 17 days, a mere snapshot, especially when you consider how far Chelsea have come over the past year or so.
I definitely saw a few chinks of light coming through in the game against Villa. The return of a bit more confidence and a certain Mr Ziyech and those chinks could soon become beams of light.
So yes, it has been less than a perfect year, but like the rest of the planet I reckon 2021 still holds a huge amount of promise for Chelsea. And hopefully for you all.
Have a Happy New Year and of course a safe one that with any luck brings us all back into the bright sunlight of normality by summertime at the latest.