Pat Nevin was on Merseyside this weekend as two of his former clubs got 2022/23 underway. Here he analyses a close contest, rates our new signings’ first outing and explains why the Tottenham game will tell us more…
Don’t you just love the first day of the new season. Sitting there in the main stand at Goodison Park on a balmy Saturday evening with the stadium packed, the fans from both clubs making an incredible noise, and the players walking out with high expectations and just as much excitement. Having had a few opening days at Goodison Park myself, I knew exactly what both sets of players were feeling there and then. Then the game started.
Let’s be fair, the 90 minutes, or more like nearly 110 minutes, didn’t quite live up to those pre-match expectations. What followed was a game that lacked rhythm, not helped by a couple of elongated stoppages for injuries and illness in the crowd. Those stoppages didn’t help matters, but it was only one of the causes for such a fractured game.
Afterwards Thomas Tuchel proclaimed himself happy with the result, which is no surprise after the bogey side that Everton have become for us lately, even when they have been struggling. Being happy with the result and happy with the overall performance are two very different things, but he will have realised that context is everything, and there were reasons for some of the performances not being 100 per cent.
Players aren’t quite at mid-season match fitness yet, that much is clear. It is also understandable considering that it is not only the first game but one being played earlier than usual, with what feels like a more curtailed period between the end of one gruelling domestic season and the start of a new one. Oddly, I think this summer was a pretty good one in terms of players’ rest time, no Euros and no World Cup, but it has led to a bit more rustiness on the road back.
The game didn’t flow, but take a look at the number of players who pulled up with injuries, everything from the very serious looking one for Ben Godfrey to the cramp felt by Kalidou Koulibaly. Mina, Chilwell and even Thiago Silva seemed at various points to be suffering with soft tissue problems, which also didn’t help things run smoothly. At one point I tried to work out how many defensive combinations we had during this one single game and gave up when I realised that Reece James alone had played three different positions, as had Cesar Azpilicueta. You want continuity at the back, neither team had that.
In short this was a game to be won and maybe then forgotten as quickly as possible. The team will improve markedly every day as the fitness comes on.
Anyone watching will have realised that the new signings in particular had very impressive league debuts for the club. Raheem was lively, intelligent, hardworking and as skilful as anyone on the field. Sometimes it takes a little while to fit into a new club, Raheem looked like he had been there for years. It helps when you know some of your new team-mates, so having England colleagues Mason Mount, Reece James and Ben Chilwell alongside to work with, would have helped him massively.
Koulibaly had a dream start to his Chelsea career. Considering he is looked upon as the replacement to fill the huge shoes of Toni Rudiger, he looks like he takes a minimum of a size 14 himself.
He was colossal and even though he will have many tougher challenges than Everton were able to throw at him, it looks like the concerns of many about the giant hole left by Rudiger leaving – yes, I admit, including me - might not be such a big problem after all.
What was clearly needed in the second half was energy, as the sluggishness of the game threatened to have us fall back into a far too defensive position, which is why the introduction of Marc Cucurella was such a relief. Anyone who watched the Spaniard last season will tell you that apart from his skill and willingness to get forward and create on the left-hand side, his energy levels are up there with the best. I think Chelsea fans are going to love him as a player because of that never stop and never-say-die attitude.
There were a few mutterings in the media about Chelsea’s recent acquisitions, and yes, it is early days, and yes, there has been a lot of money spent, but on the evidence of the first match, the decisions taken so far don’t look bad at all. I suspect there might be at least one more important signing to be made at the back and if he is as impressive as the others look, and he has the same energy and spirit, the squad will have a much more balanced look about it.
If you are considering energy levels then Conor Gallagher is another player you don’t mind seeing arrive on the field, so all the changes made perfect sense, with Armando Broja also putting in a brief muscular cameo that roused the Chelsea faithful cheering in the corner at the end of the game.
All this talk of energy and fitness is normally secondary, teams are usually at a high level almost all the time, but Chelsea and Everton weren’t the only ones breathing hard on their first day back. Arsenal against Palace on Friday night saw the Gunners start off like a house on fire only to play most of the second half like they had burned out. Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool had less of a heavy metal football look and more of a middle-of-the-road soft rock feel. Crucially the Reds dropped points, we didn’t.
There will not be a great deal of time for everyone to get up to speed. The visit of Spurs at the weekend will be a huge early test. They looked sharp in their opener, even if it was at home against Southampton, another side who looked a good distance from their best. I am already looking forward to this one, it will be a true test of where we really are and a whole bunch of players will be in better shape to face the challenge. The season started on Saturday, but this weekend at Stamford Bridge it might feel and look a lot more like the real lift-off.