Pat Nevin: Focused minds
column Tue 15 Aug 2017
In his latest column, Chelsea legend Pat Nevin explains why there is no need to panic following our opening game of the season, as well as exploring some of the options available to Antonio Conte for Sunday’s visit to Tottenham…
There were a huge number of ‘ifs’ on my mind after the defeat to Burnley on Saturday. If Gary Cahill hadn’t been sent off was the major one, of course. It was a first-day-of-the-season challenge, rusty and without malice but there had been an earlier warning that the referee was taking a strong position and giving no consideration for the players getting up to speed - he booked Marcos Alonso as early as the third minute.
Gary walked, and suddenly the game had a very different dynamic. With all the injuries and suspensions clear from the Chelsea pre-match team sheet, Burnley would have been buoyed anyway and the extra man certainly gave them more belief.
The next ‘if’ would have been regarding Alvaro Morata, had he been introduced at half-time, then would that have been enough time to rescue at least a point? The evidence suggests it probably would have been. He was pivotal to everything when he came on, from scoring our first to creating the second, and being only fractionally offside for the other one he put in the back of the net.
If Pedro or Eden Hazard had been fit, or indeed new boy Tiemoue Bakayoko, who could have released Cesc Fabregas to play further forward, then Burnley would have been pinned further back. What if we hadn’t suffered from four players being sent off in our last three competitive matches? We might be FA Cup holders and Community Shield holders as well as joint-top of the Premier League had that been the case.
The problem is that you can’t live in the world of ifs and buts, you have to live in the real world of the Premier League and you must react to, and vitally prepare for, the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Last season, from the Arsenal away game onwards it was generally as smooth as you will ever see a league campaign, but life, and football generally, aren't like that.
It is how you react to defeats like the one against Burnley that decide your success, 3-0 down at half-time felt awful but Chelsea have been there before, and fairly recently. The 3-0 defeat at the Emirates last season was the catalyst for a re-imagination of the team and its tactics, and it worked splendidly.
Antonio Conte arguably has an even harder immediate task because of those injuries and suspensions, as well as the very difficult run of games in the first couple of months. It will, however, focus everyone’s minds and underline that this season will be absolutely nothing like the last one.
Others, such as Manchesters United and City, are stronger, and the rest have all had a season to get a handle on our 3-4-3. At its best it will still be a great weapon, but certainly the element of surprise has long gone so further tactical and personnel adaptations will be necessary. Fortunately, if you have a look at Antonio's history at Juventus you will see a raft of different systems and solutions for different problems that arise, so we are in good hands.
I am sure I was not the only one who was thinking even before the match had finished, what on earth do we do in midfield against Spurs if Bakayoko isn’t fully fit yet? David Luiz could cruise in there, of course, and leave Dave, Antonio Rudiger and Andreas Christensen as the back three.
Each of those defenders is good enough but it is also a very new-looking group for such a big game. We could go to a back four and there are even left-field options such as asking Dave to play in beside N’Golo Kante. He would, of course, do a sterling job there as he does everywhere. Tackling and closing down certainly wouldn’t be a problem with those two together.
In short, there are options but more bodies are needed and there is no doubt whatsoever the club know this and are trying to do something about it. The most important thing is not to push any panic buttons. Act in haste and repent at leisure is an old saying which is certainly true, and remember, mistakes in football buying tend to be incredibly expensive mistakes.
Having bought players before in a previous life as a chief executive I know it is not easy. You might know exactly who you want, but the player might not want to come, his club might not want to sell, they definitely will not value him at the same value as you do and most likely one or two other clubs will be sniffing around as well. It is a game of brinkmanship, or a whole bunch of games of brinkmanship going on at the same time. Remember, you will be sorting out viable back-ups in case your first choice doesn’t happen and you will be doing that on three fronts at the same time in three different positions.
There is still time and players will slowly return from their various injuries and suspensions, but will we have enough to face Spurs at Wembley? This is the question that will be exercising all of us this week.
I was at their game against Newcastle and they were flattered by the 2-0 scoreline. They were the better team but, like our match the day before, the entire afternoon was changed by a sending off, this time of The Toon’s Jonjo Shelvey. Other than that, this is a Spurs team that currently has less dynamism in the full-back areas and not all the top names are firing on all cylinders yet. As ever, stop Christian Eriksen and there is every chance we can get off the mark at Wembley.