Pat Nevin: Maestro class
column Tue 28 Feb 2017
The impacts made by a former midfielder master and the current man at the helm come under discussion in Pat Nevin’s latest column…
There was a moment about half an hour into Saturday’s match when it looked like it was getting too easy, almost predictable to a calming level around Stamford Bridge. Chelsea went 1-0 up and the entire game was being dominated by our lads. It seemed that it would only be a matter of time before the second would come and we could all enjoy a little bit of showboating. Then it went quieter still and a little slackness imperceptibly crept into the play and the inevitable happened.
The team needed a lift and so did the crowd. Step in two important figures for the club. The fans were roused at half-time by the appearance of Frank Lampard who finally got to say goodbye formally. The current players in the meantime will have been greeted by Antonio’s steely blue eyes as they walked in the dressing room. Antonio doesn’t do slackness and clearly he doesn’t allow his players to succumb to the temptation either.
The double whammy was enough to wake everyone up from that mini pre-break slumber. Certainly the crowd were up for it and why not after giving Frankie the reception he deserved. Now having walked the walk with Neil Barnett at half-time myself, I can tell you that it is always a special moment for any former player. My now late father was at the Bridge to see me wave to the crowd just a few years back and it was a very emotional moment. He missed less than a handful of the 245 games I played for Chelsea, not bad going considering it was an 800-mile round trip by train for home games and he was still a working man. That was however an opportunity to consider all that time, all those days and all that great support. It was magical and I will never forget that the club planned that for us.
Even so, it is understandable that when any former player does that walk at half-time the stands will not be full. Supporters have a number of urgent things to do during that break; I was meaning getting a cup of tea, a beer or a burger you understand!
This weekend however was different. When it became clear that the legend that is Frank Lampard was our guest, the stands were full and sales at the kiosks must have slumped dramatically. No one wanted to miss the chance to say thank you to him, sing his name again and enjoy him thanking you one last time. All around me people tended to agree that yes, he may well have been our greatest-ever player.
Frank said he wanted to spend little time on the pitch as he knew the players were ready to come on again. It is their time now and all ex-players understand this acutely, but he managed to leave an upbeat feeling around the stadium.
Antonio had been hard at work too and the tempo returned. A score of 3-1 against the current Swansea side is terrific but the domination of the majority of the game was just as impressive, with a good number of sterling performances. Pedro’s pace was scintillating, N’Golo Kante seems incapable of losing a tackle and Cesc has to my mind gone to a new level at the moment. He scored one and was very unlucky not to get a hat-trick. How fitting would that have been with Frank Lampard watching on, one of the greatest if not the greatest goal-scoring midfielders in the history of the game.
It jumped into my mind during the game that there was a question I had wanted to ask Antonio Conte last Thursday at the Chelsea Pitch Owners dinner that I completely forgot among all the other queries. It was simply, who is the better passer of a football, Fabregas or Pirlo? No one is better placed to give a view on that and maybe it would be an unfair question anyway, but I do think it is a valid one, which speaks volumes for Cesc’s ability.
I did promise to ask some questions that readers of this column sent in last week and I can confirm that Maradona was his favourite player to play against and also the best. Zinedine Zidane got a special smile when I asked about team-mates but there were many more greats he wanted to mention. Also he underlined he is unlikely to hide his passion during the games any time soon, he doesn’t want to and doesn’t think he could suppress it anyway.
After a 45-minute chat in front of the assembled guests I can report that he is everything we want him to be; intelligent, great company, funny, engaging, extremely nice and no surprises here - a great tactical thinker on the game.
Many subjects were covered from his Juventus days to how he is constantly amazed that the Chelsea away fans always seem to out-sing the opposition home support, even if they are outnumbered 20 to one.
For me the most fascinating thing was listening to him talk about tactics and how he gets the best out of players. Sadly, it would take a thesis rather than an article to do justice to his thoughts, but suffice to say I trust him implicitly when he has to adapt the side, whether it be before the game with his selections, during the game with his system changes or substitutions, or at the end of the season when some players will come and some will go.
On Saturday it was another education. Cesc started and controlled the game, so that was the right decision. Pedro or Willian was a tough call, but Pedro scored so another tick in that box. Taking Pedro off and leaving Eden on, a few around me questioned that one, but of course the Hazard brilliance duly arrived to lay Diego’s goal on a plate for him, Antonio nailed it again. The introduction of Nemanja Matic and then Kurt Zouma later on slammed the door completely on any thought of a Swansea come back.
In short it was a managerial masterclass, just like our discussion on Thursday.