Pat Nevin: Opening up and using options

With the Blues having overcome further stubborn opposition at the weekend, Chelsea legend Pat Nevin gives his opinion in this week's column and asks why more teams aren't coming out to play...

It was a strange sort of atmosphere at Stamford Bridge at the weekend considering the 1-0 scoreline against a talented Southampton side. I say talented, but they very rarely ventured far enough up the pitch to show their creativity, and that was the main reason for the subdued feeling at times. A single-goal lead is never enough to be totally comfortable, but apart from one or two rare forays near the end when Charlie Austin entered the fray, there was a definite lack of jeopardy in the air. The Blues controlled the game playing at well below 100 per cent, and why indeed should we go all out when the opposition are sitting that far back and just rolling with the proverbial punches?

I might sound a trifle miffed and it is for a simple reason. I have been to too many games this season where certain teams from the bottom half of the league have shown less ambition than I think they should, especially considering the players they have. Do not get me wrong: sitting in with a 5-4-1 formation on your own 18-yard line is perfectly valid when it is 0-0 and there is the possibility of nicking a cheeky little point off the big boys. When I do get frustrated is when they go a goal or two down and still scarcely have a go.

When I played the likes of San Marino, Luxembourg and Liechtenstein when they turned up for internationals, you faced a wall on the edge of the box and when you finally broke it down you felt you had earned the right to drag them out to play a game of football, but no, a 3-0 defeat was considered acceptable by the international minnows and they continued to camp in their own box. It infuriated me, because in the domestic game in those days, if you lost a goal at Anfield, you would certainly at least have a go at trying to win, even if you were a second-tier side in a cup game. It didn’t often work, but the point is sometimes it did, and it was a chance worth taking.

 Pat in action for Scotland against San Marino in a European Championships qualifier in 1995. He scored one of Scotland's five goals that day.

I watched Huddersfield camp in their area for most of the game at home against us last week and they didn’t venture forward until the last couple of minutes. By that time they were 3-0 down and when they took a chance, look what happened. I get it, they aren’t as good player for player, and it cost a pittance to build their squad in comparison to the top-six sides, but when they showed a bit more bravery away to Watford, they hammered the Hornets at the weekend. I am not annoyed; I am just a bit disappointed because this partial submission in advance was never the way in the English game. I want the underdog to at least have a go, but even at the weekend it took West Brom a long time against Man United to say, ‘to hell with it, let’s see what they have’, and they then nearly rescued a point from 2-0 down.

Obviously I do not blame teams who defend deep against Manchester City. If they do not give you a kick of the ball, it is hard to be offensive, and they are ‘in a great moment’ as they now say in the game, so that is different.  I do hope however that this current penchant for ultra-defensive set-ups, even when losing, is just a passing phase. It does however partially explain why Antonio Conte is adapting the systems and making surprise personnel decisions each week.

I would not have expected Alvaro Morata and Cesc Fabregas to start on the bench against Southampton, but maybe that was the point - Mauricio Pellegrino would not have expected it either. Having planned all week to face a 3-5-2, suddenly he was confronted by a 3-4-3 with Eden Hazard on his own centrally, and not Alvaro. It was then too late to change the Saints’ tactics. A new set of problems are provided and suddenly their game-plan looked uncertain.

Prepping to play against our two most often-used systems, which now seem interchangeable week to week, must be a nightmare. You wouldn’t want the same type of player marking Eden as you would like marking Alvaro, would you? Teams preparing to deal with Cesc Fabregas’ quarter-back balls over the top will plan to drop very deep when not on the ball. But their problems come when, like Saturday, Cesc is sitting on the bench and they usually look a bit lost for the first 45 minutes.

The mind games and tactical adaptations are working very well at the moment. As the manager rightly points out it is 25 points gained from the last 30; that is league-winning form in most seasons but this is an unusual campaign, so far at least. The form is good and even if we were playing astonishingly well right now, and scoring hatfuls every week, it would still be a lot to ask for us to reel in Man City.

It also doesn’t help that for most of the recent games, only one team looked particularly interested in attacking, so I am not about to complain about our fans or our team. To a large degree it was out of our control, and anyway there was enough there with Willian, Pedro and Eden, and the eventual three points, to keep us all satisfied, even if we were playing against the now common wall of defenders.

Happy Christmas everyone!!