Pat Nevin: Seeking six

Chelsea legend Pat Nevin welcomes a week of home games to come and believes the boss will pay plenty of attention to training as the Blues look to steady the ship…

Everybody will be trying to figure out what went wrong at Palace on Saturday and there will be a variety of theories. One thing that is not theoretical is that the team badly missed the influences of N’Golo Kante and Alvaro Morata.

They have been arguably the best two players this season for us, so they were always going to leave a big hole right in the centre of the pitch. From a technical point of view, Alvaro has been the fulcrum, holding the ball up, linking the play, moving intelligently to create space not only for himself but for others too. His play has made it much easier for the others behind him. Good players can become great players if they have space and he has been creating that space.

I have heard it said that having the option of Tammy Abraham as a reinforcement to Morata and Michy Batshuayi might have been helpful and there is a case for that, but on the downside would he really get much game time when others are fit? Tammy and others are learning fast by playing first team football at a good level where they are. When he comes back, he and the club will want him to be a regular starter, not sitting warming a bench for months on end and learning very little of his trade at a vital time in his development. Happily, Alvaro should be back soon, very soon, so that is one short-term problem that could be solved pretty quickly.

N’Golo’s quality is irreplaceable by any single player right now. His energy certainly became even more obvious in its absence at Selhurst Park; let’s hope he is as superhuman at recovery as he is at dominating midfields around the country. It is actually quite hard to imagine him injured as he seems so robust when he makes those midfield tackles against all the odds but still emerges with the ball time and again.

Even so, there were enough top-quality players available to see off Crystal Palace, but that is only the case if most of them are on good form and looking fit and sharp. Sadly, this wasn’t the case at the weekend and the challenge is to find out why and find out quickly. Clearly there were a few who looked tired, and though capable of lasting the 90 minutes, it was not at the pace they would normally do so. 

I suspect the international games had something to do with the weary looking performances for a few. I have often explained that these internationals can be stressful enough, but when you add some extreme travelling and time-zone hopping on top, the effects are magnified substantially. It was no great surprise to me when I heard that Arsene Wenger had left Alexis Sanchez out completely this weekend and Jurgen Klopp was substituting possible match-winners against Man United late on in their game on Saturday, because he feared they might pick up fatigue-induced injuries.

Willian looked particularly drained this week, but two internationals for Brazil in South America clearly took its toll. Yes, we know there are private planes nowadays but with adrenalin flowing and not wanting to resort to pills or bottles of wine, there is absolutely no certainty that your body will allow you to sleep even if you want to and are physically tired to boot. The brain can steal those hours of recovery whether you like it or not as it replays the matches and worries about anything and everything it sees fit to.

So this week I couldn’t be more relieved that the fixture schedule was relatively kind and gave us the home match with Roma first. Another journey was the last thing that increasingly tight-looking group of players needed right now. There will be lots of tactical work needed for a game against the Italians, though I suspect much of this will be walked through on the training ground to allow recovery and at least we have a man in charge who knows precisely what to expect from the opponents.

In these situations when the squad looks stretched it sometimes just needs a few players recovered from injury to make a huge difference to the group and to the manager. Antonio will be keen to have a few more options at his disposal, especially when the tactical battle warms up on Wednesday in the second half.

One player in particular who must be tearing his hair out right now is Danny Drinkwater. He would have known when he signed that getting a place in this team would be hard and opportunities might be limited. However right now he would be a stick-on for a good amount of match time if he wasn’t recovering from injury himself. It must be torture for the man. 

This game against Roma is incredibly important because after the fantastic result in Madrid, Chelsea are massively on the front foot in this group but anything less than three points will tighten it right back up again. Because of this, Antonio has one of the toughest sets of decisions he has to make since he arrived at the club. Does he look at some who underperformed at the weekend and reckon it was just a one off, an extreme set of circumstances that probably will not crop up again to the same level after a few days of rest? Does he allow Alvaro Morata to play from the start, which may have some risk? We have our opinions on what we have witnessed in the matches, but Antonio will see what the players look like in training this week and that will have a huge effect on his final choices.

At the start of the season there was a strange freakish result against Burnley but the reaction was good. The same has to happen after the Palace defeat. Six points against Roma and Watford will certainly lift the spirits and put us all back in a fairly good place again.