Pat Nevin: The game-changers

With a good weekend win under the belt and a big game in Baku awaiting, Chelsea legend Pat Nevin discusses making teams pay, partnerships and impact players in this week’s column…


I have to admit that I laughed out loud at the weekend when Eden Hazard scored his first goal against West Bromwich Albion, which is not the normal reaction to an important opener in a Premier League match.

It was however one of those all-too-rare delicious moments when a certain rough justice was delivered on a football field. Eden was getting roundly booed by the home fans because they felt he had dived and feigned injury beforehand after being tackled by Gareth Barry. Later evidence on TV clearly showed that he had been fouled and quite clearly hurt as well.

When Eden put that first one away then continued to torment the home defence as much as the home fans for the rest of the game, I knew exactly how he was feeling; wronged, annoyed and then vindicated. I have been there before and it does upset you, especially if the injury is still throbbing and you are still getting the bird. Now to be fair, I do not blame the West Brom fans one bit. They are partisan, they back their team, they are under pressure, they didn’t have the benefit of technology to show them a replay, the referee actually agreed with them over the decision and just about every other set of fans tend to behave the same way.

Being on the receiving end of what feels like unfair mob rule is however infuriating. I recall once playing for Chelsea against Newcastle United at St James’ Park and they are a fairly vociferous and partisan bunch as well I am sure you would agree. So when I was brought down in the penalty area after about five fouls on me in the previous five minutes, I thought the Toon Army may have recognised I was getting a bit of rough treatment. The penalty I was awarded didn’t go down well even though it was a ‘stonewaller’, so I realised that maybe they would give me some stick.

What really got me was when the defender then picked up the ball and volleyed it into my face as I was trying to get up, getting red carded. Then somehow, through some strange logic in the eyes of the home fans, it was totally my fault! I was not amused by the continual booing, but of course it just galvanised me and made me try even harder to score, create and maybe even add a tiny little bit of subtle showboating to rub it in.

 Pat Nevin on the attack with David Speedie away at Newcastle in 1984

That is the way it seemed to be for Eden and of course he retaliated in the right way, by being brilliant. He was of course ably helped by Alvaro Morata, Cesc Fabregas and the others. The burgeoning understanding between the front two of Eden and Alvaro is pretty stunning on occasions now. The Spaniard’s little back-through-the-legs flick made for one of the best assists of the season. It was world class. The sheer number of goals and chances being created for each other is fabulous and it should be underlined that Antonio Conte must be applauded for seeing the possibilities first. I mean, you look at Eden last season and your first thought wouldn’t necessarily be, ‘I think he could do better playing in a different role, I better move him infield’.

It is a partnership that will continue to improve but then by crowbarring Cesc into the side, he is also perfectly capable of building just as good an understanding with both of the strikers in terms of creation. It is quite a turnaround in a short time and of course we know there are a variety of reasons. Eden, Cesc, Alvaro and N’Golo Kante all fully fit and available together would improve any team on the planet. There are now plenty of hugely talented options on the bench, but it seems that those players moving into a 3-5-2 type of system has been the proverbial game changer above everything else.

I know it went well away from home at Atletico Madrid, but in reality the gelling of the 3-5-2 seemed to really set itself in place against Manchester United. It is of course too early to tell, but that game and its tactical shift could be as important in the long term as the change to 3-4-3 last season following the 3-0 loss at the Emirates.

One of the most impressive things about this system is its adaptability; it can be ultra-offensive but step back 10 yards and it becomes incredibly hard to break down as it can then look more like an 8-1-1. That of course draws opponents on and if they leave two against two at the back, how many defenders in world football would be able to cope without back up with Hazard and Morata on the break?

This is all falling into place nicely, just in time for the game tomorrow night when we could qualify from the group with the right result, which is good and frankly unexpected news considering the last outing in Rome. Qarabag have improved immeasurably since their Stamford Bridge hammering but they are at home and desperately want three points so they will have to be positive. As such they could fall right into our trap.

Before I finish waxing lyrical about 3-5-2, I must admit it was my least favourite system during my career, particularly my international career. Through a large part of my time, it was Scotland’s preferred tactic and as you will know there are no wingers in that system, just two wing-backs and two strikers up front. I had to make do with the bench more often because of it, making do with impact sub appearances. Now and again I got to play the Hazard role beside the other striker and loved it, and even scored a few but it seriously curtailed my game time.

The reason for mentioning it of course is that the likes of Willian and Pedro who have done nothing wrong and are in fine form, do not get as many opportunities to start. 

They are however still vital because there will be injuries, some games will demand different methods (3-4-3 will be utilised again) and of course those substitute appearances can be, and usual are critical for Antonio. Do not be surprised if either of those two or Davide Zappacosta are integral to results in the next few games, whether they start or not.