Giles Smith’s Thursday Thoughts

Should last Sunday in the sleet up north simply be shrugged off? Chelsea fan and columnist Giles Smith investigates…

I’m doing my very best to buy into this idea that Sunday’s draw at Burnley was a point gained rather than two points dropped. I’m also doing my best to believe that Pep Guardiola means it when he says that eight points is too wide a gap for Manchester City to breach at this stage of the season. He may well be right. But I’ve got to confess – and without wishing to seem ungrateful, or unduly nervous - it doesn’t feel desperately wide to me at this particular moment. It definitely doesn’t feel as wide as 10 points would have felt.

‘I suppose it makes it a bit more exciting,’ said my son as we turned off the telly on Sunday. And, of course, I sent him directly to the attic for the rest of the weekend without food or drink. Because we’re not in this for ‘excitement’. We’re in this to win the league as quickly as we possibly can by securing every available point and removing all doubt from the outcome at the earliest possible opportunity. That’s just the way it is.

People on the ‘point gained’ or ‘glass half full’ side of the argument will point out that Burnley are a good side, wildly under-rated, who have made themselves practically unbeatable at home this season. A lot of other ostensibly ‘big’ clubs have had to surrender points there in 2016/17 before we did. And none of this is unreasonable, clearly. Yet isn’t one of the things about this season that we’ve spent a very large portion of it trying to be considerably better than everybody else, including those aforementioned supposedly ‘big’ clubs, and very often succeeding, sometimes by as wide a margin as 4-0? In those circumstances, the form book is only ever going to be half a consolation.

People have also been pointing out that Burnley are ‘well-organised’ - though I often feel that’s a term which patronises not only the team it’s applied to, but also the team they’re playing against. Certainly, as used by the pundits on Sunday (and they seemed to use it a lot), ‘well-organised’ seemed basically to be a synonym for ‘solid but uninteresting’ - the equivalent of the faintly damning school report classic, ‘Tries hard’.

Also, when people commend Burnley on being ‘well-organised’ are they implying that there’s no ‘organisation’ involved in playing the way that Chelsea play? Do they think this other, non-basic stuff just happens on-the-fly, like an impromptu rave announced on Facebook, and isn’t the product of careful instruction and drilling?

Sunday did produce miserable and unpredictable conditions, though, I’ll grant that – sleet moving horizontally across the pitch, brass monkey-rupturing temperatures, the kinds of thing which can introduce a certain amount of forgiveable randomness into supposedly straightforward games of football. You’ve seen far worse happen in conditions like those than a couple of points going missing.

That said, did Martin Tyler really remark admiringly to the viewers of Sky Sports during Sunday’s game that Eden Hazard ‘isn’t fazed by the chill’? Well, he wasn’t. But why would he be? Eden Hazard comes from Belgium. And although I’m not a qualified climatologist, my wife is half-Belgian so I’ve been to that country a few times, including in the winter, and therefore I can confidently report from personal experience that they have snow there, and everything. Take it from me, Martin, there’s plenty of Brits who wouldn’t fancy it on a cold night in Genk.

But perhaps my abiding low-level disgruntlement about Sunday is mostly Joey Barton-related. Failing to beat a team with Joey Barton in it, and failing to beat them well, is always, for those of us of a certain generation, just that little bit harder to take. In fairness, though, it’s pretty amazing to find that he’s still around. It’s like suddenly seeing a traction engine trundle up the street – something from an age long gone that you had assumed was past and are amazed to discover in working order. 

Our manager claimed in the run-up to the game that Barton was an unfamiliar name to him – which shouldn’t really surprise anybody. For one thing, I don’t suppose many people watch ‘Question Time’ in Italy, where Antonio Conte worked before he joined us. And for another, Barton’s ‘national treasure’ status is very much a local matter rather than a phenomenon which has girdled the footballing globe. And that’s despite the plucky midfielder’s admirable attempt, a couple of years ago, to spend a while in France and boldly adopt the local accent.

People mercilessly ridiculed him for that, of course. But then, people complain when English footballers go abroad and don’t make any attempt to immerse themselves. It was very much the same with Steve McClaren’s now famous ‘Dutch period’ when he was managing FC Twente. Okay, quite funny, as seen in the viral clips: but better, surely, and more culturally sensitive than simply talking English very loudly in the expectation of being understood, which has been the approach to continental travel of an awful lot of other people down the years. This seems to be one of those areas where footballers can’t really win.

A bit like at Burnley, you could say. Very hard for footballers to win there, too. But hey: another point, another fixture down. Moving onwards.