In advance of today’s Manchester derby, there’s been some high-profile nervousness about the possibility of tribal fury spilling over into violence. Managers, players, and officials have all been heard discreetly appealing for calm. Nevertheless, I expect quite a few of the Greater Manchester area’s plods are going to have pulled in a bit of overtime by the time the day is done.
The SW6 derby … not so much.
It’s hard to imagine what it would look like if the simmering antipathies of neighbouring fans erupted into full-scale anarchy and running street battles here among some of the country’s most expensive real estate. Blonde women in expensive white jeans waving rolled-up Boden catalogues and screaming taunts about how their seven-year-old has just got into Westminster? Slovakian au pairs attacking each other (but only with their left hands, since the right is permanently occupied texting their dodgy boyfriends in Brighton)? The streets littered with hydroponically grown kale snatched from Abel and Cole “Organic Selection” vegetable boxes? Finance directors of discreet companies registered in the Seychelles smashing each other over the head with bottles of Pessac-Léognan ’05 while their floppy-haired sons and implausibly long-legged daughters overwhelm police lines with their relentless vowel-drawling and their unshakeable faith that the whole purpose of existence is to permit them to have a FARKING GOOD TIME?
As it turned out, the Fulham fans didn’t even manage to fill the away section. Perhaps they were deterred by the costs of travel.
It’s appropriate that this least passionate of local derbies has in recent years thrown up results that are correspondingly meh. Fulham haven’t won at our place since some date that’s a pretty long time ago but not so distant it feels historic. And yet, though in recent years we’ve always been favourites, there have been a lot of faintly annoying draws, and a general sense that we’re just about maintaining the status quo without ever really managing to swat a lower-mid-table team away as comprehensively as one might expect.
Perhaps we needed a win slightly more than usual yesterday. A couple of losses hardly represents a crisis, and there seems to be a general acceptance that the long view has finally taken hold at the club — as a few of us have pointed out, José can’t really be fired, for the simple reason that there just aren’t any plausible managerial candidates left any more — but the inevitable selection issues have begun to generate some distracting momentum in the media, and a comfortable win or two should help everyone relax a bit and realise that the playing status of Juan Mata isn’t actually the thing that’s going to determine the whole course of Chelsea’s season.
No Mata. Not even on the bench. Our need to win the game immediately doubles, or triples. Every single headline writes itself if we don’t win the game.
It’s odd, really. I mean, Mata is a wonderful player, and I’d love to see him in the team, and I desperately hope he’s a Chelsea player for a decade to come, but really: is that what everything is about? I wonder whether poor old Azpilicueta isn’t almost as annoyed about the fact that no-one’s making a crisis out of his non-selection as he is about the fact that he can’t get a start ahead of the reliably impressive Branners.
We all know Mata’s most natural position is as a no. 10, in the centre of our attacking midfield three.
We also all know that’s Oscar’s best position.
José has explicitly announced that he wants Oscar as his no. 10.
So if Mata played there and Oscar didn’t, would that be better? Would there be the same fuss if Oscar wasn’t being selected?
Really, it’s a non-story. We have two marvellous players competing for the same spot. (The same might be said of Branners and Azpilicueta, at a slightly reduced level of marvellousness.) These things happen. Oscar has apparently won the competition. Instead of being relegated to the status of permanent substitute, Mata has (according to José) been asked to adapt himself to play one of the wide positions. He appeared as a winger often enough last year: let’s hope he’s willing to do it again (as I’m sure Oscar would also have been had the decision gone the other way). It’s the sort of thing a manager with a squad like ours has to deal with.
Otherwise: Eto’o starts again, presumably in the hope that if he plays enough games he’ll eventually figure out what he’s supposed to be doing. Obi also starts alongside Ramires at the back of midfield.
For the first 45 minutes it’s Wednesday all over again. Uncannily similar, in fact.
It’s not that the team’s playing particularly badly, or that they look confused. To my eyes it’s more tentative than anything else: everything’s happening a bit too slowly, with a bit too much effort and hesitation, as if they have to remind themselves all the time what they’re supposed to be doing. We dominate possession but to little effect. Parker and Sidwell, a pair of exemplary Englishmen who never quite seemed to have the more continental virtues apparently required at Chelsea, play an impressively simple and controlled game in the centre of midfield, and a steady defence easily deals with the rather optimistic crosses which seem to represent our only way of getting the ball anywhere near the goal. As against Basel it’s very noticeable that no one seems to have anyone to pass to once they’re in an attacking position.
Unlike on Wednesday, there’s no consolation goal to put a gloss on the first half performance. A few depressingly predictable boos serenade the players into the dressing room. (Really — is it now normal to boo every time we’re not winning at half time? Do we have to? I find this monumentally unhelpful.)
I can’t claim tactical expertise, but it seems to me that there’s a clear difference between the players who are familiar with each other and the rest. It’s striking that Eto’o always seems to be somewhere other than where the ball is being aimed, and Schürrle is getting isolated in dead ends far more often than Hazard on the opposite wing.
The beginning of the second half makes me think I might be right about this, because it’s immediately obvious that the linking play between Hazard and Oscar — who have a year’s familiarity with each other under their belt — is far quicker and more dangerous than any other part of the attack. Oscar’s having another good game, and as the second half gets going he’s able to organise some sustained pressure at the Fulham end, which eventually leads (via some good wing play from Schürrle and a couple of iffy touches from Stockdale) to a goal.
Basel all over again? For a few minutes there’s a palpable nervousness, but it gradually becomes apparent that Fulham are running out of puff. Bent is entirely isolated and goes long minutes without touching the ball, and Ramires and (especially) Obi are beginning to take complete control of midfield. It occurred to me as the second half would down that Basel were an awful lot better than Fulham (who weren’t by any means terrible: if they’d taken either of their two early chances, and/or had Berbatov to give them a bit more control towards the front, we could have been in trouble).
Meanwhile, over in the mythical room where the proverbial monkeys have been hammering away at their typewriters since the beginning of time in order to prove some baffling mathematical point about how they’ll eventually produce the works of Shakespeare, monkey no. 6742 (known to his friends as Derek) accidentally completes the final couplet of the epilogue of Shakespeare’s last known completed play Henry VIII (the epilogue almost certainly not written by Shakespeare himself, but our Derek is no textual scholar), and, to mark this momentous landmark of astounding improbability, at the very same moment John Obi Mikel (whose name is actually John Michael Obi) actually scores a league goal.
It’s a brilliant moment. It’s even funny when the crowd yells “shoooooot” the next time he touches the ball. Alas, it’s not funny when some of them are still yelling “shooooot” thirty touches later. Yes, we all get the joke that he doesn’t score very often. Thank you. That’s enough now.
A useful win in the circumstances. We’re still evidently a work in progress — I don’t agree at all with those who expect us to be better than the rest of the Premier League this year — but sometimes you need three points just to calm everyone down, and that’s what happened yesterday.
Oscar was the standout performer again. His energy is remarkable (no doubt one of the reasons José is so enamoured of him) and his ability to set the team moving made all the difference yesterday after a very sluggish first half.
Second to Oscar in my book was Obi, a player I’ve always rated. He retains possession under pressure better than any of our other defensive midfielders, and his ability to turn away from his marker and step forward into empty space makes a difference to the team’s momentum.
Ivanovic also had a good game at both ends of the pitch.
It was good to hear Damien Duff warmly applauded both before the game and whenever he went to take a corner at the Matthew Harding end.
The Observer, Dominic Fifield: “So the worst start to a campaign in the Roman Abramovich era has condemned Chelsea to the top of the Premier League table. José Mourinho will not have been entirely satisfied by this rather stop-start display against rivals from down the Fulham Road but, deep down, the pragmatist in him will be relieved just to have curtailed a four-match winless streak that had drained early momentum from his return.”
The Sunday Telegraph, Jason Burt: “Chelsea top of the Premier League courtesy of a west London derby victory – so what could possibly be wrong? Except if ever there was a performance crying out for a tricky, creative elusive midfielder then this was it. Except Juan Mata, player of the year, model professional, did not even make Jose Mourinho’s squad and sat watching in his jeans and hooded top. Strange days at Stamford Bridge. Fantasy Football? This was functional. Little more.”
The Independent on Sunday, Steve Tongue: “Afterwards Mourinho pointed to the League table in defence of his decision to leave Juan Mata not only out of the starting XI again but out of the squad. The manager has made it obvious that he regards the gifted Brazilian Oscar as first-choice for the creative playmaker’s role just behind the main striker, one which he grew into today, improving during the second half as the rest of his team did. On Mata, Mourinho said: “He must work and adapt to a certain way of playing and has to learn to play the way I want – be more consistent and more participative when the team lose the ball.””
The Official Chelsea FC Website: “Oscar’s third goal of the season and John Mikel Obi’s third of his Chelsea career put the team back on the winning path in Saturday’s tea-time game. The Blues had to wait until the second half for the breakthrough after a first period in which the performance improved towards the interval. The Brazilian found the net from close range shortly after the restart but the biggest cheer of the day came late in the game when the identity of the second scorer became clear, Mikel netting for the first time since January 2007 and for the first time in the Premier League. Chelsea had a couple of worthy penalty claims turned down and although Petr Cech denied Darren Bent twice early in the game, overall our visitors from down the road cannot complain about the result.”