(title borrowed from The Low Anthem)
Here at Chelsea FC Blog, with our ear ever pressed to the bedroom wall, the better to hear what the lusting youth of the zeitgeist may be getting up to with our rumbustious neighbour of fate, we have been poking around in those nether regions where our sense of the rational gives way to ridiculously inexplicable emotion, with a survey of fans’ particular rituals and superstitions. Our enquiry into whether statistics, strategy, diet, preparation can really be countered by wearing a pair of 15 year old “lucky blue pants” has mirrored the clash of science and religion that has erupted in the courts, media and legislature of this land.
It has been a week where the rational confronted the religious as Richard Dawkins, having claimed that a large number of those who see themselves to be Christians cannot name the first book in the Bible, was challenged on Radio 4 to name the full title of Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” (it’s “by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life” if you want to know) and stumbled to the evident glee of his questioner. At a time when there are claims that “militant” secularism is on the ascendant this could be a triumph for the forces of religion you might say, even though one book is viewed as the immutable text on which a whole belief system is predicated, whereas the other is one step on a path of scientific enquiry. Important yes, but hardly the same to Evolutionists as “The Book of Genesis” is to Creationists.
And what pray, I hear you ask, has this got to do with a visit from Birmingham City? Well it is often forgotten that our second city made a great contribution to this country’s emerging role as a place of rational thought and enquiry back in the late 18th century. Take the Birmingham-based Lunar Society, where major figures from the worlds of science, engineering, manufacturing and philosophy met to exchange ideas and collaborate. Men, (for such it generally was in those times), like Josiah Wedgwood, James Watt, Matthew Boulton and Erasmus Darwin, grandfather of Charles, who himself was pursuing theories of evolution through his work in natural science. Such was the reputation of this loose collaboration, that great minds of the age such as Benjamin Franklin corresponded and visited the group.
Thus, Birmingham City presented the next stage in our enquiry into the rational and irrational in our behaviour; the testing ground for our theories of evolution, revolution, transition, adaptation and obsolescence, as they affect our beloved team.
They hit town at the end of a week that saw leaks, statements and rumours coalesce to convince most Chelsea fans that all is far from well in Dingly Dell. You will have your own view of whether it is poor management, player power gone mad, inevitable tension in a transitional period, a lack of squad depth or sub-atomic particles of all four.
For myself, I’ve been trying to take a rational view. I’ve read The Plains of Almeria on why we need to go with the diamond, I’ve read the analysis in Zonal Marking and I’ve seen any amount of liberties taken with statistics that would have made the members of the Lunar Society look askance at such abuse of scientific method.
But as I made my way to Stamford Bridge by an entirely new route, rail-based it has to be said, (the efficacy of which is now in question but not a definitive failure, since not much changed but we didn’t actually lose), I was trading on blind faith and the endless optimism of the common fan.
Sky covered themselves in glory by getting the team wrong such that having taken refreshment in the East Stand I got to my seat believing Bosingwa to be playing right-back only for the teams to be announced with Ivanovic at right-back. That set the tone for a fairly error filled afternoon.
The team saw Cahill playing alongside Luiz, with Bertrand at left-back. Mikel, Meireles and Ramires were a midfield three with Torres flanked by Mata and Sturridge. Out on the Plains they must have felt that a diamond was very far away.
The first half was more of the Everton game. Little movement, incisiveness or cohesion. Chelsea had plenty of possession but it will be no surprise that they did little with it. Birmingham were disciplined, closed the space, cut the passing lanes and forced Chelsea to play in front of them. The ponderous build up that has bedevilled our team for some time made Birmingham’s job all the easier. For themselves they seemed content to limit their forays up-field but looked competent when they did, without posing any real threat.
Their goalkeeper Doyle had two noticeable foibles, one was to take an unfeasibly long time to take goal kicks, which suggested that Birmingham had come for the draw and the other was to be a yard outside the area when kicking out of the hand. For some reason officialdom saw no need to question either practice.
Their goal when it came was their first real shot on target, and how many times have we said that this season. A decent low corner reduced the entire defence to the same athleticism as a bunch of weebles, the best you could say being, that while they wobbled a lot they didn’t fall down. But neither did they clear the ball properly, so that it fell nicely to Murphy to hammer home from the left side of the box (as Chelsea would look at it).
All was not lost, however, because a briefly energised team went straight up the other end and Ramires was tripped to give Atkinson a simple decision in pointing to the spot. Up stepped Mata, across went Doyle, off the post went the ball and into my hands went my head, where, were it not for the fact that it contains my eyes and having offered to write this report, I needed them, there it would have stayed.
The rest of the first half saw Birmingham maintaining their cohesion, minimising mistakes, while Chelsea went back into their shell. Confidence seemed very low, silly errors born perhaps of over-thinking what should be natural at this stage of a season, hesitancy and appearing one beat behind the play were the hallmarks of the remaining minutes.
The second half started with the introduction of Drogba for the hapless Torres who looked constantly mystified as to what those around him are attempting with the ball. I’m not going to apportion blame but that’s the way it seems and he can’t impose himself on a game.
Drogba did nothing spectacular himself and indeed his limbs were a split second behind his thought but perhaps that was to be expected. However his presence looked to have encouraged a slightly more direct and decisive tempo and by withdrawing Mikel, just before the hour for Kalou, with Mata moving in behind Drogba, Chelsea acquired a shape in which they all seemed more comfortable. With Mata pulling the strings, Birmingham were more stretched, there was space and time and Ivanovic took full advantage to whip in a great ball that Sturridge headed home with some aplomb in the 63rd minute. It was the one really decent moment in an otherwise frustrating game. Briefly it looked as though Chelsea would go on and win as they maintained a better tempo, (we’re talking degrees here) and Birmingham showed their first real signs of panic.
But it wasn’t too long before the levels started to drop and Ramires looked to be running out of gas and was making a few too many errors. It seemed reasonable to assume that with Lampard ready on the touchline around the 80 minute mark, he be introduced to replace the Brazilian. Some perhaps thought Meireles who had been decent for stretches but prone to odd errors, might be the one to go as he was playing on the left side where SFL would normally sit.
But no, it was Mata. Derision and disbelief were general. Now, I had wondered whether Ramires and Meireles were a sufficient midfield should there be a pushback from Birmingham. But to be honest it wasn’t like the Mancs game where a defensive substitution at 3-0 or 3-1 might have been the thing. Birmingham had offered little that an improving Luiz and somewhat patchy Cahill had not coped with. The game was there to be won.
Needless to say the change didn’t work and the soufflé collapsed. Indeed, a series of ridiculous errors almost gifted Birmingham a winner and Chelsea lost their stranglehold for the last five minutes or so. The psychology of the change was wrong and seemed to unsettle the team. That’s not on Frank Lampard himself. It was more that they had found a shape and rhythm which, while hardly setting the world alight, had offered an improvement.
With regard to rating the players, I’ll restrict myself to a few observations and look at the individuals in the context of a team that we accept is struggling.
- Cech – His distribution, particularly towards the end of the game was questionable at times.
- Ivanovic – God loves a trier and Branners doesn’t shirk. Great cross for the equaliser.
- Cahill – Looked less composed than against United. Seemed to lose concentration at times. His ball control was worrying on occasions.
- Luiz – A shaky start but grew into the game and while I always think he teeters on the edge of disaster, he was sound defensively as the game went on. Alone among his peers he can beat two or three players and retain the ball.
- Bertrand – Steady enough, but it’s pointless these youngsters playing if no-one passes to them when they are in good positions (Luiz was particularly guilty I thought).
- Meireles – I thought he looked more comfortable on the left-hand side and was better than in the previous few games. Not sure I’ll have too many passengers on that particular bus.
- Mikel – It’s been a while and he looked a little rusty. Given Birmingham’s setup there wasn’t a lot of call for his role, but that’s not his fault.
- Ramires – Flashes of his usual form but he needs some games I think to get back to where he was.
- Mata – Came to life when in behind Drogba for the second half.
- Sturridge – Got the goal but is still in a frustrating patch. Has to work on his defence. But then again is he really a wide player?
- Torres – See my comments above. The whole situation makes me sad. Unfortunately a group hug won’t be enough.
- The Elephants – Drogba and Kalou contributed to the best spell of the game. Kalou was possibly less error prone than anyone else, which is strange.
- SFL – Too little time to really get into the game, though he did waste a good free kick opportunity late on.
- AVB – Still in a job.
- The crowd – 36,870 – How big are they planning the new home?
The good, the bad and the ugly
- The good – Like the magician’s rabbit, the important thing is to be in the hat.
- And I like Chris Houghton. Whether or not a top line manager (and he was ill served at Newcastle), he is certainly good at Championship level.
- The bad – We have to go to Naples in this form.
- The ugly – The FA Cup-shaped mascot that was going around the ground before the game. Is nothing sacred? Is there no threshold for the crass and the tasteless?
Chelsea’s play is intensely aggravating, by turns appallingly bad and supremely skilful. They always play like this. Chelsea supporters are men of a special cast of mind, and widely cosmopolitan: all they have in common is this need to become emotionally involved with a team who can play as well as any and worse than any. Whoever manages the team, whoever plays in the team, the tradition is the same, is perpetuated.
I often quote it and urge you all to take some comfort as you contemplate the days ahead.
Will Chelsea evolve? Will they adapt? Will they be fit enough to survive?
In the words of Low Anthem, “Oh My God, Charlie Darwin”.
The press reports
The Sunday Telegraph, Duncan White: “When a manager is subject to the kind of pressure Andre Villas-Boas is under, every detail of behaviour is scrutinised for omens and portents. Whether it is the body language of his players, his reaction to questions from the press or his deportment on the touchline, it is all forensically examined. Ultimately, though, these are just symptoms: it is results that are the illness. And this was not a healthy one.”
The Observer, Jamie Jackson: “Not yet mortally wounded, Andre Villas-Boas limps on with his disjointed and disgruntled band of Chelsea players to Napoli in the Champions League on Tuesday night. That test in a last-16, first-leg Champions League encounter follows this dire FA Cup showing against Birmingham. The chants of “You’re getting sacked in the morning” from the wags in the travelling crowd found a barbed echo from the Chelsea fans, who informed their beleaguered manager he should depart now for the good of their team, and then booed when Juan Mata, who had had a penalty saved, was the player Frank Lampard replaced late on.”
The Independent on Sunday, Steve Tongue: “With John Terry and Ashley Cole injured – both are doubtful for the Napoli game – Villas-Boas also kept Frank Lampard, Michael Essien and Didier Drogba in reserve, hoping the younger “new Chelsea” replacements would have enough about them to see off a team sixth in the League below. Not so. Birmingham, unbeaten in 14 games under the impressive Chris Hughton, threatened at set pieces, defended with discipline and were well worth the replay that will have St Andrew’s shaking in just over a fortnight’s time.”
The Official Chelsea FC Website: “It needed a second-half Daniel Sturridge goal to keep Chelsea in the FA Cup after a set-piece put Birmingham in the lead. The Championship side went ahead midway through a first-half in which the home team did not impress although Juan Mata had a penalty saved. Didier Drogba and Salomon Kalou returned to club action during the match but it was Sturridge’s 11th goal of the season that squared the score, a header after a well-worked move. Chelsea were dominant by then and continued to be for the rest of the game although chances to win the match were limited and there was a late scare as the visitors wasted a chance to inflict a giantkilling.”
The Podding Shed