“Why Should I Love My Sport So Well?” – Isaac Watts, 1715
Should occasion ever bring you to Abney Cemetery in Stoke Newington, which nestles in North London between the Emirates and White Hart Lane, you would see standing proudly a statue of the great Non Conformist hymn writer and thinker, Isaac Watts. He wrote over 700 hymns during his 74 year sojourn on this earth before departing in 1748. Some of these would be familiar even to non-church goers, particularly “Oh God, Our Help in Ages Past” and the carol “Joy to the World”. He is buried in Bunhill Fields in Islington but lived for a time in various parts of Stoke Newington, particularly with the Abney family, hence the memorial in the cemetery that carries their name. He was, however born in Southampton. So in honour of the visitors and as it was a Sunday game, I will pepper this report with the hymns of the great man.
Indeed, it was with some foresight that he once penned a hymn that asked us to take pity on that city’s traditionally hapless football team, endearingly titled, “Blest Is The Man Whose Bowels Move”.
Blest is the man whose bowels move
And melt with pity to the poor;
Whose soul, by sympathizing love,
Feels what his fellow saints* endure.
His heart contrives for their relief
More good than his own hands can do;
He, in the time of general grief,
Shall find the Lord has bowels, too.
(*my bold type)
You have to admire Isaac. There can be few from churchgoer across the spectrum to atheist who have ever really dwelt for too long on the Lord’s bowels, let alone penned a hymn on the subject or indeed two for that matter. “Now by the Bowels of My God”, deals with either the same set of divine bowels or more senior ones, depending on your interpretation of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity and where you stand theologically in the Abrahamic tradition.
Anyway, the current edition of Southampton FC are far from hapless and under the direction of the Argentinean Mauricio Pochettino have been demonstrating a good deal of fortitude in the bowel department, particularly through a solid defensive record. A win over Liverpool and a draw with United suggested they were no pushover, though a 2-0 defeat last week at the Emirates along with some mixed results against middle ranking teams suggested they were also beatable on the day. A win at the Bridge would have seen them in fourth place and a point above Chelsea. So Isaac would have searched long and hard through the bowels of Chelsea fans before he found any melting with pity for this version of the Saints.
(As an aside, whatever you think of Argentina, the possibility of being born, like Mauricio, in a town called Murphy, in a province called Santa Fe suggests all sorts of sparkling contrasts and interesting possibilities and is something to be admired.)
As far as Chelsea were concerned, coming off a lacklustre performance away to Basel, changes were expected and changes were what we got. The injury to Eto’o meant one was forced and Torres returning from injury being preferred to Demba Ba would surprise few. The back five stayed the same, despite Ivanovic’s role as snoozer-in-chief on Tuesday and Hazard returned to the starting line up, replacing Willian, which would be expected, I think. With two right-backs in the line up, there was no place for the veteran Cole and with rumours of interest from Liverpool, Bertrand, now 24, must feel that like Robert Johnson, if he’s down at the crossroads he may have to sell his soul in the search for fame and fortune.
So it seemed that it was left to Mikel and Lampard to carefully read and sign the Manual Handling Risk Assessment before carrying the can, if you take the view that this team selection was about sending messages to players. Then again Lampard playing three games in a week might have been deemed inadvisable. So what of Mikel? Well he’s not made a home start in the Premier League anytime recently, so despite many feeling he is a key player, you shouldn’t be buying a ticket expecting to see him on a weekend trip to Chelsea. The two spare berths were filled by Mata, back by popular demand(?) and Michael Essien. It looked like a return to the regular 4-2-3-1 with Ramires and the Bison in the double pivot and Hazard, Oscar and Mata behind Torres, if you like that sort of thing. Even if the game never kicked off, there was plenty for Chelsea fans, media and sundry hymn writers to speculate over. Or as Isaac Watts succinctly put it, “The Wondering World Inquires to Know”. And you probably want to know that joining Lampard and Mikel in the choir stalls were: Demba Ba, Schurrle, Cole, Willian and Schwarzer. I should also mention that Luiz is apparently out with knee knack and the wondering De Bruyne was in the stands probably inquiring what in the world he has to do (and he’s maybe not alone).
But, “Questions and Doubts Be Heard No More”, it was on with the game. I was keenly anticipating the return of the Bison to a Premier League line up, mindful that injuries and time had taken their toll but also that he was playing well for Real Madrid on loan last year.
For those who had seen him in his prime, the first 45 minutes was an “Infinite Grief, Amazing Woe” kind of a deal. The second hand had just ticked round to 10 or so seconds when an aimless lob in the general direction of his penalty box was enough to put Southampton’s Rodriguez in behind the defence and on 13 seconds, Chelsea were a goal down. And Essien’s wretched afternoon didn’t end there. Numerous errors and a yellow for a blatant dive would be an awful way to say adieu to Premier League football for a great player. It was predictable that he wouldn’t emerge after half time, but given that Southampton are a quick, high pressing, combative team, this was not, perhaps, the game to put him back into the line up after very few top level minutes? Then again a player of his experience should have shown a little more composure. He was recently in Ghana burying his father and irrespective of their relationship, this may have been a distraction. Then again as JM knows him well he must have been confident in starting him. Will he play him again? Looking from afar at who plays regularly, it does not seem to be a simplistic matter of making mistakes, rather how you fulfil the given role. Players have made errors yet still appear in the next line up. If only out of sentiment, I just hope it isn’t the end for him. Yes he had a ‘mare but would more judicious choice of game time not help him get to the pace of it again?
So as against Cardiff, Chelsea were a goal down early in the game, but this time against a team from whom we were expecting a much stiffer test; a team who had not conceded more than two goals in a game this season. The early exchanges saw Chelsea trying to recover from the setback but struggling to create in the face of determined pressing from Southampton, who also moved the ball smartly when in possession. With the benefit of the one goal lead, the Saints were concentrating on playing a high line and giving Chelsea little room to develop a threat. The positive from the home fan’s viewpoint was that there was an urgency if not a tempo to Chelsea’s game. Much of the first half was an evenly balanced contest with few real opportunities created by either side. Chelsea, denied space and time were resorting to too many speculative long balls, which were relatively easy for Southampton to deal with. The Saints were also able to build steadily from the back as Torres always had two men to close down. As the first half drew to a close, Chelsea started to get a foothold and create chances, one header in particular from Torres forcing a great reaction save from Boruc. Even that positive was offset by an ankle injury to Oscar, who was replaced by Lampard and left us wondering if this might restrict JM’s anticipated half-time shuffle.
Looking back and brushing aside the curtain of hindsight, the first half was a tough battling display against a team who were determined and strong in midfield and who also pushed quickly up on the back four, forcing hurried passes and aimless long balls. As with many of these games, you sometimes have to just work through the phase where a team is applying a high energy press, knowing that it cannot be sustained. However, if a second Southampton goal never materialised and they didn’t force any saves from Cech, I for one kept waiting for the hammer to drop in the shape of another howler from our boys or a moment of inspiration from the Saints. So as the whistle went for the break I was caught between the negative “My Spirit Sinks Within Me Lord” and a more upbeat “And Are We Wretches Yet Alive?”
With Lampard already on, the introduction of Ba at the start of the second half in place of Essien saw a change to two up front, with four in midfield. Now I, among many, have worried about the suitability of playing Lampard and Ramires together but in this iteration it worked. We were treated to 45 minutes of high intensity football, where Southampton were not allowed anything like the influence they had on the first half. Torres and Demba Ba prevented the build up of possession from the back, forcing Boruc and his defenders to kick long, where Terry and Cahill dominated in the air and ensured a steady retrieval of possession. By the same token, the Saints struggled to press up effectively, hamstrung by the danger of Hazard, Torres and Ba all looking to run into the space behind their back four. So what we perceive to be the defensive frailties of the Lampard-Ramires partnership were not exposed and they were both key figures as they could make forward runs and take up attacking positions.
The goals, when they came, were not the kind to make us all sing “How Beauteous Are Their Feet”, not least because two of them were headers. But at a corner on 55 minutes, Cahill did very well to react to Ba’s prodded effort from a deflected Ivanovic header coming back off the post, changing his body position to head in from a couple of yards out. Seven minutes later Terry marked his 400th appearance by heading in the second from a well delivered Mata cross after a corner was initially cleared.
Chelsea were in relentless mode but as usual my worry was that a one goal lead was not enough. Ricky Lambert coming on after 67 minutes only made me more nervous. He’s one of those players who I’m always convinced will score against us. Somehow, despite dominating, Chelsea couldn’t conjure a third goal. Then on 84 minutes Torres was replaced by Mikel and we were back to one up front. Almost immediately Southampton got hold of some possession and Fonte wasted perhaps the only real chance they fashioned in the second half. I needed rescuing “From Deep Distress and Troubled Thoughts” as visions of a late equaliser hove into view. I needn’t have worried. As the game moved into injury time, Ba stretched out a leg to guide a Ramires cross inside the near post. Oh “Why Should I Love My Sport So Well?” sang my joyous heart.
It was a very encouraging second half display. I’ll leave others to debate whether it was tactical acuity on JM’s part or whether Oscar’s injury and Essien’s woes forced him to change formation. I certainly thought that despite the first half struggle, the players looked focused and played throughout at a higher pace than in some recent games. However, there are still a number of issues around what is our best team, our most effective formation and how some players are going to deal with reduced game time.
I don’t know if Southampton fans feel their team could have played better and gained at least a draw. Despite a good deal of possession in the first half they weren’t particularly incisive. Then again, with an early goal to protect, they didn’t need to be. They went 2-1 down in seven minutes and by then the game had got away from them. It was a good contest though and they’ll be Itchen to Test us in the return game and it won’t be easy that’s for sure. The news that Boruc is out for a few weeks after going off injured following the first goal must be a worry, although Gazzaniga wasn’t at fault for the second and third. It’s bound to change the mentality of what has been well organised and effective defence.
I will finish with a few observations couched in the words of Isaac Watts:
- On the game – Great Was the Day, The Joy Was Great
- On John Terry – Behold The Sure Foundation Stone
- On Juan Mata – Questions and Doubts Be Heard No More
- On those who booed at half time – Backward With Humble Shame We Look
- If you don’t like this – Behold How Sinners Disagree
- If you do like this – Come, All Harmonious Tongues
The Guardian, Dominic Fifield: “José Mourinho had not counted on Southampton being one of the six Premier League title contenders when sizing up the division on his return to English football but, in coming from behind to overwhelm Mauricio Pochettino’s impressive side, Chelsea issued their latest statement of grand intent. Transforming this occasion from half-time grumbles to full-time celebrations seemed psychologically significant. It was also impressive. The visitors had led inside 15 seconds and have forged a reputation for being defensively strong and menacing on the counterattack. The scenario appeared tailor-made for them to thrive. Mustering a turn-around was never guaranteed so, by ending up so comfortable, Chelsea laid down a marker.”
The Daily Telegraph, Jim White: “By dint of sweat and toil they eventually re-gained the supremacy; the mark of champions after all is to play badly and secure three points. Not that Mourinho saw it like that. “I think even in the first half we played with balance and calm, we didn’t panic,” the manager said. “This was the sign of a team step-by-step understanding my mentality. It is a sign of maturity.” In truth, though he was being unduly modest not to point it out, this was also a sign of astute management. In many ways, it was his shrewd tactical adjustment at half time that secured the three points.”
The Independent, Jack Pitt-Brooke: “This did not, at half-time, look like a vintage performance from Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea. They were 1-0 down, at home, to Southampton, having conceded in just 13 seconds, after which they were very well-matched by the excellent Saints. What followed, though, was the reminder that many people had been waiting for; that Mourinho is different, that he is able to turn football matches almost through a simple flick of a switch. At the interval he withdrew Michael Essien and brought on Demba Ba, abandoning his 4-2-3-1 for a 4-4-2. Chelsea were transformed, playing with far more presence, power and purpose, looking – in a way they have not always done this season – like a true Mourinho side. They equalised and took the lead with two headers from corners within seven second-half minutes before Ba, the man who had changed it all, scored the last goal in the last minute.”
The Official Chelsea FC Website: “The Blues move up into second place in the league table thanks to a strong second-half recovery against a Southampton side who took a very early lead. A mistake led to Jay Rodriguez scoring first but Jose Mourinho’s side held their nerve and took the lead with two headed goals from centre-backs early in the second half. Demba Ba had been introduced at half-time and increased the set-piece threat, but Gary Cahill and John Terry were the scorers who put the home team back in front, with Ba adding his name to the scoresheet in open play late on. Unfortunately Oscar was lost to injury before the interval, but an industrious Chelsea performance with a changed formation overcame that setback and more goals could have been added before Ba made the win safe.”