The image of the potter’s wheel is an iconic one. There’s something hypnotic about watching disembodied hands throw something as basic as a clod of humble clay onto the wheel and then gradually coax it into a light, symmetrical, spinning ceramic. There is magic in the transition from formless, brown lump to delicate, refined object ready to be kiln fired and fixed forever in its shape, which is then far more susceptible to damage and shattering than the formless agglomeration from which it came.
Well having watched Chelsea take on the Potters this afternoon, I’m not sure I saw much other than two shapeless lumps colliding. It was as though the potter was satisfied just to chuck it on the wheel and watch it fly off and hit the wall. Perhaps you could say that Chelsea were raised and shaped into a reasonable form only for the hands to lose control and the sides collapse to the centre and we were left watching a misshapen structure revolving until Andre Mariner pulled the plug and the wheel stopped spinning.
Not unlike this amorphous collapse that I keep trying to form into a beautiful contoured vase of reportage.
But it was all so uninspiring you see.
I was lucky enough to go to a school that had all the wherewithal to teach pottery as part of Art. So it was, that in my first few years (before I was “encouraged” to drop Art), I used to return home with the latest product from the kiln. Of course these receptacles of unknown purpose where formed by working the clay and not on a potter’s wheel. This explains why my hapless parents were confronted with samples of what looked like the petrified stools of a medium sized prehistoric mammal prized from the permafrost of the Siberian wastes.
Dutifully they were placed as decorations on the shelves and mantelpieces around the home. It was only some years later when I returned from college one holiday and was helping with the gardening that I realised they were no longer in pride of place but were forming part of a rockery.
And in the august canon of Chelsea victories, it won’t be long before this one is off the mantelpiece and into the rockery.
With Robert Di Matteo joining “Butch” Wilkins and Gus Hiddink in the “Pantheon of Temporary Chelsea Coaches Who Have a 100% Record in the FA Cup” during the week, it was now on the day of Chelsea’s 107th birthday his opportunity to start his Premier League caretakerage with a win.
We had all tried reading the runes on Tuesday when Essien, Lampard, Drogba and Cole had all not started in the Cup game, but were perhaps equally surprised to see Terry return to sit on the bench.
Well there were a few answers with the team picked against Stoke. Though not necessarily the ones we expected. Ryan Bertrand didn’t even make the squad as Cole returned. Luiz dropped to the bench, as Terry partnered Cahill and Lampard joined Mikel, Meireles and Ramires in midfield with Mata making way. Kalou was again preferred as a starter over Sturridge, with Drogba returning to replace Torres in the middle.
It very much had the look of functionality over form. And it may have been the aerial prowess and physicality of Stoke that was foremost in RDM’s mind. But while I didn’t want to pre-judge the selection I wondered where the creativity was going to come from.
As it transpired, Stoke came with little attacking intent. From the very start they were taking an age over dead ball situations and sitting deep. Well, you might have expected that for the first 20 minutes to half an hour and just when we were about to find out whether Stoke intended to push out having weathered the early pressure, Ricardo Fuller was sent off in the 25th minute for what seemed an inexplicable stamp on Ivanovic. I thought that the Chelsea man might be overreaching to get to a ball but he got good contact and my eye followed the ball. He may have caught Fuller while doing this. I didn’t see the incident but the linesman on the West Stand side was very definite in his flagging and there wasn’t a lot of protest from Stoke.
The die was cast and the pattern of the game wouldn’t now change. It was in fact Branners who had the best chances of the first half. He should have scored early in the game when he met a good cross on the six yard line only to head over. He also cracked a shot against the bar from the angle.
That he didn’t appear for the second half was down to injury I assume, as particularly after the sending off, he was the player finding the most joy against a hard working Stoke defence intent on not leaving any space behind the back four and content to let Chelsea play in front of them to little effect, something at which the boys in Blue excel. Only Kalou running in the channel on the left seemed to pose any other real threat.
Thus it was that shortly before half time Mata was introduced for Meireles, so as to provide some much needed creativity. It wasn’t until the second half when he slotted a pass to Drogba who was lurking around the penalty spot when Stoke were slow to push up, that this change finally yielded a reward. It was Drogba’s 100th Premier League goal and he is the first African player to achieve that feat. It wasn’t his best game but he got the much needed goal and worked hard even when he must have been frustrated by the errors he made.
The goal then ushered in a period where having penned Stoke in for most of the game, Chelsea conspired to give up a string of free kicks in reasonable positions and commit basic errors that allowed Stoke to get their first real foothold in the game. Part of this may have been down to Sturridge replacing Mikel just before the goal, which left Lampard and Ramires to anchor midfield behind four attacking players at a time when mentally the team were trying to consolidate rather than push on to finish the game.
But that said they should have done better and this wilting perhaps indicated the lack of confidence that seems to run through the team. Kalou, who I thought had a decent game Tuesday and for most of this one too, was particularly prone to giving the ball away or being caught in possession for the last 10 minutes or so. He has lacked game time and that may have something to do with it. Lampard, who was relatively undistinguished for most of the game did get in some timely tackles and was certainly fighting hard to the end when the team effort started to get a bit shapeless.
A win is a win and I’m not going to worry too much about the fairly obvious inadequacies of the team today. The important thing is to get some points together, build some confidence and see where that leaves them. But the lack of movement is very noticeable. As is the fact that every player slows or stops the ball before moving it on. No-one adds pace to the ball so as to build tempo. This allied to static positioning makes the team predictable. Yes a team like Stoke closes the space but players rotating position combined with a quicker rhythm to their passing would surely help.
I don’t know if the new coach will address this or even can. The concentration will be on continuing to look a sight more solid than they have done in recent weeks and that is certainly already tangible. But long term they have to look at the playing style. It’s not just about Barcelona. As Athletic Bilbao demonstrated, other teams are exploring systems based on player movement and fast ball transfer. And the two Manchester clubs, Arsenal and Spurs all look to that in their playing styles.
Having played a Championship side lacking some of their regulars and a 10 man Premier League side who performed well below their potential, it is difficult to make any real judgement and so it remains to cling on and hope for the best.
One other point that nagged at me was how little they utilised Luiz in attack at right-back. Considering the right was where Ivanovic had prospered, it seemed curious that Luiz rarely saw the ball even when he was getting into acres of space. His body language seemed to suggest he wasn’t too happy with that as he struggled to get in the game.
To end on a happier note, it was good to see Bobby Tambling come onto the pitch at half-time after recent poor health. It was quite an emotional moment. The club and the fans still mean a lot to him it seems. And he of course will always be a Chelsea legend. A somewhat overused term these days, I know. But somehow apt that he should be there to witness Drogba set another goal scoring record.
And here is that famous sequence from the BBC Interlude. It may inspire you to take up pottery.
And don’t worry that you haven’t got a kiln, just take them to the training ground. I believe they do a lot of firing down at Cobham.
The press reports
The Observer, David Hytner: “This was not a performance to have the Napoli scouts trembling, ahead of the Champions League last 16 showdown here on Wednesday night, but for Roberto Di Matteo and everyone connected with Chelsea, the result was everything. After the angst of recent weeks, on and off the field, which culminated in the sacking of Andre Villas-Boas last Sunday, there was comfort to be located in a narrow victory.”
The Sunday Telegraph, Duncan White: “Didier Drogba has 10 Premier League games left as a Chelsea player under his current contract – here was a little message about what they would miss if he does not get a new one. In a frustrating, fractious game, Drogba made the decisive intervention with 20 minutes to go, finishing expertly for his 100th Premier League goal.”
The Independent on Sunday, Steve Tongue: “Requiring a three-goal victory to push Arsenal out of the top four, Chelsea should have managed it, given that their opponents had Ricardo Fuller sent off for a blatant stamp after only 25 minutes. Instead, Stoke held on – literally at times, as most set-pieces turned into wrestling matches in the penalty area – until three-quarters of the way through a poor game, when Didier Drogba scored his 100th Premier League goal.”
The Official Chelsea FC Website: “Didier Drogba’s 100th Premier League goal, scored midway through the second half, gave Roberto Di Matteo a solid win in his first home game in charge.”
(Image credit: York Museums Trust Blog.)