As football fans we are a pretty righteous bunch. We’re faithful and dedicated and where others might just talk, we put in hard hours and back them up with real money. We’re selfless and generous and honest. We’re like angels really. And, like angels, we’re allowed to cast judgement on those beneath us. Of course, we’re not entirely like angels because angels make their feelings known by subtly opening a lift door and introducing you to your wife, or helping Cooky to a double ton in Australia. We, on the other hand, like to make our feelings known by shouting wanker until our lungs hurt and we can’t remember the tune. But then, you can only work with the tools you’re given.
Every weekend, our moral barometer echoes around football grounds and makes young players reflect on their life choices, and in time, and no little thanks to us, they become better human beings. Do we charge for this priceless group therapy? Not a bit of it, in fact we pay the players to attend. Angels.
I’m pretty sure after the reception the Geordies gave him at St James’s Park, Ashley Cole must have reconsidered his decision to split with Cheryl and decided that even if she is a stone cold fox, at least he can look to a future where Boxing Days will be spent in civilisation. That’s group therapy in action for you right there.
Booing aside, I thought Ashley had a pretty decent game. In fact, as was the case against Birmingham, I thought most players had a decent game. And yet as a team we were incoherent, unfocussed and yet again, it showed in the result. What’s going wrong? Why are these players, so often capable of greatness, now so devoid of ideas?
Obviously to be a Premiership footballer you need two things above all else: ability and eagerness. You can talk of inner strength, of dedication, but really those are add-ons. To succeed a player needs to be eager and good.
Are any of our players lacking in those areas? In a word, no. I know Zhirkov has his critics, but he’s a decent player and he works hard. I’ve got no beef with him. Ramires is young and a bit green in Premiership terms, but he’ll grow into the role. And even Salomon Kalou has proved a worthy understudy to close out matches. So what’s going wrong?
Well, the way I see it, over the past few matches Chelsea have lacked the ability to adapt to their opposition. They have approached teams with a good strategy, then failed to capitalise on any weaknesses that have arisen as the game progressed. This isn’t a failure in ability, nor can a lack of eagerness be blamed, but rather it’s down to an imbalance between the two.
When a game is eighty minutes old and the scores are level, Chelsea should be the team to march to victory. And yet we’re failing. It’s not for want of trying. I watched on Sunday as Anelka dropped deeper and deeper to pick up the ball as time was running out. You can’t fault him for eagerness – players who want to make an impact look for the ball – but it was the wrong decision. Ramires continued to chase down everything, and even Alex began to charge upfield, but it all just ended up crowded, confused and ultimately playing into their hands. The truth is sometimes you can be overeager and make your job twice as difficult.
Instead of just trying really hard because time is running out, the players who make a difference are those who can spot where the opposition is making mistakes. They clock which defender is most likely to commit himself overzealously and they keep their eyes open as to when they’re likely to do this. Concentration dips momentarily, a distraction from a disputed throw in is all it might take, and the player is threading through the match-winning pass. This isn’t because they’re technically more gifted than their teammates, nor is it because they’re more keen to win, it’s because they can control their impulses where others can’t.
The truth is we have this player, but he’s on the sidelines. Frankie Lampard is so often the provider of the vital pass, so often the first person to find space when a defender has drifted out of position, so often the player to turn a half chance into a full-blooded one. The return of Michael Essien will help restore some structure, and make no mistake, we still have the team to win this league. But if we’ve learnt a glaring truth from these last two weeks, it’s that we can’t do it without Frankie. As another great Frank might have said: The truth hurts. Oh sure, maybe not as much as jumping on a bike with the seat missing, but it hurts.