In the aftermath of a particularly uninteresting third round of the FA Cup, it’s been telling to find that the majority of comment pieces in papers and on news sites have been filled with polemics and distressed evaluations about the state of football’s oldest domestic competition. Despite having yet another horribly disappointing home defeat for Manchester United to consider, as well as London derby, where the tactical naivety of Tim Sherwood was laid bare in conspicuous fashion; it was the comments of Aston Villa manager Paul Lambert and his subsequent vindication that have dominated the conversations and commentary of the 32 fixtures which took place last weekend.
Though it’s obvious not many appreciated what Lambert had to say, given the evidence, his position is a difficult one to contest. The lack of motivation so many teams showed, coupled with the seeming unwillingness of Premier League coaches to field (in some cases) anything close to their strongest side, served as valid substantiation of the Scot’s hypothesis that the FA Cup is a concern for very few top flight coaches (let alone a priority). The issue of money is easily understandable. The financial incentive clubs have of attaining a Champions/Europa League place if at all possible is un-ignorable. Whilst even more importantly, the pecuniary consequences of relegation are so terrifying it seems, that even clubs as high up on the table as 11th, feel the need to save key players for League matches, at risk of losing an easily winnable tie.
Given all of the above, the question of why Chelsea are routinely so impressive in the FA Cup becomes quite an interesting one, and one which I think may have some quite interesting answers – in addition to the plainly obvious ones. Of course our impressive record in recent times has to be largely accredited to the fact that for the last ten years at least, we’ve had one of the best and biggest squads in the country. The same has also been true of Manchester United and Arsenal and Liverpool however, none of whom have a shone in the competition with any sort of regularity for quite some time. Even looking back on just this weekend, many simply dismissed our defeat of Derby County as a natural consequence of having a far superior side and being able to rotate extensively. This is a perfectly logical assessment but I was disappointed (as was Pat Nevin – by far the finest observer of the game closely linked to Chelsea) that we weren’t credited with displaying or producing something both Manchester clubs plainly failed to, as they failed to defeat Swansea and Blackburn respectively. Despite having, in Man City’s case, as large and talented a squad as we enjoy, and in Man Utd’s case, a very flawed squad but still one where 75% of its members are multiple Premier League winners.
There is definitely something to this, I feel. Naturally, you would expect a team as comparatively strong as ours to have several good ‘cup-runs’ over a period of time and even a couple of tournament wins. But our current record of four wins in the last seven seasons, with five semi-final appearances in the same period, is beyond exceptional – our streak of 16 successive third round victories is immensely impressive also. Personally, I have two theories to explain our overachievement in recent times.
The first, like most things to do with the success of Chelsea FC, has to do with largely with Jose Mourinho. The famed resilient, never-say-die, siege mentality he brought to the club in his first spell, not to mention the quality of the squad he helped put together, created what I deemed to be (in one my very first articles for this blog) a core of players forming the basis of the greatest FA Cup side in history. A claim I think justified by the amalgamation of the individual achievements of its members. John Terry is the only captain to have won the Cup four times at Wembley and the first to do it since Victorian times. Ashley Cole has won it a ridiculous seven times (in twelve years). Didier Drogba was the only man to have scored in four separate FA Cups finals, whilst Petr Cech, in ten years at Chelsea, has only ever lost one game (last year against Man City – which is also the only Cup tie we’ve lost in our last 30, excluding penalty shoot-out defeats). This culture and tradition of success in the competition is obviously something to be hugely proud of, and it’s this continued pride and respect we seem to have for the FA Cup that has set us apart from our rivals since 2007. It’s also preserved an enthusiasm for the competition, manifested by Mourinho and the travelling support at Derby on Sunday, notably absent from other top Premier League teams.
My other theory was enforced by a debate I had on twitter with a person who was very critical of our approach to the game at Derby, slating Jose’s team selection as overly defensive, and his overall tactics as unreasonably ‘negative’ given the quality of the opposition. He’s right of course, that had we fielded more attacking players our chances of winning 6-0 would’ve been greater and the game would’ve likely been more entertaining. I’d equate his recommendation of going all out attack in that situation however, to a student needlessly devoting excessive energy to the easiest exam he has to sit at the end of the school year, and where he only needs a trivially low percentage to pass anyhow.
When the full time whistle was blown at Pride Park it seemed to me we had done more than enough to deservedly win the game, without ever looking at risk of being upset. We showed what I deemed to be this near perfect sense of balance we have between overall positivity and carefulness/respect for the opposition which makes us such as devastatingly ruthless cup side. Having written all this now I’m openly at risk of looking pretty stupid should we lose at home to Stoke in a couple of weeks time, I have this sneaky suspension however, that that isn’t going to happen.