Before the start of this insane run of fixtures (I’m talking about our last four matches over the previous 11 days), to have emerged the other end, perfectly level with Manchester City, certainly would not have appeared overly disastrous; feature writers for both the Times and The Guardian predicted, having looked at each title contenders respective fixture list, that Manuel Pellegrini’s side would begin the New Year with, if anything, a points advantage over Chelsea. To review our ‘Christmas Period’ game by game also would source much cause for optimism too. We not only ‘dealt’ with Stoke City at the Britannia, but comprehensively outfought and outthought them in a as dominant away performance as we’ve managed all season. We defeated Sam Allardyce’s in form (and at the time, 4th placed) West Ham with extraordinary ease; we were also unfortunate to leave Southampton, whom I’m pleased to see are going nowhere in the race for the Champions League places, with only a point.
But then last night happened…
Last night we served up a performance, and in particular a defensive performance which would leave me guilty of terrible euphemism to describe as embarrassingly disorganised. It was shambolic. Not just embarrassing, but painful to watch. From start to finish, I don’t think it would be hysterical of me to suggest the players and the manager (with the wonderful exception of Eden Hazard) were a discredit to themselves, to each other and everything they’ve achieved so far this season.
Let’s get the honest critical observations out the way first. The merits of consistency in team selection over constant, thoughtful rotation, can be debated until the end of time, but ultimately, for so many excellent and consistent players (like John Terry, Nemanja Matic & Cesc Fabregas) to be so terrible, all on the same occasion, would leave only a fool capable of denying that fatigue has played a crucial part in their collective performance. Collectively, Ivanovic, Cahill, Terry, Matic, Fabregas and Hazard have missed two league matches between them all season – a statistic which cannot be expected not to have severe negative consequences on energy and concentration levels through to the end of a period as frantic as the one we have just endured. Thankfully, after Sunday’s cup tie against Watford things will return to the relative normalcy of an English football season. Hopefully Mourinho will learn from the Xmas season having lasted just one game long enough to punish his stubbornness in team selection so far.
Two more criticisms to be made of the Portuguese: his substitutions yesterday were utterly bizarre. On both occasions we were trailing by two goals, and his solutions were to bring on Ramires for Oscar and Mohamed Salah for Willian (two of our least technically gifted players for two of our best, in other words), whilst Didier Drogba and Loic Remy never set foot on the pitch. I think the most generous way I could describe these decisions would as somewhat overambitious strategic contrivance. I was disappointed in the manager’s post match interview on BT Sport as well as he spoke through gritted teeth to Ray Stubbs and made unjustified allusions to continued unfair treatment from the officials. When what I really thought fans deserved to hear at that point was some honest reflection of how some areas of our play had been poor and has been becoming poorer for quite some time. I didn’t expect him to publically criticise the recent form of Gary Cahill of course, but some acknowledgement of inadequate individual performances in defence would have been reassuring, because as of yet, it doesn’t look like any consequence is forthcoming for the Englishman’s unacceptable contributions these past couple of months.
Honest and rational criticism of poor performances is an important responsibility for a dedicated fan base, but it’s also important that they don’t let frustration cloud, or distort genuine causes for optimism either – and I see plenty as we continue our title challenge into the new year.
1) Manchester City have a much tougher fixture list in January than we do, away to a struggling but always dangerous Everton, before facing Arsenal and then ourselves in a huge game at Stamford Bridge on the 31st. We have games against two sides in Newcastle and Swansea whose form has curtailed throughout December in a similar way to ours. League Cup semi-final matches against Liverpool make things a tad more complicated, but still I think we have a good chance of re-establishing some sort of lead by the end of the month.
2) Our next fixture against Watford represents an opportunity to immediately address the issue of fatigue in the squad. And though Slavisa Jokanovic’s side are too good to dismiss off-hand or field an entire second string XI, there’s no reason we should fail to progress whilst giving Terry, Azpilicueta, Matic, Cesc, Hazard and Costa the rests they quite plainly need. My XI would be Courtois, Christensen, Ivanovic, Zouma, Filipe Luis, Ramires, Mikel, Oscar, Schurrle, Remy & Drogba.
3) The January transfer window has opened and though Jose has insisted multiple times that he intends to stick with this current group until the end of the season, if last night didn’t convince him of the necessity of some additions, if nothing other than just to provide some depth and competition for defensive positions, then nothing will. The January window is a famously difficult time to conduct business, but at least if problems continue to worsen, the option to make additions/adjustments to the squad is there over the next few weeks. Luis Suarez and Nemanja Matic, amongst others, are sound evidence that quality can be available for a good price at this time of year.
4) And finally, as well as they might have played last night, as promising as Mauricio Pochettino’s efforts in transforming them into an exciting, high-pressing slick young team may appear right now, and as impressive as the recent form of players like Harry Kane, Christian Eriksen and Nacer Chadli might be – Tottenham still almost certainly won’t finish fourth. Most likely because of Arsenal. Hopefully because of Southampton, that would be fantastic.