Pat Nevin was on hand to see Chelsea’s first game at Stamford Bridge of 2022/23 against Tottenham Hotspur. Here he explains why our performance filled him with so much optimism, especially that of our two wingers, one new to the club and one new to the role but reaching his best form yet.
Sometimes in football you have to have a long-term view, whether you like it or not. After a thrilling 96 minutes at the weekend against Spurs, it was important to see the big picture. There were a number of Chelsea players who played at the top of their game which, to be fair, wasn’t the case against Everton the week before. This tells us that the Goodison Park exit was just rust. Already, a week later, the team is doing very well, all things considered, and that’s a great relief.
It was great to see Reece James back to his unstoppable best. If ever there was a guy who deserved to score the winning goal it was him and, but for some hair growing calls by the officials, he would have celebrated the winner as well as his deserved man of the match award.
Marc Cucurella probably won’t appreciate the “hair-raising” line above and I feel his pain. Well, I would if I had enough hair these days. It was unbelievable that his striker Cristian Romero didn’t receive a second yellow card for what was a pretty dastardly foul. It’s not quite the biting antics of another player that we all remember – and Branislav Ivanovic remembers it vividly – Luis Suarez, but it’s the type of offense that is very frowned upon in the game. That’s an understatement!
Our Spanish left flying machine can however come back to what was an exceptional first tenure for the Blues at Pont. He has already shown that he does almost everything and does it very well. He’s a smart defender and a constant danger in the future, as he’ll always be running into space or battling defenders to get to the line at every opportunity. Doing the commentary with our very own Jason Cundy, Jase called him tenacious. I could think for a fortnight and not find a better word to sum up his style of play.
Add to that passing quality that is on par with the best to have come through Barcelona’s fabulous La Masia youth system and you have to accept that we have a player who is going to be one of our favorites for many years to come. to come. There were times on the left side where he linked up with N’Golo Kante and maybe even more with Mason Mount which almost took his breath away. It looks like a very exciting area of the squad at the moment, which doesn’t take away from Ben Chilwell’s qualities, if and when he is favoured.
I could continue to be lyrical on the left flank and I’m tempted to do so but, in all honesty, while they were extremely good, they were even slightly overshadowed by our right flank. The work done by James and Ruben Loftus-Cheek was nothing short of a triumph. They destroyed the Tottenham defense at will for around three quarters of the game with a sometimes breathtaking display of skill and power. Whisper it, Spurs are a decent side, but they were made to look very average for long stretches, especially on this flank.
If that wasn’t Ruben’s best game in a Chelsea shirt, I want someone to tell me which one was the best. There have been some great performances before, but it was a cut above against the best opponents when he used all his skills, physicality and added a huge dose of confidence. Just as important as anything else, this time he looked just as fit and as strong in the final quarter of the game as he did at the start.
Despite all that Mount and Cucurella had a brilliant understanding of, the bond and danger caused by Loftus-Cheek and James working in tandem was constant and unstoppable. It helps when you’re playing right next to someone you’ve played with since you were a kid and it really showed. This partnership could be one of the great finds of Thomas Tuchel. There was a moment in the first half when Ruben drifted at the back post and was just inches away from scoring with a header. Had he scored there, he might even have outclassed the mighty Reece for man of the match.
Tuchel must also have been delighted with how the two worked together in a subtle visionary tactic that helped thwart the visitors for most of the game. Reece was apparently the third central defender, but when Son Heung-Min fell into the pocket, Reece was tasked with following him in there. When this happened, the void left was immediately filled by Ruben.
It’s one of Spurs’ favorite tricks, but TT and the guys figured it out and smothered it. In the end, Antonio Conte had to change his whole system and live by the seat of his pants by switching to a back four he doesn’t favor. It worked in the end but he got lucky. Chelsea were the better side and should have picked up all three points, Antonio and anyone with their senses watching will know that.
In the end, though, for all the great performances, the odd decisions, the entertainment on and off the pitch and the quality football, and the generally bright and ebullient atmosphere (the new owners must have loved it – just s ‘getting people used to it is the Chelsea way) one thing will stick in the mind more than any other.
Kalidou Koulibaly’s opener and the first of his Chelsea career is already a classic. 20 or 30 years from now, we’ll still be watching this lens and we’ll still love it. There have been difficult days over the past few weeks, months and, in fact, years. Last weekend, I felt like I was finally stepping out into the sun.