With Chelsea continuing to accumulate league points while other teams were engaged elsewhere, former Chelsea star and columnist Pat Nevin thinks about the thinking involved…
The demolition of Spurs at the weekend was one of the most satisfying of the season with its ruthless efficiency clearly making the blood run cold in the other title challengers.
The effect of the increased pressure on Manchester City in particular was there for all to see as they capitulated to lowly Wigan Athletic in the FA Cup. With the Champions League future hanging by a thread on the blue side of Manchester and the knowledge that those three league games in hand had better be won, Manuel Pellegrini knows that his team better have an incredibly strong mentality and an unshakable self-belief.
It has been nothing short of a relentless drive in the Premier League in particular from the Blues, with the harsh statistics very telling. The meanness of the defence has now been noticed by everyone in the game and that just adds to the pressure on opposing attackers. The stat of the moment for me however is the fact that Chelsea have picked up 36 of the last 42 points available. That is a monumental charge at this point of the season. There have been no losses in those 14 games and of course this has included away ties at Arsenal and Man City as well as the visit from Liverpool, the new serious challengers on the block.
That sort of post-Christmas form is reminiscent of the Manchester United of old, when Sir Alex Ferguson’s teams swept all before them. Now there was a man who knew how to pile pressure on the opposition. Because of that pressure I will be surprised if any of the top teams manage to win all of their games between now and the end of the season; it rarely if ever turns out that simple. What will lift the spirits further at the Bridge and at Cobham is a quick look at the goal scorers at the weekend. Both Demba Ba and Samuel Eto’o were on the scoresheet, hot on the heels of Fernando notching a vital one over in Istanbul. Chelsea not having a centre-forward who was scoring is what the other challengers seemed to be hanging on to for a while. If that ‘weakness’ disappears then the fears will just grow exponentially around the Etihad, the Emirates and Anfield.
It seems odd to talk about the effect our play is having on others who we are not actually playing directly against at the moment, but any effect you can have is useful. Why do you think the great managers wind up the other challenging managers when the pressure is on? People can make strange decisions when under pressure, the most common one is to try too hard, to attack too much and by so changing their normal game plan they can end up blowing it.
The classic was of course Sir Alex many years ago goading Kevin Keegan when he was challenging at Newcastle. We remember that one only because it was so obvious, it was all caught on camera and it was patently successful.
Other effects can be more subtle, but they are happening all the same. With the possibility that the title could be decided by a point here or there, that may just mean a single player more anxious than usual, getting nervous at a critical moment and panicking. How you do that is by piling on the pressure in every way possible. At the moment I would suggest there is a fair amount of pressure piling out of Stamford Bridge, but very little apparently affecting our lads, I wonder why that is? I think we all have a fair idea.
I spend a great deal of time studying the psychology of sportsmen and of sports teams, in fact I actually published a book with some thoughts on the subject many years ago. The reason I did was because I had witnessed the effects of psychological ‘warfare’ on some players first hand and knew they could be massive.
One player who seems incapable of being dragged down is Samuel Eto’o. Following all the headlines the other week, his reaction over by the corner flag after scoring was fantastic. It showed a level of trust between the player and the manager after ‘age gate’ that isn’t commonly witnessed these days. I am not sure some others after media difficulties would have had the same light-hearted, smiling reaction, totally free from spite. Moments like these are like windows into the spirit of a player and of a dressing room.
There have been many times over the past few years when the media have questioned that spirit and togetherness in the Chelsea dressing room, whether there was foundation to do so or not. Right now with the exceptional team work so apparent, the desperation from everyone to give their all whenever asked, added to the group celebrations when a goal is scored and little moments like Samuel’s joke, all go to show that there is an argument that we aren’t just top of the league on points but in spirit as well.
Just one more thought about the goalscoring celebrations of the team. It doesn’t seem false or planned that everyone milks the moment to the maximum but even if it was, that in itself can be fantastic psychology. I used to play under Craig Brown as Scotland manager and he encouraged us to go to the extent of over celebrating, in close proximity of the opposition for as long as possible. The thinking was that they were down anyway at losing a goal but to then celebrate with loud and elongated rejoicing just added to their depression. It seemed to work.
I must admit right here that football can be a heartless business; to figuratively kick a man when he is down is built into the collective DNA, but that is the way it has to be. So next time we score an important goal make sure you enjoy the team’s joy, but don’t be afraid yourselves as fans to keep that celebrating going as long as you like, it is unlikely to do anything but good.
Last week I asked a very easy question, who was the player to score a hat-trick for Chelsea in a Champions League game? Well as almost all of you in a massive set of entries said the last and only player to score three in an ECL game for us was Didier Drogba against Levski Sofia in 1999. There can only be one winner and the lucky randomly chosen email this week was Marc Post from Birmensdorf in Switzerland.
This week to have a chance of being the lucky winner, could you tell me what was the score in Chelsea’s biggest ever win in a Premier League game? Answers as ever to me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Good luck and let’s hope we keep tightening the screw at Villa Park on Saturday evening, I am certainly using all the psychology I can!