Sunday, January 3, 2021

Feeling the New Year Blues

THE PREMIER LEAGUE IS NOT GOING THE WAY I THOUGHT IT WOULD

I do not support Chelsea, but I am feeling blue.

Roman Abramovich, showing no sign of fatigue, had let his oligarch millions flow in the summer and a box of delights duly arrived at Stamford Bridge.

The building blocks for a serious title assault were in place: I was sure Timo Werner, Hakim Ziyech and Kai Havertz would score a sack of goals. At the back, England's Ben Chilwell looked a shrewd signing alongside the wise old head of Thiago Silva, while in Edouard Mendy they had found a safe pair of hands after their prolonged problems with Kepa.

As far as I could see, those purchases, added to their existing arsenal of Tammy Abraham, Billy Gilmour, Callum Hudson-Odoi, Mason Mount and Christian Pulisic, all led by a local hero in Frank Lampard, meant the West Londoners were if not a racing cert for the title then a good bet at least.

I also thought Liverpool would stay hungover from last year's glory, Manchester City needed an injection of new ideas and signings and Arsenal and Manchester United would continue their travails under newish managers to recapture their prowess. If anyone could challenge Chelsea I thought it would be in the form of a gallant run by Tottenham, as there is life in the old dog Mourinho.

But I was wrong again, which is why I never bet on football. After 16 matches, Chelsea lie sixth in the league seven points short of the points leaders Liverpool and Man United. 

Losses at Everton, Wolves and a surprisingly rampant Arsenal have shown a weakness away from home and they certainly do not look title material.

They have come undone, or at least failed to fire on all their undoubtedly capable cylinders. Lampard has been at pains to dampen expectations, insisting his collective are short on the experience needed to land the big prize.

Chelsea
Chelsea feeling blue

But to blame it on their youth? Wasn't Alan Hansen's notorious phrase 'You can't win anything with kids' disproved by Ajax's 1995 Champions League win (average age under 24)?

What is noticeable looking at the table as a whole as we enter 2021 is how many games the champions and league leaders have drawn - Liverpool have tied six compared to United's three. 

It is also clear that no side is consistent; Man U's four wins out of the last five and Sheffield United's four losses are the exceptions.

Spurs are third but with only one win in five. Everton had a flying start thanks to some great summer buys but then went on a run of only one win in seven before recovering to fifth as the new year began, before losing again. It is impossible to find a horse that will maintain an even gallop right now. 

Maybe I got them confused with the blue shirts of Everton and Leicester, both above Chelsea in the table. Every year the season's serpentine twists and turns convince me, even more, I should never be a betting man.

Who foresaw Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's team's resurgence or indeed Arsenal's recent renewal only a few games ago? The Gunners looked down for the count in the bottom half of the table. 

How did these men change losing streaks into winning runs? How did they inject all-round confidence into dressing rooms apparently losing hope? One game they are slow to react and second to the ball, the next they are raring to go and first to the fight. What are they doing that Lampard is not?

It was a mixture of motivation and new faces in both sides which saw them turn their corners. Solskjaer and Mikel Arteta found new armaments in their managerial toolboxes, as all good coaches do. They made changes because repeating the same process expecting a different result is the classic definition of madness. All managers need time to bear fruit, but only deserve it if they use those hours wisely.

Once again, the importance of psychology rears its head, particularly at this stage of the season when impatient or nervous directors tend to go for the nuclear option and fire their beleaguered managers instead of relying on them to pull an iron out of the fire.

Can it be taught? If education in mental skills, as opposed to physical ones, counts for anything, then Graham Potter of Brighton should be a much-coveted manager.

Potter has a degree in social sciences and a master's in leadership and emotional intelligence. His methods at Ostersund were legendary. We could all do with a mental health boost right now amid this pandemic and positive thinking is useful in all walks of life.

And yet Brighton are hovering right above the drop zone. Perhaps Potter's wizardry is not potent enough to make up for his club's financial weaknesses.

Despite all the joy of the unpredictable Premier League, one imagines the end of season table will tell a familiar story of the richest clubs at the top and the poorest at the bottom. 

But it looks like the winners will be wearing red.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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