As most people who visit this site know, I am a lifelong Blue. Until now I have not written much about my own club but feel the need to do so in the wake of our 1-0 loss at Wembley yesterday in the Community Shield.
Firstly, let’s have it right. The Community Shield is a glorified pre-season friendly. Yes, we all want to win it when we’re competing in it, but it needs to be put into perspective. Even listening to Talksport in the car this morning, Danny Murphy stated that it tells anyone precious little about how a season will pan out. Manchester United won the Community Shield under David Moyes… Need I say more?
But one thing that was clear in the Wembley sunshine yesterday, is that something is still not quite as it should be with the squad. Let’s take the pre-season fixtures leading up to the Community Shield. A 4-2 loss against New York Red Bulls, a 1-1 draw and “penalty win” against Paris St Germain and then a 2-2 draw and “penalty win” over a Messi-less Barcelona. And here therein lies the problem.
Now let’s be clear, pre-season results are not hugely important. Yes, they can help to breed a confidence in players and the squad in general, but they are of no consequence. Pre-season is about getting players fit and systems perfected. If there are new signings, it’s about getting them acclimatised to the club and the squad. But can this be done in just three games?
For those of us who were around in the 80’s and 90’s, we remember long pre-season programmes where the squad was lucky if they were taken on a training camp to Sweden, let alone 3,000 miles across the Atlantic. Yes, there was the odd exception to the rule, but pre-seasons were generally a place of work, not image and exotic jaunts. Indeed, we always used to open our pre-season fixtures with a game at non-league, Kingstonian, in Surrey. Our reserves played at the club’s Kingsmeadow Stadium and it was written into the agreement that a full-strength squad would play the hosts.
OK, pre-season games against non-league opposition isn’t glamorous. It’s also not the highest standard of opposition to be playing again, but to make that argument alone is to miss the point. Playing two games a week for a month in pre-season helps to build up match fitness and unify what is, in this day and age, a large squad. Can we honestly say that our squad of 25-30ish players got sufficient playing time on the tour of the USA and Canada? In just 3 games?
Sadly, this is the way the game has gone, especially in the Premier League. Gone are the days when supporters (and I am talking loyal supporters who actually live in the same country and have paid their money at the turnstiles for generations) could pop to a relatively local ground to see their heroes warming up for the new season. Our club is, sadly, no different in that respect.
I am sure there was a lot of money on offer for our players to travel to North America this pre-season. There’s the added bonus of building up a “worldwide brand” which is so coveted by clubs in the Premier League these days. We’ll sell more shirts, more TV rights and more sponsorship after all. But is this at the expense of our performances on the pitch?
Many will argue that footballers of today are athletes like never before. They keep fit in the off-season and pre-season is a mere formality. I’d disagree hugely with that sentiment. There is no substitute for match action to keep a player fit. Training may be more advanced than ever before, but it cannot compete with running your socks off for 90 minutes in competitive action.
For the first time this year, we even took part in a post-season tour. This seems to be creeping into the Premier League game as well. Clubs, not content with jetting off to another continent in pre-season, are now trying to shoe-horn in such tours at the end of season’s too. In this case, we ended up in Australia to play a game against Sydney FC of the Hyundai A-League. Just what the players need after a long, gruelling season…
We can’t lay all the blame at the feet of long-distance pre and post-season tours though. There has to be something amiss. For me personally, I believe our squad has gone slightly stale. I thought this at points last season too, despite winning the Premier League title. If you compare our defence to the title-winning side of the 2004/05 vintage, you notice a big difference.
Let’s take away the goalkeeping change. Courtois, in my opinion, is just as good as Cech whom he has replaced. I don’t see we have lost out there. But when you compare the 04/05 back four of Gallas, Terry, Carvalho and Ferreira, who went on to concede a Premier League record low of 15 league goals that season, it tells a story. If we compare that backline to now: Ivanovic, Cahill, Terry, Azpilicueta…
Don’t get me wrong. I think our defence is still superb but I do believe it lacks pace. I am also not a fan of square pegs in round holes. In this case, Ivanovic is a centre-half playing at right-back. Azpilicueta is a right-back playing at left-back. It may have worked OK in the main, but I got the feeling Arsenal knew how to exploit that yesterday. Ivanovic, whilst a solid defender, is not the quickest. He also struggles to deliver a decent ball into the box when he’s far enough forward. In my opinion, Azpilicueta should be playing there as a naturally right-footed player. That would of course leave us needing a left-back. I think the club was right to move Filipe Luís. I don’t think he was going to usurp Azpilicueta and lacked physical presence. We have been linked recently with Baba Rahman, the Ghanaian from Augsburg in Germany. Time will tell whether that deal can be completed or not.
I would prefer to see Ivanovic in the middle with Terry. I think, in time, Zouma will make the centre-half spot his own but he’s still learning his trade. Don’t get me wrong, I am not being overly critical of Gary Cahill. He’s come up trumps on many occasions but I just don’t feel his positioning or reading of the game is good enough at the very top level. We have, of course, been linked with John Stones. He’s a very talented player with his best years ahead of him, but again, time will tell.
Yes, we were missing Diego Costa yesterday. Unfortunately, I think it’s something us Blues will have to get used to more and more. There is clearly a lasting issue with his hamstring and Falcao / Remy will have to step up and share the burden of goal scoring this season and beyond. I see from many social media outlets that some “fans” have made their minds up about Falcao already. The usual lines of, “Same as last season,” or “Good to have Torres back,” have been seen. Harsh. Get behind ALL our players!!!!!
We still have one more pre-season game to play – at home to Fiorentina on Wednesday 5th. But even when that is complete, we will have played only 5 games, including the Community Shield. Surely it’s time for the club’s hierarchy to put performance before Pounds and profile and give the team every possible chance of being competitive. They’re professional athletes and shouldn’t tire. John Terry wrote in his programme notes during the Ancelotti era that he didn’t get tired playing week in and week out. It’s when he was “rested” that the fatigue caught up with him and his body started to struggle. I think he’s worth listening to…