Glorified friendly or curtain-raiser? Really, the Community Shield is neither: the baking August sun often evaporates the spectacle from the occasion and so, really, Wembley is reduced to 90,000 people feeding their addiction. They cheer in the same way, drink as much and dress the same, but it’s a very hollow sort of game. By the time those in attendance have filed out of the ground and muscled their way through to Wembley Park station, what they have just seen is already out of mind.
2018’s edition had its intrigue. Concerns that broad selection policies would turn it into youth fixture proved unfounded, with Chelsea and Manchester City both picking recognisable sides. Jorginho made his (semi-)competitive debut, while Riyad Mahrez was included by Pep Guardiola.
Most unfamiliar though, was Maurizio Sarri; the Italian is charged with adding style to Chelsea’s substance and providing the footballing flourish which Roman Abramovich has been pursuing now for almost fifteen years. Napoli was arguably Europe’s most attractive side last season and Abramovich’s aim is to dose his own side in gasoline. Gone, immediately, is Antonio Conte’s back-three, replaced instead by a more orthodox four. Jorginho has been quickly installed into the midfield too, playing as the pivot behind Ross Barkley and Cesc Fabregas.
There was interest for Gareth Southgate, too. John Stones and Kyle Walker made unexpectedly rapid returns to club duty, starting in Guardiola’s back-line, while Callum Hudson-Odoi and Phil Foden, two of England’s tomorrow crowd, started on either side.
Pre-season games should never be ascribed too much meaning, clearly, but they do serve to emphasise the importance of missing players. Without N’Golo Kante Chelsea looked terribly vulnerable through the middle and Manchester City had little initial trouble in working the ball up the field. Sergio Aguero’s goal was the exclamation point at the end of neat enough bit of football, but on a second watch Sarri won’t be enthused by just how easy it was – his eye will certainly be drawn to the limp effort made by Ross Barkley in pursuit of the breaking Foden.
For Barkley, it was baffling. Without Kante available and with Tiemoue Bakayoko not quite fit, this was a great opportunity. It wasn’t realistic to expect him to be perfect, he has spent much of the past year injured, but this was at least a chance for him to cast himself as a pliable member of Sarri’s squad. Sarri’s style of play depends on movement and quickness, perpetual motion all over the pitch, and yet he was ineffectual in the press and only marginal more visible with the ball.
This was not a good first impression. It was a very hot day at Wembley, almost thirty degrees in the sun, but Barkley has had a full pre-season and should be a good deal fresher than the players involved in the World Cup. A lack of tactical comprehension is easy to excuse, these are early days for all of Chelsea’s players, but the lack of any tangible eagerness was hard to understand.
It might well be over-simplistic to draw such a comparison, but it was interesting to note the contrast between Barkley and Hudson-Odoi. The latter might be at a different stage of his career, but he attacked this game with the verve you’d expect from a player desperate for a chance. Hudson-Odoi wasn’t perfect and he isn’t, at 17, quite ready for regular senior football, but plenty of Chelsea supporters will have left Wembley enthused by what they saw.
But Barkley – what happened to all the verticality and flair which used to make him so exciting? He used to be such an aggressive player.
2-0 did Manchester City’s performance a disservice. In fact, had Sergio Aguero been in true mid-season form, he would have had at least a hat-trick. As you’d expect from a team into their third year with the same manager, they were more fluid, more dangerous, and dealt with their absentees far better.
Which is to say, indirectly, that Chelsea had every excuse for being second-best on Sunday. What their inferiority served to illustrate, though, beyond Manchester City’s impressive power, was just how difficult a task this might be. There wasn’t even an embryonic similarity between Sarri’s Napoli and his Chelsea, no parallels to draw and no nuggets of progress – formation aside – which the supporters can sustain themselves with until the season begins for real. It wasn’t entirely unexpected, but it was disappointing.
Clearly, there’s a long road ahead. This might not be the easiest transition and, if Abramovich is serious about his club becoming admired for more than just their trophy collection, he’ll likely need to be patient. There might be some beauty in Chelsea’s future, but there’ll be some ugliness first.