There are two schools of thought here: firstly, that Newcastle defended very well for 78 minutes and that, given the financial disparity between the two sides, they were entitled to grind out a point. The second, contradictory perspective, is that Chelsea is under new management, are far from a finished article, and weren’t nearly deserving of that kind of respect.
What we saw on Sunday then – really – was evidence of a particular mindset which has been created in the division. The ‘have’ and ‘have not’ mentalities are now so entrenched that, even when an opponent is obviously vulnerable, managers are now liable to aim for draws irrespective of circumstance. The irony at St James’ Park was that Chelsea was there to be attacked, are carrying big issues in both their midfield and defence and yet were allowed to emerge untested because of their reputation. Good for them, but not necessarily for the league as a whole.
Tracing this back to its root isn’t easy, but it certainly became more prevalent last season. Manchester City routinely faced opponents content to sit deep at home and the effect was to create a series of games comparable to training-ground drills. That’s no criticism of the managers who employed such tactics, a draw against Pep Guardiola always looks great on the CV, but it’s a worry – particularly given that Liverpool, Tottenham, and sometimes even Arsenal faced the same treatment. The Premier League’s marketing shtick is admittedly tired and its perpetual boast of being Europe’s most competitive top-tier division has always been questionable, but never before has it been so predictable – not in terms of who’s likely to win it, but in the shape of the games seen on a week-to-week basis.
It’s a problem exacerbated by television. On Sunday, Sky Sports were faced with a choice between Newcastle’s game with Chelsea or Fulham’s match with Burnley. The latter was a natural choice, as it always has been, but that is also exactly the sort of contest likely to be polluted by this issue. The risk, then – unless television selection habits change – is that this becomes a staple. That, instead of a league in which competition is king and where underdogs are willing to throw a punch, the audience is served this processional dirge.
Pass, pass, pass. Clearance. Pass, pass, pass.
The trouble is, that kind of game which isn’t even gratifying if the result goes the neutral’s way. As per Russia against Spain in this summer’s World Cup, the entertainment was in the shock, not in the means by which it took place.
Chelsea would ultimately win on Sunday, with Marcos Alonso quickly responding to Joselu’s equaliser, but had that not been the case – and had the visitors’ 82% possession been rewarded with just a point or less, anyone without a partisan stake in the game would have been left feeling cheated – as if they got ten minutes of football rather than 90, and as though they had been denied the spectacle of an engaging battle.
The worry, of course, is that the wider the disparity between the top-six teams and the rest becomes, the more common a situation this is going to be. The greater the wealth gap, the greater the justification in stacking ten players behind the ball and waiting for next week. Already, this isn’t just the tactic of a few negative head-coaches who are habitually cautious, but a near league-wide reaction to just how slanted the playing field has become.
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