Chelsea: On Defending, Winning, and Buses

August 10, 2012 § Leave a comment

First published on SB NATION, 25 May 2012

In the interests of full disclosure, let me begin by saying that I have absolutely no personal experience to support the point I’m about to make. I’ve never tried it, never even really thought about trying it, and so could be completely wrong.

But it strikes me that parking a bus might be quite difficult. Buses are big, unwieldy things, and while perhaps gliding one to a stop into an empty car park wouldn’t pose too much of a problem, as soon as any amount of intricate manoeuvring is required — beep, beep, beep — then it appears to be a task well beyond the ken of most drivers.

Not that you’d know it to listen to some of the criticism that followed Chelsea’s Champions League win, which has been airily dismissed as simply an exercise in coach distribution. Defending, particularly on this punchdrunk island, is a tolerated art at best, and any triumphs that follow from its suspicious ways are viewed as being somehow against the spirit of the thing.

Sometimes that’s fair enough. Watching a side play defensively when you know that they’ve got it in themselves to cut loose is deeply frustrating, as anyone that’s watched Manchester United in Europe for the last few years can tell you. More generally, it’s not unreasonable to be personally disappointed that a game hasn’t provided the kind of entertainment that you prefer. There are as many ways of enjoying a football match as there are people will to watch it — I, for one, view any game that doesn’t feature Alvaro Recoba taking a free-kick as more or less a waste of everyone’s time — and if you like attacking football, then you’re bound to be frustrated. It’s also true that attacking football tends to stick in the mind: more attacking means more goals, more goals means more memories, more memories means a bigger myth. ‘Block of the season’ remains a specialist business.

But is there a wider point here? Is it somehow an affront to football itself, to the soul of the game, to defend one’s way to a trophy? Maybe, on some plane of which we know nothing, the delicate nymph Corinthia greeted the final whistle in Munich with paroxysms of tears, while her wicked sister Pragmatia gyrated provocatively around her stricken form. Should we mourn along with her?

I don’t think so. There’s a distinction to be drawn between a team deliberately playing within itself, and what Chelsea were doing, which was making the most of difficult circumstances. The former is deeply frustrating both as a neutral and a fan; there are few things as saddening as an unswashed buckler. The latter, though, is a different percolator of fish: perhaps not as entertaining to the neutral, perhaps not as soothing to the purist, but certainly not something that can be dismissed as anti-football.

After all, Chelsea, who’d spent a fair chunk of the season as a shambles, were missing their best midfielder, their second-best defender, and their legendary, leaderly captain. They had a big shiny pot to win, and whether they set out to defend (as the selection of Ryan Bertrand on the left-wing might suggest) or were forced into it by their opponents is rather beside the point. They did what needed to be done, just about, with helpful dollops of fortune along the way. Criticising them for not reversing the odds with enough style seems more than a little churlish, and I think it’s safe to say that neither Chelsea’s fans nor players give a flying one.

What will stick in the mind about this Chelsea team is that they were a mess on the point of elimination three times — after the first leg in Naples; after the first goal in Barcelona; after the first goal in Munich — and yet they somehow found a way to do enough each time. Triumph in the face of adversity is a different kind of compelling, and all play and no work makes football a very dull boy indeed. Sometimes, you just have to look at a bus, and say “well parked”.


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