Chelsea: virtues out of vices
Chelsea are learning that there are benefits to self-destruction. A casual glance at the league table proves that whatever problems Chelsea are having with their malevolent players, something good on the training ground has translated itself into Premier League performances of dominance and influence.
Consider Chelsea’s two most prominent players: John Terry and Ashley Cole. The worse Cole behaves, the better he plays. The more repulsed we become by John Terry, the stronger he emerges. Cole and Terry seem to gain professional inspiration from their unofficial roles as English football’s chief nemeses, and, for now, Chelsea are the beneficiaries.
Terry in particular has that rare ability to make advantage out of iniquity. Whatever some of us think of him as a human being, there is no doubting his talent as a defender. His reputation took a fatal hit when the Football Association found him guilty of racially abusing Anton Ferdinand; but if the fall-out from the legal interventions have discredited Terry the bloke, performances on the pitch have done little to blemish Terry the player. Arguably, his greatest success this past year has been in managing to separate the flawed man from the talented centre back. His march towards a schizophrenic state is born of expediency.
Buoyant and disciplined, the Chelsea of 2012-13 seem to have worked out a way of absorbing the derision that surrounds them and converting it to energy. This situation contrasts with uncomfortable manner in which the Kenny Dalglish era unravelled at Liverpool in the wake of the Luis Suárez affair last season. Liverpool provided a masterclass in how not to conduct their off-the-field affairs. Chelsea would do well to learn (just as Liverpool reconfigured their entire communications department, to prove that they had learnt).
Amid the joy, however, there is latent tension at Stamford Bridge. Roberto Di Matteo, the Chelsea manager, does not look like a man whose team are at the top of the table. He looks like a man who has spent too many sleepless nights thinking of ways to control the turbulence that is surrounding the club. Di Matteo knows the consequences of bad public relations. Liverpool suffered for their PR cataclysm over Suárez and took months to recover. Even the hint of something similar at Stamford Bridge would distress Di Matteo, both emotionally and professionally.
"The image of the club is very important to us," Di Matteo said, encouragingly. "We have rules and if anybody breaks them there is disciplinary action taken against them. We have standards. We strive to have high standards. Hopefully going forward we can be better in showing those."
So far, Chelsea’s response has been to adopt a siege mentality, through which their best football in 18 months has emerged. In defeating Norwich City 4-1 at Stamford Bridge on Saturday, Chelsea were in such control that they seemed intoxicated by their own superiority. If they had needed to score eight goals, they would have done. Norwich were no match for the occasion or for Chelsea, for whom Juan Mata was immense, Terry and Cole solid, and Fernando Torres typically hard-working. Oscar is prone to going missing in matches but on the ball he is superlative.
"Our start shows we are able to blank things out that are surrounding us externally and focus on our target and job, which is to win matches," Di Matteo said, with barely a glint in his eye. "It's proven how professional the group is." He is right. It is proven. And auguries are good.
Chelsea have been superb this season – slick for the most part; efficient in the case of the Arsenal match – and it is not too early in the campaign to suggest that they have the makings of Premier League champions. They are certainly more stable than Manchester City and more consistent than Manchester United.
The only self-destruction on show at Stamford Bridge on Saturday came from Norwich, who have conceded nine goals in their past two matches and who look unsuited to the exigencies of Premier League football. Norwich’s self-destruction is existential. Chelsea’s is political. Both might suffer for it farther down the line.