Ruben Loftus-Cheek on the ball against Southampton
It remains the great known unknown of the champion quarterback that their most valuable receivers are the ones who don’t receive.
Those who continue to make the runs, distracting their opposition, putting the work in knowing the tangible rewards are few and far between. They may get thrown the ball from time to time and, heck, they may even score a touchdown or two. But at crunch time, be it a game-winning throw or the Super Bowl-winning play, they know the pass is going elsewhere. Yet they must still behave like it might be them and continue to operate to those standards, even when they know in their heart of hearts that they are not first choice, in more ways than one.
Over the course of a Premier League season, the best teams are the ones who possess the best of these types. Who know opportunities lie in the shadows: these facilitators of the dreams of others. As Chelsea dug deep to beat Southampton 3-1, ending the home team’s run of consecutive defeats, it was these non-receivers who used their rare time in the limelight to deliver for the greater cause.
Trevoh Chalobah opened the scoring, Timo Werner bagged the go-ahead-goal before Ben Chilwell added the gloss of insurance that allowed a comfortable finale at Stamford Bridge on Saturday. Three players who exist on the periphery but have bought their team the grace of an international comfort break rather than one of paranoid introspection.
Southampton were good. Better than their continued winless start to the 2021/22 campaign suggests. Pressing high, posing issues, drawing level and saving face before being reduced to 10 men when James Ward-Prowse was, eventually, given his marching orders with 13 minutes to go. That they eventually succumbed to the incumbent European Champions is no blight on them especially as they matched Chelsea before their man disadvantage. But even so, they were pushed to their very limits by those who might be considered Chelsea’s nearly or forgotten men.
Chalobah’s opener was whipped in from Chilwell and flicked on by Ruben Loftus-Cheek – the last two in the sequence in their first starts of the league season. That they had to wait until October for them speaks of their respective spots in the pecking order for their positions and their recent history.
Loftus-Cheek, for all his promise, must feel like the oldest 25-year-old in the world. A midfielder whose time had seemingly gone before it had even really arrived.
And yet, as Thomas Tuchel rung the changes to give his side greater energy from front to back, Loftus-Cheek operated as the dynamo to match Southampton’s relentless press. His passing was sharp, underpinned by such deft touch and nimble work out of contact that you’d entrust him to transport a newborn baby from one end of the Underground to the other during rush hour. These traits had him on the plane to the World Cup in 2018 and a “what might have been” for Euro 2020.
Chilwell’s strike for Chelsea’s third made amends beyond the penalty he gave away for Ward-Prowse’s equaliser. Marcos Alonso benefitted from an early meet-up at Cobham while the best parts of the rest of the squad were at the Euros proved beneficial for the overlooked Spaniard. So too was Chilwell’s drinks carrying role for England which perpetuated talk he was not quite up to scratch. Alonso’s withdrawal at half-time of the 1-0 defeat to Juventus in midweek for the former Leicester City man spoke of a recalibration that felt rubber-stamped when Chilwell was given this start and finished with his fourth goal in west London blue.
The goal to make it 2-1 was perhaps the most complete understudy set-piece. Ross Barkley’s stunned pass out wide to Cesar Azpilicueta to cross into the mixer spoke of the confidence of the former and the latter. A discarded loanee at Aston Villa last season emboldened to try something risqué, met by a first-time volley from a player lauded for, above all else, his conservatism. A conservatism that Chelsea fans, with heavy hearts, deride in an advanced position he is only keeping warm for the injured Reece James.
Finishing this move was Werner, the most watchable contradiction in the Premier League. A cryptic crossword of a player since he comes to these shores. He’s not a striker, he just shoots a lot. Nor a winger, he just runs a lot. There he was again, shooting after running, stealing a march on what had been a diligent Saints midfield and defence to, ultimately, settle this fixture. A performance typically willing had threatened to conclude frustratingly before this important strike.
Squad depth is a funny thing. Because, really, it is based on a manager making the best use of what they have been left by the previous incumbent. Stylings, ideas and personnel that did not work out.
Alterations can be made, but they usually come at the top end. The bulk of the £330m-odd Chelsea have spent in the last two seasons has been primarily on first XI talent. With each acquisition, players shift down the pecking order. And so squad depth improves on paper, but the reality is there are more egos to bruise.
When Tuchel was instilled as coach at the end of January, some of those lower down the chain will have felt their days were numbered. A new boss brings new ideas and, more often than not, new blood. Moreover, a transfer market distorted by the pandemic means selling surplus talent on big wages is harder than ever.
Yet the German head coach has not just organised the first team but clearly emboldened the alternates to step up when called upon, even if their egos are bruised for spending so much time on the periphery. Those characteristics were particularly evident in Loftus-Cheek and Barkley, two central midfielders who have had to come to terms with not even making matchday squads because of how blessed Chelsea are in their position.
Ben Chilwell celebrates with teammates Cesar Azpilicueta, Timo Werner, Trevoh Chalobah and Ross Barkley
Tuchel highlighted them specifically after Saturday’s win, praising their use of “these chances” to state their case, as fleeting as they may be. “Maybe they could not imagine to get minutes and important minutes six weeks ago,” he said of the pair. “They can help us because they have this totally positive spirit because they don’t feel this pressure.”
That pressure he speaks of is the need to perform at a high level when called upon. But it is also the pressure of knowing there is no room for excuses like a lack of playing time if they are not quite up to scratch. Chelsea are competing on a number of fronts domestically and on the continent, not to mention the Club World Championship which begins on 9 December. Their schedule is packed and further opportunities for these alternates will come.
Those opportunities are only to become less frequent. N’Golo Kante and Christian Pulisic will return from Covid-19 and injury, respectively. Mason Mount’s recovery is just about complete, while even Hakim Ziyech and Kai Havertz now find themselves on the bench having been starters at the beginning of the season. Havertz was an unused substitute against Southampton.
When all are available, fitness and form permitting, the likes of Loftus-Cheek and Barkley, maybe even Werner, will find themselves further away from the starting XI. But their roles will not change.
Perhaps months down the line, as the stakes are raised, the parts they played in getting Chelsea out of this mini-funk will be forgotten. That is simply their lot. To perform when the fewest people are watching, helping their teams tick along to those bigger moments that will happen without them.
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