So, a draw against Genk in the UEFA Champions League, coming off the back of a loss to Arsenal and before then a win at Everton and a loss to QPR (I think the narrative suggests that we're supposed to forget all about the Everton win, though). Clearly, Chelsea aren't going through the best of times right now, and they certainly haven't played spectacular football during their rough spell. For most fans, that's not good enough. Not nearly good enough.
Andre Villas-Boas and company are taking a lot of flak for this one. Chelsea threw away a first half lead with a miserable opening to the second and could never recover. It's a similar story to that told at Stamford Bridge on Saturday, with the fact that we didn't manage to lose this match rather tempered by the fact that we were playing against a team whose best player would be a neat little trinket to add to our prospect collection.
But before we get into the nitty-gritty of the [draw / woeful display that we should all kill ourselves over*], I have a little story to tell.
*Delete according to preference.
March 23rd, 1993. A man dressed in red and white holds a football, walking purposely towards a few quivering blades of chalked-white grass. He places the ball on the penalty spot; it rolls, so he adjusts it a little, making sure everything is perfect. Exhale. There's no stress, not really. All footballers are cocky, of course, but this one is special - where others would wilt, he stands with confidence. The ball will go in, just like it did the previous 21 times the midfielder has reenacted this routine, and the Dell will celebrate with Matt le Tissier.
Le Tissier has never missed a spot kick in his professional career and is well on his way to becoming a Southampton club legend. His technique is phenomenal - there are two targets, one in each corner. A shot placed in either one is almost impossible to save without going early. Le Tissier, right footed, always shoots with his instep (laces reduce your options and the drop in power is acceptable) and favours the goalkeeper's left - that way he can adjust and close up his body for the other corner if he sees them diving too early. Rumour is already spreading that he practices his penalties with the youth team goalkeepers, offering them good money if they can keep one of his efforts out. They can. Sometimes. A few out of every hundred.
Nottingham Forest goalkeeper Mark Crossley knows all of this. He knows Le Tissier, who's already scored 75 top-flight goals from midfield. He knows that the kick will be to his left. But he knows his opponent knows he knows, and an idea strikes the 23-year-old.
Le Tissier still hasn't even made eye contact with the goalkeeper, knowing that to do so is death. There's no need to read anything but their hips, and that only needs to happen fractions of a second before making contact anyway. Anything else is a useless - at best - distraction. Six steps. The run-up is always six steps long. In later days, Le Tissier would say that with six steps, you have enough momentum to shoot, but not enough time to think, to change your mind. On step five, he'd read the goalkeeper, see if they break before he does.
One two three four five and Crossley hadn't moved. And, today, Le Tissier thinks quickly. He changes his mind, coming across his body and firing to Crossley's right. The goalkeeper is there in a flash, slamming the ball to safety. Matt Le Tissier had missed a penalty.
It was to be the only one - one miss from nearly fifty attempts. Le Tissier is the best penalty kick taker (it'd be laughable to call him a specialist, considering his ludicrous talent at more or less everything else) British football has ever seen. He was very nearly perfect, and you'd bet on him to score every single time.
But he didn't. Not here.
Before anyone asks, that's not a defence of David Luiz's missed effort from the spot in the first half. Rather, it's a story of luck and probability, and how they influence a football match. Nobody is perfect. Everyone misses sometimes. In this case, Le Tissier's miss cost his team a point at home - Forest would win 2-1. Southampton rolled their dice, and they came up double ones. Just this once, their luck was against them, even with Le Tissier taking their penalties.
It's important to remember just how much a part of the game luck is. Against Bayer Leverkusen, Fernando Torres turned a lucky bounce into a brilliant assist in the dying seconds of the match. Against Sunderland, Daniel Sturridge scored a goal that, had it been an inch off its actual course, or the slightest amount slower, would have been cleared by Wes Brown and Chelsea would (probably) have drawn 1-1 rather than taking three points from the Stadium of Light. Against Manchester United, sometimes the flag goes up, sometimes it doesn't, and in all universes but ours Torres scores that open goal.
What I mean to say, of course, is that we should accept that some things just... happen. We can watch Chelsea play badly (goodness knows we did on Saturday and for good portions of the game here) and complain about it. We get upset, we say bad things*, and we fret. We start to blame people. That seems perfectly sensible to me. When there's a narrative, it's comforting to follow it to its logical conclusion, which is why I ordered a certain referee kidnapped and had an evil duplicate take his place as I keep the real one locked up in my cellar to suffer.
*NB: Although we do not chant about Anton Ferdinand you crazy crazy people.
But when there's no narrative - nobody to blame but the team, we... well, we blame it on the team in some rather bizarre ways. Consider the major chances in the match we just witnessed:
- Ramires nutmegs Laszlo Koteles for the opening goal.
- Ramires misses a far post header wide.
- Raul Meireles hits the crossbar with a long-range shot.
- Anthony Vanden Bore comes within a foot of conceding an own goal after blocking a Florent Malouda cross.
- David Luiz takes a mediocre penalty and sees it saved.
- Petr Cech saves at his near post from Kennedy Nwanganga.
- Jelle Vossen scores from Fabien Camus cross.
- Raul Meireles heads straight at Koteles from five yards, unmarked.
- Frank Lampard misses open goal from two yards after Daniel Sturridge cross.
- Daniel Sturridge long-range shot tipped over crossbar.
- Florent Malouda's flicked finish is cleared off the goalline, hits Nadson three yards from goal and rolls over the line for a corner.
Now, the point of a football match is to score goals, not generate chances, and so it would be a little bit weird to say that Chelsea deserved to win this one - if we can't score penalties or two-yard tap-ins we're in a great deal of trouble. But if you're worried about the club's profligacy in front of net, don't be to concerned - this was as freakish a day as you'll ever see for goals not going in (ok, Fernando Torres might have a case for a different day).
1-1 to Genk isn't a good result. However, it's also not a bad one - Chelsea gained ground at the top of Group E, actually, thanks to Valencia beating Bayer Leverkusen 3-1 at the Mestalla, and have two games left with which to finish things up. They're in very good position right now - they they draw their next two matches they're through and if they win one of them and draw the other they'll win the group outright.
But, yeah, the result isn't what was expected of Chelsea, especially after the 5-0 spanking the Blues handed out to the same opponents at Stamford Bridge. I think it's entirely sensible to be concerned that the club isn't getting the results they'd like - nobody would argue that a win against Everton in the Carling Cup someone makes up for two straight Premier League losses and then a draw in the Champions League (against the group minnows, no less).
Anyway, the general reaction to the draw has not been sadness over failure to secure a good result. It's been anger at the team for being bad, which is somewhat baffling. While nobody sane would separate out the 'finishing' part of football from the everything else part - if you don't score goals, you'll never win - it takes some bizarre mental acrobatics to conclude that Chelsea played poorly for more than the opening spell of each half. Want passes? Chelsea played 659 passes to Genk's 438, completing 88 percent to our hosts' 80. Possession? 61/39 in our favour.
By no means were Chelsea outplayed here. The number of chances they created would normally lead to a win even with terrible finishing, but we didn't even get that much*. That's something to worry about, of course, but stressing over profligacy from should-be-goalscorers is a far, far cry from the alarm and panic that seems to be flooding the internet.
*Even Ramires' goal barely counts as good finishing - his shot hit the inside of Koteles' leg and rolled barely inside the far post.
For the moment, the sensible response is to be disappointed by the draw but to recognise it for what it actually is - a bad result that stemmed from an ok performance rather that some sort of falling-sky calamity. I'm all for freaking out when the time is right, such as on Saturday, but this? This was disappointing, but relatively harmless, and doesn't bode badly for the trip to Blackburn or the rest of the season. Keep calm and carry on, eh?