The Run of Play is a blog about
the wonder and terror of soccer.
We left the window open during a match in October 2007 and a strange wind blew into the room.
Now we walk the forgotten byways of football with a lonely tread, searching for the beautiful, the bewildering, the haunting, and the absurd.
What did Big Phil do to those guys? For a long time—say, from the latter days of Mourinho through the start of the Hiddink Intercession—the Chelsea dressing room was a hive of choler and pique. The players visibly didn’t like each other, didn’t trust their manager (whoever he happened to be), and generally had the air of passengers who have all privately concluded that the ship they are on is sinking as they eye the exits and edge toward the only lifeboat. Watching them was like seeing the Beatles break up week after week after week. Toward the end of the 2007-08 season, I wrote that “a diagram tracing all the lines of resentment and angles of dislike running through the changing room right now would look eerily like Rinus Michels’s plan for Total Football.”
Now? Now they love each other. It’s the same players, the same quasi-frustrating quasi-underachievement, but the mood has gone from “trapped in a mine with a man who might want to eat you” to “stuck at the top of a Ferris wheel with an extremely pretty girl.”
For me, the key moment in the game today (which did in fact move them to the top of the Ferris wheel, if you can imagine a Ferris wheel sponsored by Barclays and somehow able to hoist the weight of Portsmouth) came during the most meaningless passage, the celebration of Malouda’s stoppage-time, cake-frosting goal. Malouda and Drogba went tearing toward the crowd with their arms raised, Malouda because he scored the goal and Drogba because he created it and because screaming at the top of his lungs and running at people who love him is his fallback behavior at this point. Ballack followed along behind them and tried to wrap them in a hug. They were busy posing for the fans and ignored him.
Instead of turning back to celebrate with Lampard or playing to the crowd himself, Ballack just stood there behind Drogba, patiently waiting until he was able to turn him around and get his arms around him. Then these two players, who almost came to blows during the Champions League final two years ago, held onto each other while the rest of the team ran up around them and joined them in a group embrace. The message was as clear as awkward man-hug maneuvering can possibly be: We are united, the past is behind us, we’re happy to be playing together now and we’re in this as a team. It was like watching the Beatles get back together, only if the Beatles were willing to party with Ashley Cole. The romance was so infectious that Roman Abramovich, from his seat in the stands several hundred feet away, actually tried to smile, and succeeded in making himself look as though he’d swallowed a slightly less unpleasant-tasting gecko.
So what happened? I think it must have been Big Phil. The media and the players gave all the credit to Hiddink, and now seem to be transferring it all over to Ancelotti, but that doesn’t seem quite right to me. Like a Sandra Bullock/Keanu Reeves love scene or postwar lodge meeting full of men in velvet fezzes, this has the crackle of camaraderie forged through a shared traumatic experience. Whatever his shortcomings as a Premier League manager—actually, that “whatever” should probably read “thanks to”—Big Phil seriously freaked these men out, to the point that now, no matter who’s managing them, they’re just happy the horror is over and determined to make it work. Did he hit them? Did he call them names? Did he come to training in a bathrobe and cigar, like a tycoon at the beach? I don’t know. But whatever he did, it’s working.
As for Liverpool, the fact that I just used the Beatles to suggest how well Chelsea played in a match against Liverpool without ever stopping to think, “hey, that might seem weird, because the Beatles were from Liverpool,” probably tells the whole story of how Liverpool looked in the match. Their most indelible images, to be contrasted with Anelka’s magnificent Nike-silhouette volley, were the one of Reina’s slapstick dive at the end of the first half (he was fouled, then took a step, then turned into a cubist study of a horse being thrown down stairs) and the one of Sammy Lee planted on the sideline, apparently dressed in a windsock. Gerrard was nowhere, Carragher is going to need a doctor to take out the stitches Drogba left behind when he was sewing in his “Property of” nameplate, and Rafa is having one of those weeks where he’s overthought his selection decisions to the point that he’s completely outfoxed himself. (Aurélio as a central midfielder at midweek, Benayoun as a late substitute today. I sometimes imagine Wallace Shawn picking a team by trying to decide which cup has the poison in it.)
Nobody’s out of any races, and remember, these two teams are guaranteed to play each other at least 35 more times between now and the end of the season. But for today, Chelsea were Dr. Zhivago. Liverpool were the card they show at intermission to tell you to get a snack.
by Brian Phillips · October 4, 2009