Gary Neville's bizarre Chelsea title critique highlights Thomas Tuchel's Mohamed Salah truth

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There is an inconvenient reality when judging Chelsea‘s failure to keep pace with Manchester City in the Premier League.

Apart from the traditional winter collapses felt under Antonio Conte, Maurizio Sarri and Frank Lampard, 2021/22 has been hindered by devastating injuries to vital players, a flurry of COVID cases that surged through the squad around Christmas and on top of that, an unrelenting schedule.

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This has made a full-on autopsy harder to accomplish, which leads us to a place where they are no easy answers or simple conclusions. In the binary world of social media, this is not appreciated. It is much easier to boil issues down to a soundbite or a scapegoat to pin all our irritation.

The reality is that Chelsea was flying in November, having just beaten Juventus 4-0 under the lights at Stamford Bridge. Tuchel’s squad only seemed to be improving with time.

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The famed automatisms that see players work off instinct and muscle memory were there. Chelsea players were almost walking on water.

Everything was coming easily to them, as demonstrated by the third goal against Juventus, which saw five players involved in an incredible move that resulted in Callum Hudson-Odoi rifling home an empathic third goal.

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Then Ben Chilwell landed awkwardly, and arguably the trajectory of Chelsea’s season swung in another direction.

Both Chilwell and Reece James, who would go on to get injured at the end of December, were vital creators in Tuchel’s team.

Compared to a title rival, it was as significant as Liverpool losing Mohamed Salah for the rest of this season. Or like last season, where they endured a defensive injury crisis as Virgil van Dijk missed the majority of the year with a cruciate ligament rupture.

Gary Neville’s bizarre Chelsea title critique highlights Thomas Tuchel’s Mohamed Salah truth
© Robin Jones/Getty Images Ben Chilwell’s ACL injury in November was a massive blow to Chelsea’s season.

Chilwell and James were creative behemoths in Tuchel’s fluid 3-4-2-1 formation, players who from wingback were putting up very impressive attacking numbers whilst also adding the mobility and movement that helped other players find space.

Gary Neville, a highly respected pundit whose thoughts are always appreciated and usually insightful, was asked to dissect Chelsea’s recent drop off between December and January that has meant a 10-point gap to Manchester City in the Premier League.

“I’m disappointed with Chelsea. I really am.” Neville said on Sunday. “There were four people left on the bench that would be in any other first-team probably in the country. And that’s having made three substitutions.”

Neville, speaking on his Sky Sports podcast, which I suggest listening to in full context after Chelsea’s 2-0 win over Spurs last Sunday, detailed the depth in Tuchel’s squad.

“What a squad. That’s like two world-class teams. So, I just don’t feel that’s an excuse when you’ve got the squad of Chelsea.”

His co-host Martin Tyler brought up the COVID postponement situation that has dominated a lot of the conversation with many league games being called off, most recently for Spurs’ clash with Arsenal for the Gunners only having one positive case.

Neville argued that he felt the postponements had got out of hand, with 18 of the 20 Premier League clubs having at least one game called off since the start of December.

As he already stated, Chelsea with their squad had no excuse to ask for a game to be called off, and Tuchel’s negative demeanour in press conferences was not helping.

But this fails to appreciate why Chelsea did originally ask for the Wolves game in December to be called off.

A flurry of positive cases had gone through the squad with Romelu Lukaku, Timo Werner, Callum Hudson-Odoi, and Kai Havertz were all out for the Everton game preceding Wolves.

Ruben Loftus-Cheek was added to that growing list ahead of that trip to Molineux, with Tuchel confirming seven positive cases after the game.

“We have seven positive cases. We were made to be in the bus and travel together for three hours, were in meeting together, in dinner and lunch, and the situation does not feel like it will stop.”

By the Premier League’s own standards on this issue, that Wolves game should have never gone ahead.

With Thiago Silva, Andreas Christensen, and N’Golo Kante all missing games due to COVID, Chelsea has fulfilled all of their fixtures since.

The club’s official matchday programme for the Spurs game pointed out that since the November international break, Chelsea had played the most competitive games out of Premier League clubs (18), with only Liverpool the closest (16).

Neville is usually quite nuanced in his takes, but the lack of context provided here and in other parts of media coverage has seemingly omitted key details. Like two of our most important players out injured, the COVID cases and a gruelling schedule.

No matter how valuable or expensive Chelsea’s squad is, they still contain human beings, ones who at the elite level of the game are being asked to play more games in a shorter period of time.

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