Let it be a small reminder of how the game works.
On Saturday, Chelsea went 2-1 down before dominating much of the rest of the game against Crystal Palace. They still lost. That they didn’t draw (or win) was down to some tremendous defending from Wayne Hennessey and Mamadou Sakho, poor finishing and sheer dumb bad luck — or, if you prefer, variance and probability.
On Wednesday, they also finished 2-1 except this time, Chelsea won against a much better team than Palace, Manchester City. And in a further reverse from Saturday, they were generally outplayed for much of the game and you don’t need Expected Goals to tell you that. (But if you’re into xG, it was 2.37 to 1.10 for City.)
Chelsea benefited from a deflection and a goalkeeping error for their opening goal and after Willy Caballero saved Eden Hazard’s penalty, they were somewhat fortunate the ball dropped right in front of the Belgian who buried it. Now it’s also true that if Thibaut Courtois boots the ball up the pitch instead of trying to chip David Silva, then Sergio Aguero doesn’t get his equalizer. But on the balance of play, particularly when you factor in John Stones’ late chance, you chalk this up as a win that could easily have gone the other way, the photo-negative of Saturday.
In fact, couple it with what went down in Swansea, where Tottenham were a goal down for 88 minutes and then scored three times to win 3-1, and we could be looking at an entirely different scenario as my colleague Ian Darke pointed out.
Ten points clear or five points clear: that’s a substantial difference. That’s why those who mindlessly repeat that “it’s a results business” are so wrong. When it comes to evaluating performance, you need to look beyond that. And clever people do.
“Absolutely [we were better],” said Pep Guardiola after the game. “The way we play today, all I can say is I am happier than Arsenal when we won one point and here we lost… the way we play, I am so satisfied. I’m a lucky guy [to be managing here].”
Antonio Conte echoed his colleague, albeit with his own spin and from his own perspective. “It’s a big win for us,” the Chelsea boss said. “It wasn’t easy. When you play against City, it’s normal to suffer in some parts of the game. But I think we suffered as a team in the right way.”
Conte uses that word a lot: suffering. And, in particular, the variant “knowing how to suffer.” In his native Italian, it’s more nuanced and more of an accepted term.
It’s the by-word for accepting the fact that there will be moments in the course of a game when things go against you, when you can’t impose your will on the opponent and the best you can do is weather the storm. Sometimes it happens against sides who are better than you. Sometimes it happens because you’re simply playing badly. Sometimes it occurs because opposing sides are as talented, if not more, and you’re also playing poorly.
The question is how you react. Against City, Conte did it by sending on Nemanja Matic for Kurt Zouma. Cesar Azpilicueta dropped into the back three and Pedro shifted to the flank. It rebalanced the team and put Chelsea back where they wanted to be.
Note that suffering doesn’t necessarily mean sitting back, defending and absorbing pressure. Some teams are built to do just that and even as the opposition park themselves in their half, they are entirely comfortable because they’re in their element. They know that sooner or later, a chance will come either on the counter or perhaps they’ll win a set piece. We’ve seen plenty of teams — including, at times, Conte’s Chelsea — do just that.
That’s not what Conte was talking about. He’s talking about how you react to sustained adversity, to those moments when you are not in control of the game. All matches ebb and flow to some degree, but what do you do when your turnaround just won’t come? Do you keep belief in what you’ve been prepared for, strong in the confidence that it will eventually lead you out of the hole? Do you change the way you play, taking more risks? Taking fewer risks? Do you wait for instructions from the bench or teammates?
And bear in mind that each of those 11 players on the pitch are facing those very same decisions and have the freedom to respond with their own individual course of action. We often lump this together under the catch-all term “confidence” in the simple belief that teams that are successful continue to be successful because they are confident in what they’re doing. That’s why you hear pundits talk about a nonperforming striker and say he “only needs a goal to get his confidence back.” That’s fine, but it’s also simplistic.
It runs much deeper than that.
It’s not just about self-belief; it’s about trust in your teammates and your manager as well. Crucially, it’s about knowing when to deviate from the script. And all of this unfolding when things out there are tough, because they’re not going your way. It’s something a manager can help instill and draw out to some degree, but he can’t create it out of thin air. You need players willing to take responsibility, guys who don’t hide and already have that capacity inside them.
Conte’s Chelsea have shown that. Amid the platitudes about hard work and intensity, Conte’s message is — and has long been, dating back to his Siena days — one of suffering. His shenanigans in the technical area aren’t an act: they’re a physical manifestation of how he lives through the match.
Conte has never hidden the fact that his rise as a manager isn’t the result of a brilliant tactical mind or a natural capacity for leadership. It’s the by-product of a maniacal search for answers, of perpetual second-guessing, of the belief that if you spend long enough on something and you’re lucid enough, you will be more likely to get the answers you need. He jokes that he rarely sleeps the night before the games, but “that’s fine, because it offers more time to think.”
Chelsea’s four league titles in the Premier League era have come by margins of eight, one, eight and 12 points. Yet if they win this one, it will in some ways be a far greater ode to suffering and “knowing how to suffer.”
There haven’t been that many times when they’ve had to do it. But they’ve been pivotal moments all the same.
Gabriele Marcotti is a Senior Writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.