Larry Nance can’t help but turn into a fan while discussing Chelsea, to the point that a vocal tic that all of us fans can succumb to every now and then.
“Look at me saying ‘we’ as if I’m on the team,” Nance says with a laugh as he looks back on an up-and-down season (or, probably more accurately, down-and-up) season for the London-based soccer team.
It’s hard for any Chelsea supporter to not feel some kind of extra bond to the club this year. Since sacking club legend Frank Lampard back in Jan. 25 and appointing Thomas Tuchel manager, the Blues have been flying, going from ninth at the time of Lampard’s ouster to an eventual fourth-place finish in the Premier League. Oh, and on Saturday, the team will face off against English rivals Manchester City in the Champions League final, with the winner getting to crown themselves the kings of European football.
The task will be a daunting one for Chelsea. City, the champions of the Premier League, are flying thanks to a striker-less style of football that has smothered opponents for much of the year. But in a fun twist, Chelsea have managed to take down City twice since Tuchel came on board, once in the semifinals of the FA Cup and once in the league earlier this month. It’s come with a disclaimer — City did not roll out its strongest lineup in either match — but no other team has beaten the Sky Blues twice this season. A prime example of the phrase “styles-make-fights,” City’s possession-oriented system can be stymied by solid, well-organized sides that have the ability to counter-attack, and Chelsea does this as well as anyone in the world.
Ahead of Saturday’s tilt in Porto, I, a Manchester City supporter, caught up with Nance to discuss our two teams, Chelsea’s season, what he thinks will happen on Saturday, and how his approach in the lead-up to the final has been a bit different than the one employed by fellow Chelsea fanatic Josh Hart.
What are your general thoughts on this season for Chelsea?
Gosh, I feel really good about it, actually. I was optimistic coming into the season — we spent a lot of money in the offseason, but at the same time, it was on some very talented younger players. So I didn’t expect us to win the league or anything like that, just because the average age of our XI is, what, 22 or something like that. So we’re very young, very unexperienced, but at the same time, finishing top four. Obviously hate that Frank had to be a casualty of it, but finishing top four, no matter how we got there, is always a positive thing. And the fact that we are in the Champions League final seems like … it shouldn’t be. So I’m excited about it.
And it’s fascinating that you mentioned Frank because obviously he’s a club legend, but it’s also led to something that … you don’t want to say it was for the better or anything like that, but there’s just been something about them since Thomas Tuchel has gotten in there. What has it looked like to you and what do you think has caused this success to come under him?
Man, I wish I could tell you. I do. I wish I could tell you, but the way we’ve responded … look at me saying “we” as if I’m on the team. But the way the guys have responded to Tuchel has been incredible to see. I mean, I just wish I knew a little bit more behind the scenes of what he’s really saying and doing with these guys to make them do a complete 180, it seems. Because we were … I shouldn’t say complete 180, we were having a good year before he got there, but when he got there, we just totally ramped it up and really got after it.
Yeah. And just from the outside, it seemed like there’s just this air of confidence about them. They’re walking around with their chests puffed out. They’re walking around with their heads held high. That sort of thing. And I don’t know about you, but it’s just been the most impressive part about all of this for me. Just how confident they look after the ups and downs of earlier in the year.
Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. I mean, the confidence that they’re showing is crazy. The fact that we’ve got City in the Champions League final, and I feel okay about it, is a testament to the work that he’s done and he’s put in, because earlier in the year we would play Burnley and it was like, “I don’t know. I don’t know how I feel about this one. Burnley could take all three at Stamford Bridge.” But now I’m sitting here feeling pretty good about playing City in Porto to win it all. So I mean, I have no complaints, obviously. This dude knows what he’s talking about.
And it’s always easy for a coach to look like they know what they’re talking about when they have the players. It’s that back and forth — the coach looks good when the players look good, the players look good, the coach looks good. Who are the players that you’ve been the most impressed by this year?
I mean, easy one is Mason Mount. I mean, he’s been ridiculous. Mason’s been incredible this year. You could say his growth, but just his consistency. I mean, he’s been our guy, getting us going from if we need a late equalizer or we need someone to pick up the energy off the bat or out of halftime. He’s been that guy. So just … and at what? Twenty-one years old, 22 years old? Doing that for a team like Chelsea has been just awesome.
Yeah. And then there’s the fact that he’s the guy who I think coming into the season, there were some people who were questioning whether or not he really deserved it or if he was just Lampard’s teacher’s pet, but he’s been magnificent.
Yeah, absolutely. He’s been just awesome. Answered all the critics and then some. Our midfielders as a whole have been awesome. [Mateo] Kovacic when he’s been out. [N’Golo] Kante, having him healthy has been unbelievable. Jorginho’s had a good year. I mean, I think the only other one, I should say two, that I’ve been incredibly impressed with is [Antonio] Rudiger. Rudiger’s had a great year as well, then the signing of [Edouard] Mendy has been just massive. No slight to Kepa [Arrizabalaga], but we needed some help.
So for the final, I’m going to start by making you praise my team. What are your thoughts on Manchester City?
You guys scare the hell out of me, to be honest with you. You guys scare the hell out of me. I would feel better if it were any other team in the world except maybe Bayern Munich. Just so much class from top to bottom. And I’ve actually got my fingers crossed that you start [Sergio] Aguero because I do not want to deal with Pep’s False 9. I don’t feel like dealing with that because that means [Phil] Foden and [Raheem] Sterling and [Riyad] Mahrez most likely are just terrorizing our back lines. I got my fingers crossed you start Aguero.
Funny you say that, though, because you know exactly what I’m about to say. The two teams have played twice in the last couple of months and Chelsea’s won both of those. Is that not giving you, as a fan, some amount of confidence, some amount of faith, or is it just something where you’re wiping it clean? You know an FA Cup match and a league match are a different level compared to the Champions League.
They are an entirely different game, an entirely different game. I mean the squad rotations that were involved in the league games and whatnot, I’m not buying it. I’m not buying it. I hope Chelsea isn’t buying it ,either, because this is for all the marbles. And Pep, and that team, [Kevin] de Bruyne, I just think we’d be silly to overlook that just because we won in the past. It did not mean anything.
Obviously different sports, but you guys beat a team twice before you go into your third match in a year. Do you have, just in basketball, a little more confidence, or is this something where it’s like, past results don’t mean future outcomes or anything like that?
It’s funny, there’s actually a saying that we use quite often. It’s a silly little saying, but it’s hard beating a team three times in a row.
Beating a team three times is tough. Now, you need to beat them twice? No problem. Once? No problem. And I feel like that’s just the rule. Beating a team three times is tough. I don’t know, it doesn’t matter if it’s the best team in the league or the worst in the league. If we won our first two match-ups and we play them again, it’s like, oh boy. This is going to be tough.
Yeah. Because it then becomes the expectation that you’re going to do it that third time.
Exactly. Everybody gets a little bit lax and just, there’s no room for that.
So the game itself, what’s just the biggest thing that you’re going to be looking out for as someone who’s watching this with your Chelsea blue shaded glasses on?
I will say the biggest thing I’m scared of is Phil Foden. I’m terrified of Foden. I think he is the best youngster in the world. I mean, unless you consider [Kylian] Mbappe. I think he’s on that level, I think he’s on that level with Mbappe, [Erling] Haaland, and I think Foden’s right there. I really do. I think he’s terrific.
But at the same time, he’s not as naturally talented or anything like that, but I have to imagine that by now, when you have someone running at Cesar Azpilicueta, you’re going to be feeling pretty good about it.
Yeah, that’s for sure. I mean he’s been rock solid. At the same time, I just think Foden’s top drawer. I really do. Yeah, he’s the one that scares me. Sterling, his year has been up and down, off and on. De Bruyne is De Bruyne. He’s going to be unbelievable, but the one that scares me is Foden. If I were a betting, man, I’d put money on him to score in this game.
The match as a whole, how do you want Chelsea to approach this entire thing?
To be honest with you, I want to see us go for it. I want to see us go for it. I mean, I think if we just sit back and let you guys do what you do, we are going to be in some serious trouble. I think if we go back on the attack as well, and then we just play our game as if we were playing … I was going to say Aston Villa, but I don’t want to use that anymore. If we were playing just a regular league game against whoever it may be.
Take the magnitude of the game out of it and just play free. Have these young guys play free and then be expressive with your game. But I think that would be our best chance instead of trying to throw some shackles of discipline on and say, “Alright, this is a big match. We’ve got to this, this, and that.” I think I’d like to see us go for it.
Yeah. I mean, you guys have so much talent that if Chelsea wants to sit back and absorb pressure and hit them on the counter, you have that. But I can’t imagine it feels good sitting there and watching Manchester City have the ball, even if you know you could go the other way in five seconds and [Christian] Pulisic puts one past Ederson.
Exactly, that’s what I mean. If this were another team, fine. Sit back and let them kind of pass it around, do their thing. But this is city, and at any given time … do we know if [Ilkay] Gundogan is going to be healthy?
He’s good? Yeah. It can come from anywhere with you guys.
For Chelsea, who are the players who you think are ultimately going to decide? Because to me, there is a very obvious Chelsea player who I think is going to decide this one, but I’m interested in your thoughts.
It’s one of two people, really. If Kante has a Kante game, you guys could be in trouble. You guys could be in trouble because he can dominate a game.
And then Timo Werner’s gonna have his chances. He’s going to have his chances, you know what I mean? We’ve seen it time and time again. He’s going to have his chances because he’s fast as lightening and gets into the right positions. But if he decides to take them, then it could be a great night for Chelsea fans. But if not, hopefully we go to [Olivier] Giroud pretty quickly.
Werner’s the guy that popped right into my head because there are three, four moments a game, every single game, where [Kai] Havertz, or Mount, Pulisic, [Hakim] Ziyech create chances for him and then it’s just right there in front of him. And it’s been in his head, I think. But you know as well as I do, when he gets those opportunities and he has that clear head, he’s scoring every time. That’s the avenue where I think Chelsea can win this one.
Right? I agree. I mean, it just depends. It all depends on how he approaches it. It really does. If he’s feeling the weight of the world on his shoulders, we’re in some trouble. I would love to see us, like I said, go to Giroud early if Timo is being Timo.
Yeah, and then just basically have [Giroud] lay it off to those wingers who are going to be flying around.
Exactly. Because we know Christian’s as talented is anyone. We know our wingers — Havertz, Ziyech, whoever we decide to start — we know they’re talented. We’ve got to get our number nine right.
Alright, so thoughts on what’s going to happen?
I truly believe that you guys are going to win it. I do. It’s like, you’re hoping from the Chelsea fan’s perspective, that no, we’re going to win it. But, I feel like we’re playing with house money, to be honest with you.
We shouldn’t be here. We shouldn’t be here, so if we don’t win, I genuinely feel like, alright, we’ll be back within the next 3-4 years. It’s alright.
Yeah, and when you guys had that big summer, I said to a friend who’s a Liverpool fan that I feel like Liverpool’s window is shutting and Chelsea’s about to open. It just feels like you guys are on the cusp of something and you’re ahead of schedule more or less.
Yes, exactly. Exactly. It feels like we’re close.
You and Josh Hart against Alex Caruso, anyone else a Manchester City fan?
In the NBA? Not that I really know of. I know AC is a big City fan. Other than that, I don’t know.
So you, Josh, and AC. How’s the banter been this week?
It’s been great. Obviously, we’re all on the same team in L.A. So, we’ve been at it quite a bit and got our little side bets and everything. So it’s been fun, it’s been fun. But at the same time, I’ve expressed to those two as well that hey, look. I’m going to play in the banter, but I don’t know. I don’t know if I feel great about it.
Has Josh been a little more optimistic?
Oh, Josh is … yeah. Josh is wildly optimistic.