There is no such thing as a bad Premier League player. Some are better than others, naturally, but each has the ability to do something stupendous. The difference, as coaches will tell you, is dictated by mentality and consistency.
The responsibility for those two factors lies in three areas. Firstly, the player’s hardwired mentality is important. Is he a fighter? Does he crumble under pressure? Is he resilient enough to deal with setback?
Secondly, does the player retain enough of a work ethic to commit himself to improvement and make the necessary sacrifices to maintain his performance level? Crucially, this is not just about physical effort but may be seeking outside help in order to improve. For example, sports psychologist Dan Abrahams talks about Yannick Bolasie approaching him to work on relaxation techniques to improve his decision-making when he was trying to establish himself at Crystal Palace.
The third area of responsibility lies with the club and manager. On Match of the Day 2 Extra on Sunday, Hull City’s Michael Dawson spoke of the difficulties of playing well when your club is in limbo. One reason why a new manager often gets an immediate positive effect is because the short-term future has been resolved. Create a positive working environment and players are far more likely to perform. Not every factor can be managed, but plenty can be. A manager’s job is to control the controllables.
Last season, Pedro looked like the shell of a player at Chelsea. Having scored on his debut in victory at West Brom, Pedro scored seven more times in 39 appearances. He fluttered in and out of Chelsea’s team under Jose Mourinho, starting in just two victories in all competitions between September 19 and Mourinho’s departure. The oppositions in those two games were Norwich and Aston Villa, and both games were at Stamford Bridge. Having initially celebrated muscling past Manchester United to sign Pedro, Chelsea supporters were understandably disappointed.
The wider accusation was that Pedro had been found out in England after being carried by Barcelona in the company of such wonderful teammates, magnificent by association rather than personal aptitude. We can broadly call it the ‘Messi principle’, players looking good in great teams and thus looking average in good ones.
In hindsight, that looks rightly foolish. A probable Premier League title victory will take Pedro to 19 major honours before turning 30, a league title in England to accompany his five in Spain, three Champions League trophies, European Championship and World Cup. This is a player with 45 appearances per season for Barcelona for six consecutive years and over 50 caps for one of the greatest international teams in the game’s history.
Now under Antonio Conte, Pedro looks a new player, just another name to add to the Italian’s list of success stories during less than nine months in England. Last season Pedro managed nine goals and assists in 2,044 minutes, but his assist against West Ham on Monday took him to 14 in 600-plus fewer minutes.
Eden Hazard and Diego Costa will understandably get the headlines, just as Pedro’s teammates did at Barcelona, but they are ably supported from the right wing. Restricting Willian – Chelsea’s best player last season – to just 12 league starts while Pedro has had 18 indicates his importance to his manager.
“He’s playing in a fantastic way, not only scoring goals but he is also playing good football, with and without the ball,” Conte said last month. “He’s always in the right position to press to win the ball and also to score goals. We are seeing the best moments of Pedro. This is the Pedro who played this type of football when he was at Barcelona.”
Yet Pedro might point out that he is not doing a great deal differently. The Spaniard is making tackles slightly more frequently (one every 46 minutes vs one every 55 minutes), but is covering roughly the same distance and actually taking shots on target (129.6 mins vs 127.5 mins), creating chances (64.8 mins vs 48.6 mins) and touching the ball (1.52 mins vs 1.38 mins) at a less frequent rate than last season.
The big difference, it seems, is in his confidence and belief, something Pedro reiterated as early as November: “I am enjoying my football more and I am very comfortable on the pitch and with my team-mates. This is the way. I am full of confidence and this is the way I want to be playing for Chelsea. Am I glad I stayed at Chelsea? Yes. I am showing what I can do in a Chelsea shirt.”
All of which inevitably raises questions about last season. We know Pedro has the hardwired mentality and work ethic to succeed at the top, or he would not have formed such an integral part of successful teams under Pep Guardiola and Vicente del Bosque. That leaves that third area of responsibility, the positive working environment in which players can flourish or the alternative in which they can flounder.
That, after all, is Conte’s greatest achievement. The Italian is not a magician nor an alchemist capable of turning metal players into gold; the gold was there all along, covered by a grubby layer of internal politics and mistrust under their previous permanent manager. As Claudio Ranieri emphatically proved last season, create the perfect stage for the actors to perform and the results can be award-winning. Pedro is just another Chelsea player demonstrating the power of self-confidence and conviction.