Why John Terry is the Premier League's top defender
If you want an image to encapsulate why Chelsea won the Premier League this season, Jose Mourinho and his players helpfully provided it after their trip to Arsenal a couple of weeks ago.
They did not win the game; they drew 0-0. They did not even, really, need the point: It took them a little closer to the title, but they would have been crowned champions sooner or later regardless of the result at the Emirates. They could have lost by five and still won the league by a handsome margin.
Still, as soon as the final whistle went, they danced and hugged and cavorted on the pitch. It was, from the outside, a peculiar sight: The rest of us had assumed the title race was run, that Mourinho's team were sailing toward the championship, yet here they were, acting like they were in a genuine battle for supremacy. That is why they won the league -- because they can summon that sort of intensity even when the occasion does not really require it.
If you want to know why John Terry has played every minute of every game of that title campaign, the answer came a week later. This time Chelsea won the game, beating Crystal Palace, and they formally won the league, too. This was an occasion when on-pitch merriment was to be expected. Terry, though, took a moment away from celebrating his fourth Premier League medal to offer a little sideswipe at one of his former managers, one who had not believed the club captain was fit enough to play every week. "He knows who he is," said the 34-year-old. This campaign, Terry said, served as a rejoinder to the man who had doubted him.
It is the perfect snapshot of Terry. He has always given the impression that he is powered by his determination to win -- which is gargantuan, there is no question of that -- but also by the delight he takes in proving people wrong. That is why he always seemed to come back stronger after all those incidents when he found himself in the public eye for the wrong reasons.
He is, essentially, unbreakable, and that is because all those travails fuel his belief that everyone is out to get him. Terry is a one-man siege mentality. If you want proof of that, there it was: Even amid the joy of winning a league, he still took the time to have a pop at someone who was perceived to have slighted him two years ago.
The person in question, of course, is Rafael Benitez, the interim manager who led Chelsea to the Europa League back in 2013. It is important, just briefly, to correct Terry's version of history a bit here, because his memory appears to be playing tricks on him.
Benitez did not think Terry couldn't play every week. The manager just noticed that, when he arrived at the club, Terry was in the middle of a two-month injury layoff. When he came back, Benitez tried to ease Terry back in, as any manager would; even then, though, Terry could not train every day. The problem was that Terry, and this is to his credit, wants to play. He does not like being told he cannot play. Benitez viewed the star as the team's best central defender, and the two had a perfectly cordial personal relationship (which makes the comments the other day a little bit odd), but Benitez knew Terry's fitness meant he could not be counted on every week.
By the end of the season, though, as the games took on more meaning, things changed: Terry made a third of his total appearances of the campaign between March 7 and April 28. He missed only the climax, including the Europa League win, because of another injury. Benitez wanted, and needed, Terry when things mattered most.
Indeed, Benitez probably played Terry rather more than those within the club's hierarchy had hoped he might play. Andre Villas-Boas, Benitez's predecessor, had been given a mandate to shift out all the old guard at Chelsea, including Terry, Frank Lampard, Ashley Cole and Didier Drogba, and Benitez was expected to continue the work that had stalled when the Portuguese departed. Terry, in particular, had as many opponents as friends at the highest levels of the club, who rather hoped he might be shifted out of the picture while a less toxic, less unpalatable and, frankly, slightly quicker replacement were drafted in. Benitez did not do that.
That Terry seems to remember things differently -- that he was doubted and written off by his Spanish manager -- says more about Terry, and the mentality that fires him, than about anybody else. Where he is correct, though, is in asserting that there were plenty of people around who were prepared to write Terry off: not just two years ago, but considerably further back than that. There was always a suspicion that his style of defending, body on the line and head on the block, would catch up with him.
Terry has defied that. He is 34 now, yet he is widely and rightly regarded as the best defender in the Premier League. He has made it into the reckoning for the various teams of the year and, on Tuesday, came third in the prestigious Football Writers' Player of the Year award. For someone of his age -- and more notably his problematic background -- that is quite an achievement, a rare testament to just how good his performances have been.
Yet amid all the praise, there is one thing that should be noted here: Players exist only in their context. This is why it was possible to write Terry off two years ago and, completely consistently, to acclaim him this year. Terry has excelled under Mourinho the last two seasons because of the team the Portuguese has constructed. Terry has two full-backs who, in the last five months in particular, have started to come over all feverish at the very sight of the halfway line. He has, standing in front of him, Nemanja Matic, who has nipped out hundreds, thousands of attacks long before they have gotten anywhere near Terry. Behind him, Thibaut Courtois spent the first nine months of the campaign making the task of being a Premier League goalkeeper look like something you could do without any practice or skill.
Take away that structure and perhaps Terry would not look quite so imperious. Perhaps he would have to stretch himself a bit more, or play a little bit higher, and perhaps that would expose him to more moments when he might get beaten or make a mistake or pick up an injury. It is not the case that, two years ago, Terry was on the downward slope and over the last 24 months he has been given some sort of magic potion. It is not the case that Terry was being written off prematurely. It is just that he needed a specific structure to play his best. Now he has it.
The best contrast is with his old foe, his dear enemy, Steven Gerrard. Last season, playing deep in a Liverpool team that had Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge wreaking havoc up front, Gerrard looked as if he had been given a new lease on life. He had found a way, just about, to grow old gracefully. He was not quite the force of nature he once was, but he had his place and he added value.
This season, shorn not of one but of both, Gerrard seems to have aged a decade in a few months. He has been exposed, time and again, when playing deep, and has been a passenger, time and again, when further forward. He looks adrift. Has he really got so much worse in the course of a year? No. He has faded a little, obviously, but the more apparent change is that he is no longer in a team structure that suits him.
Terry finds himself in precisely the opposite situation. This Chelsea team fits him like a glove. He deserves huge praise for the way he has played this season. But he would be due far less of it if it were not for his friends.
Rory Smith is a columnist for ESPN FC and The Times. Follow him on Twitter @RorySmithTimes.