The Blues have repeatedly failed to address chronic deficiencies prevalent for some time…
It was rumoured that Arrigo Sacchi once organized a training exercise during his time at AC Milan where he pitted his near perfect back 5 of Fillipo Galli, Mauro Tassotti, Franco Baresi, Alessandro Costacurta and Paolo Maldini against his entire attacking quartet. The final result was that they, like many attacks around the world, could not find a way past that defense.
If Spain is known for attacking and possession based football, then Italy is surely the land where defenders are honed into machines that know how to keep the opposition away from goal. Chelsea’s Antonio Conte was part of this very system. A tenacious midfielder during his playing days and a taskmaster as a manager, his teams have always relied on a solid backline to ensure that his preferred 3-5-2 or 4-2-4 systems work flawlessly. Both at Juventus and with the Italian national team, he assembled one of the most formidable backlines in modern football. Gianluigi Buffon, Andrea Barzagli, Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini were the foundation for club and national team success over the last 3 years.
However, Conte faces a challenge like never before as Chelsea manager. His reign as the Blues gaffer has seen the team keep only one clean sheet, a 3-0 win over Burnley in the Premier League. Conte’s systems involved flooding players forward with full knowledge that there is a backline capable of holding off a counter-attack. However, with the current crop of Chelsea defenders, he would need to re-think his style. With the exception of John Terry, none of the Chelsea defenders give an assured presence to the defence. All of Chelsea’s title winning sides over the last decade have been built on a defence that refuses to leak goals. The scenario paints a vastly contrasting picture now.
“A calamity waiting to happen”, a phrase which was often associated with David Luiz alone can be extended to Gary Cahill, Branislav Ivanovic and Cesar Azpilicueta. With Kurt Zouma a good few months off from returning to first team action, Conte does have a serious lack of defenders despite the deadline day signings of Luiz and Marcos Alonso. But this was a problem right from the start of Jose Mourinho’s ill-fated 2015-16 campaign. To his credit he saw the cracks and pushed aggressively to sign John Stones, but was given Papy Djilobodji, Baba Rahman and Michael Hector. While Rahman did get a run of games, the others were nowhere close to nailing a first team slot. What was more frustrating is that Chelsea, on their books, had the likes of Andreas Christensen, a player who has blossomed into one of the finest young ball playing defenders in the Bundesliga. Yet, instead of being given a chance in the Premier League, he was shipped out on loan again.
Conte had his targets of missing out on Kalidou Koulibaly, Leonardo Bonucci, Stefan de Vriej and Aymen Abdennour. With Koulibaly signing a new contract and Bonucci unwilling to leave a Juventus team that is gunning for the Champions League, the Italian was left with players that were not his first choice. For a defensive pair that has played together at Chelsea for over 3 seasons, Luiz and Cahill do not look the part at all. Mind you, this was a partnership that survived the relentless waves of Bayern attacks in the Champions League Final in Munich. While the team looks a solid attacking unit with Eden Hazard and Diego Costa on song, one look at the position of the defenders for the first goal they conceded against Liverpool last Friday tells the tale. N’Golo Kante has been a tireless workhorse in midfield using every strand of energy to keep the opposition from breaching the defence. Without Terry though, the team lacks organization and a leader to get his troops in line. The same story was repeated against Leicester where Okazaki’s brace in the span of 10 first half minutes nearly sealed the game.
With Terry set to return in Saturday’s crunch game against Arsenal, Chelsea fans can breathe a little easier. But, for how long will they rely on ‘Captain Fantastic’ to lead the line is a problem they would look to solve as soon as possible. Zouma does look the part and if rumours are to be believed, Christensen will return to Stamford Bridge next season. But till that time, Chelsea and Antonio Conte need to resolve this defensive crisis or risk losing out in the race for the title.
Editorial by Khel Now-Feature Columnist Srinivasan Mohan , Srinivasan Mohan is an ardent football fan from the Silicon Valley of India, Bangalore. He holds a Bachelors Degree in Engineering and an MBA in Marketing. He has been following football since 2000 and is an ardent Bayern Munich and Chelsea supporter. He has had stints with Goal.com and 90Minutes magazine. Srini as he is commonly know, is someone who loves writing on the Bundesliga and is also fascinated by Serie A. Apart from writing, he spends his time drumming, reading, and working out. You can follow him on Twitter.