How can Chelsea overcome their current defensive crisis?
As far as title defences are concerned, Premier League holders Chelsea could have scarcely imagined a worse start to the 2015/16 campaign. The Blues have been hit with well-documented controversy off the pitch, along with unmistakable problems on it.
Perhaps most worryingly for the Stamford Bridge club is the fact the wheels seem to be falling off their proverbial bus. With five goals conceded in their opening two Premier League fixtures, the alarm bells are already ringing with regards to Jose Mourinho’s third season in charge.
The Portuguese coach has a history of struggling at this stage, with both his first spell at Chelsea and his stint at Real Madrid reaching a sour end at this time. Has the Special One already hit the downward spiral of a seemingly unforgiven third-season syndrome?
It is hard to be too critical of a club that were a class above the chasing pack in 2014/15, especially at such a premature stage of the season. But there are genuine signs that this could be a difficult season for the Blues. While the reliance on an unfit Diego Costa and out-of-form Radamel Falcao is a cause for concern in attack, the bulk of Chelsea’s problems seemingly stem from the unlikeliest of sources. For the first time under Mourinho’s guidance, the west Londoners look weak at the back.
Is Chelsea’s current defence in a state of decline?
Mourinho labelled last week’s shambolic display at the Etihad a “fake result”. If anything, though, the Blues can consider themselves lucky to have only conceded three against a rampant Manchester City. Manuel Pellegrini’s men taught Chelsea a harsh lesson to underline their intentions to pinch the Premier League crown back. In truth, the Blues’ backline looked a shadow of its former self.
While Chelsea’s defence was the most economical in 2014/15 with a record of just 32 conceded in 38 league outings, there have still been questions planted at their door over the past 12 now. At the start of this campaign, it’s hard to tell whether the Blues are truly capable of answering them.
Influential captain John Terry was near faultless last year, but his headline-making withdrawal at the Etihad has raised serious doubts about how much longer he can continue at the elite level. At 34, the former England skipper will come to the end of his cycle at some stage. Perhaps this is the season where his powers will start to decline. If this is to be the case, Mourinho has a massive challenge on his hands as the Blues look to challenge for silverware on both the domestic and continental stage.
No matter what, Terry will remain a great figure to have around the Cobham Training Centre, and will still have a huge part to play throughout the course of the campaign. However, if he fails to boss opposing attackers as he once did, the Blues will need somebody to step up and take on the mantle. Quite frankly, there doesn’t seem to be any willing candidates.
England defender Gary Cahill is a very solid defender, but there is absolutely no question that he needs his leader to hit his optimum level. The 29-year-old is deserving of a place in the team, but he isn’t quite the authoritative figure you’d expect to see as the focal point of a title-winning side.
Meanwhile, emerging talent Kurt Zouma has looked promising but probably isn’t ready to take on the responsibility just yet. Another season on the peripherals is probably best for the Frenchman.
One of the biggest shocks during the opening weeks of the season has been Branislav Ivanovic’s poor performances. The usually dependable Serbian has been left wanting in both Premier League fixtures, suffering a torrid time against both Raheem Sterling and Jefferson Montero. Perhaps the right-back is still warming into the new campaign but, like Terry, there are worries that he is already entering the downward curve.
On the other flank, Cesar Azpilicueta should remain a sturdy figure. However, an injury to either full-back could see summer signing Baba Rahman thrown in at the deep end, and we’re not sure whether the Blues have the suitable level of cover.
Whatever back four is selected, this unit is a long way short of the formidable 2004/05 side. It wasn’t just a case of having stronger personnel, either. Chelsea’s first title-winning defence breathed confidence and had already beaten most opponents by the time they’d left the tunnel. The Blues conceded just 15 goals throughout that incredible Premier League campaign. After just 5% of this season, Mourinho’s side have already conceded a third of that tally.
On a brighter note, the Stamford Bridge club do at least have a world class goalkeeper between the sticks. As capable as Asmir Begovic is in his position as goalkeeping understudy, nothing can compensate for the solid foundation offered by a first-choice stopper. The return of Thibaut Courtois from suspension will be welcomed by Mourinho, the fans, and Chelsea’s backline alike.
Does the back four receive adequate protection?
For all the stick that the defence has rightly received in the early exchanges of what is already shaping up to be an enthralling title race, Chelsea’s main issue may actually lie just ahead. While Nemanja Matic offers fantastic cover in front of the central defensive duo, nobody can compare to the man whose name is so synonymous with the anchor role. Claude Makelele formed a brilliant understanding with Terry and Ricardo Carvalho just over a decade ago.
More importantly, though, he had the likes of Frank Lampard and Tiago to support him. Unfortunately, as good as he is, Cesc Fabregas does not offer the same level of protection. A solid defence isn’t just about the back five, the entire team needs to be working together from front to back. Ideally, the Spaniard would be playing in a more attacking role. Sadly for the No.4, this week’s arrival of Pedro from Barcelona makes that an even less likely proposition.
Make no mistake, Chelsea are hardly in a state of emergency. They have only dropped five points and there are still another 108 to play for. Nonetheless, it seems apparent that they do need new blood. If this is to be the season that their captain’s powers start to fall, then a new commanding centre back is key. With less than a fortnight to go before the window shuts, filling that void could be harder than ever.
As for Chelsea’s other major deficiency, they need a player that can offer the attacking qualities of Fabregas while also providing the solidarity offered by John Obi Mikel. In short; Mourinho must make Paul Pogba his number one target. If they can lure the 22-year-old superstar to Stamford Bridge, we could see the Blues rediscover their formidable best.