Why it's time for Chelsea, and England, to bench Gary Cahill immediately
In the world of football, mention the name Gary Cahill and you’ll usually get a massive variety of opinions. Some observers and pundits believe he’s one of the best defenders in the modern Premier League – a younger version of John Terry, a born leader; others would have you believe he’s a liability, a player whose lack of pace and awareness lets him down time after time and causes problems for whichever team he’s representing.
He’s such a divisive player that even fans of his club, Chelsea, seem split in their opinions of him.
The mixed reaction from Chelsea supporters on Twitter when Cahill was named on the bench for a recent game against Stoke said a lot – some labelled boss Antonio Conte as an “absolute don” for the move, while others implored that his replacement Andreas Christensen would need to have the game of his life in order to truly take Cahill’s place in the starting line-up.
So where does the truth lie? It’s a little hard to say. After all, since his 2012 move to Stamford Bridge, the statistics tell us that Cahill has become one of the most decorated players in the English game.
He moved to Chelsea from Bolton Wanderers in the January 2012 transfer window; Cahill was 26 at the time and the move seemed to make sense – he’d been a strong performer for a Bolton side that were eventually relegated, and he was younger than both of Chelsea’s first-choice centre-backs in John Terry and Branislav Ivanovic.
Since then, he’s become the fastest player in Premier League history to win every major trophy; the FA Cup and Champions League in 2012, the Europa League in 2013, and finally the Premier League and the League Cup in 2015.
You can’t knock his experience levels, particularly when you consider that once he broke into Chelsea’s starting lineup in his second season, he’s basically been an ever-present. In fact, he didn’t miss a single Premier League game in their 2014/15 title-winning season.
For England, too, Cahill has developed into the most regular starter amongst the group of central defenders available for selection – even captaining his country on numerous occasions.
His first England cap was picked up in 2011, and it looked like he’d be heading to Euro 2012 until an injury in a pre-tournament friendly with Belgium curtailed his hopes. But since then, he’s been one of the first names on the team sheet, and has played in both, the 2014 World Cup, and the 2016 European Championships.
Of course, any success he’s had with Chelsea hasn’t been matched at all with England – which might help to explain why he’s such a divisive player.
Indeed, the two tournaments that Cahill has featured for the Three Lions were nothing else but disastrous. 2014 saw them eliminated from the World Cup in the group stages, while 2016 saw the infamous loss to Iceland in the second round of the European Championship – arguably rock bottom for a side already struggling.
And while it’d be difficult to blame Cahill alone for any of England’s losses (indeed, other players such as Joe Hart, Leighton Baines and James Milner would arguably take more blame for individual errors) you could point the finger at him for not properly tracking Luiz Suarez for the Uruguayan’s second goal in 2014.
Tremendous servant....or liability?
For Chelsea, though, he’s largely remained a tremendous servant. Even stripped of his usual defensive partner in John Terry in 2016/17, Cahill was able to re-invent himself as part of a three-man defence usually involving Cezar Azpilicueta and David Luiz.
This change in tactics from Antonio Conte worked well and allowed Chelsea to recover from a sticky start to storm to the top of the league and eventually capture the Premier League title – Cahill’s second since joining the club.
And when Terry left for Aston Villa last summer, it seemed to make sense to see Cahill given a promotion to become the permanent club captain.
This season, however, hasn’t started quite so well. Given a straight red card for a ludicrous tackle in Chelsea’s opening day loss against Burnley, Cahill has since been in and out of the starting lineup as Conte has experimented with using the likes of Andreas Christensen and Antonio Rudiger in his three-man defence.
Granted, Cahill hasn’t been the only casualty at times – David Luiz has also seen his stock drop, and a general mix of all five defenders (Cahill, Luiz, Christensen, Rudiger and Azpilicueta) has been used to secure largely good – but somewhat mixed – results.
Plenty of fans noticed, for instance, that Chelsea’s 3-0 loss to Roma coincided with the return of Cahill to the starting lineup, after a three-man defence of Azpilicueta, Luiz and Rudiger had looked rock-solid in a 1-0 win over Bournemouth.
In fact, in all of Chelsea’s losses thus far in 2017/18 – against Roma in the UEFA Champions League, and Premier League losses to Manchester City, Burnley, and Crystal Palace – Cahill was in the starting lineup. And during this weekend’s 1-1 draw with Liverpool, Cahill was a starter, and again, the Blues’ defence looked vulnerable.
So two questions stand out – firstly, should he still be starting, both for Chelsea and for England, or has he been surpassed by younger, better players? And secondly – and more controversially – was he that ever that good to begin with?
Let’s tackle the former question first.
Quite simply, the answer is no. Unfortunately for Cahill, Chelsea now have more advanced defenders than him in the form of Antonio Rudiger and Andreas Christensen. While the young Dane is still inexperienced at the Premier League level, he’s taken to it like a duck to water, this season, and Rudiger has settled in remarkably well too.
In the three-man defence preferred by Conte, more positional awareness – and much quicker pace – is required, and Cahill seems to have neither these days, not when compared to Chelsea’s other four options.
As for England? John Stones has improved dramatically under Pep Guardiola this season, looks far more solid defensively and can still bring the ball out from the defence with a clean pass – something Gareth Southgate clearly values highly. And his other options like Harry Maguire, Joe Gomez, Michael Keane and Phil Jones are equally strong.
A fact that can’t be ignored, either, is that Cahill has been at fault for a number of goals scored against England recently – namely the three scored by France in their June 3-2 friendly victory over the Three Lions.
It’s curious, though, that Cahill’s performances for England have never been as good as his ones for Chelsea, and I think that’s where you get the answer to that controversial second question.
There’s a good argument to be made, I believe, that while a decent Premier League level defender, Cahill was made to look far better than his actual skill level by playing alongside John Terry – one of the all-time great English defenders – for the majority of five seasons at Chelsea.
While Cahill might share some attributes with Terry – a willingness to put his body on the line and fly into tackles and headers – he doesn’t share the same level of game awareness that Terry had, and at almost 32 years of age, he no longer has the pace to make up for that – in fact, he’s basically glacial these days.
And a man who was carried for so long by John Terry, and who has been painfully exposed as being out of his depth, time after time, for England, simply has no place in the starting lineup for Chelsea anymore.
Neither should he command a starting spot for England either – in fact, I’d argue that even with experience being a massively overrated attribute at the international level, he shouldn’t even make the squad anymore.
If Chelsea – and England – truly want to succeed going forward, then they must do it without one of their most experienced servants. It’s time for Gary Cahill to find a comfortable place on the bench – for good.