Chelsea scored a second-best 85 goals during their title-winning campaign last year. But for as much as Eden Hazard, Diego Costa, and Pedro impressed going forward last season, the bedrock of their title challenge was the defence.
Thibaut Courtois led the Premier League with 16 clean sheets, their 3-4-3 baffled teams and N’Golo Kante was like a force field around Chelsea’s penalty area.
Which makes their first game this season, as well as their Community Shield performance, all the more worrying.
Organising the Chelsea gears of war on the pitch was long the responsibility of John Terry. As he phased out of the lineup it fell to Gary Cahill, and when he was sent off on Saturday? It fell to no one.
The horror show of a first half went against everything we have come to expect from Chelsea. They were sloppy, neither David Luiz or the hastily added Andreas Christensen were picking up runs. Sam Vokes exploited their disjointedness for two goals, running off the shoulder of one onto the other to put the ball home.
Chelsea were better after they got in at half-time and talked things through, but it was all too little too late.
With Gary Cahill and Cesc Fabregas facing a ban for this weekend’s big game against Tottenham, the question of how Antonio Conte squeezes his thin squad into his 3-4-3 is near-impossible to answer without throwing a huge amount of unprepared youth players into the team against a title rival.
This is one option, but it involves sliding Azpilicueta back into the middle, starting Christensen, and moving Luiz into the midfield to cover for Fabregas’ absence. After Morata’s influence on the last 30 minutes of the Burnley game he has to start, with Batshuayi pushing outside to cover for Hazard and still provide a good threat.
Christensen’s inability to gel with Luiz has to be a worry, and against the likes of Harry Kane, Dele Alli, and Christian Eriksen, you simply can’t have it.
However, a more logical answer would be to revert to a 4-2-3-1…
It would allow them to play the game without Christensen and keep Luiz in the back four, with Willian dropping into a more defensive position next to Kante and Batshuayi playing as part of the three behind Morata. Rudiger and Luiz is a pairing that is an unknown, but I would trust that far more than moving multiple pieces around just to hold onto a 3-4-3.
Chelsea have to start adding to their squad now. It’s been something of a running joke this summer that Chelsea’s squad is far too thin. Some of that is not entirely true, with injuries keeping the likes of Hazard, Pedro, and Tiemoue Bakayoko sidelined. Still, the midfield, especially in the centre where Nemanja Matic was so impressive in his Manchester United debut, is a worry.
Reports doing the rounds are that Chelsea will be making a move for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who has played basically everywhere during his time with Arsenal. He would certainly be a useful addition, but not exactly the championship-winning purchase that may be needed.
Antonio Conte needs a solution though. This Premier League season is lining up to be one of the most competitive in recent history, and simply waiting around for Hazard to get fit, or trying to survive until Cahill is back is not an option. Bad things happen to Chelsea managers who don’t win things, and do we really need to see another defending Premier League champion manager get fired?
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