If Conte doesn’t fix Chelsea’s defensive problems, their title defence is over

There was a 20 minute spell in the second half on Sunday when Chelsea’s season appeared to hang in the balance. Following on from a shock 2-1 defeat at the hands of bottom-placed Crystal Palace the weekend prior, the Blues found themselves down by the same scoreline to Marco Silva’s Watford.

It wasn’t so much the scoreline itself – Chelsea have staged comebacks before and the Hornets entered Saturday’s game higher in the table than the reigning champions for good reason – but the manner in which the match was panning out.

Before Willian was subbed on for Marcos Alonso in the 68th minute, Watford had lesser possession by just 0.1% and produced four more efforts at goal than the home side. In fact, the shots were raining down on Thibaut Courtois and had it not been for Richarlison fluffing his lines on several occasions, the visitors would have gone 3-1 up.

Silva was a series of glaring misses away from beating Arsenal and Chelsea in successive weeks; and the Blues were the same difference away from successive league defeats to non-big-six opposition. That’s never happened to Antonio Conte during his time in England and who knows how Chelsea’s campaign would have unravelled from that point.

Eventually the comeback came as Michy Batshuayi and Willian turned the match on its head, the former providing the cutting-edge Alvaro Morata couldn’t and the latter adding extra venom to Chelsea’s efforts in the final third.

The Blues showed the character of champions and the firepower needed to sling themselves back into the title race, but those two impressive qualities only gloss over the biggest problem Conte now faces – a stunningly porous defence.

In the last three games, Chelsea have conceded seven goals, including five at Stamford Bridge. The maths alone suggests the Blues can’t hope to win most of their games this season while letting in goals at that kind of rate, let alone pull off the first successful Premier League title defence in nine years.

But the real concern, considering the quality of opposition during those three games, is what happens when Chelsea face one of their divisional rivals like Romelu Lukaku’s Manchester United or Jurgen Klopp’s attacking Liverpool outfit, who they’ll encounter in the space of 20 days next month.

Absences have been a recurring theme of Chelsea’s start to the season – Conte has even felt compelled to take thinly veiled swipes at his paymasters who failed to strengthen the squad adequately during the summer. The most obvious one in the context of this discussion is N’Golo Kante; Chelsea’s Premier League goals conceded tally has almost doubled from six to ten with the Frenchman on the sidelines for the last two league games.

Tiemoue Bakayoko and Cesc Fabregas just aren’t defensive-minded players to the same extent and inevitably struggle to protect the backline in the same way, which in turn leads to more questions over why the club saw fit to part with Nemanja Matic – one of the best holding midfielders in the business – for just £40million during the summer. Victor Moses at right wing-back has been a significant loss too, perhaps more significant than many envisaged when Davide Zappacosta arrived for £22.5million.

But in truth, Chelsea’s defensive third raise enough concerns over personnel on their own. Antonio Rudiger arrived in west London with a preceding reputation from his spells with Roma and Germany, but the versatile defender just hasn’t looked the part – clumsy in possession, erratic when challenging for the ball and unconvincing in his decision making.

That was epitomised best by his role in Watford’s first goal on Saturday, pulling a Hornets player down at a corner in front of Courtois and giving the Blues ‘keeper no chance of setting himself to stop Abdoulaye Doucoure’s rasping shot. The evidence thus far suggests he’s simply not at Chelsea’s level, but perhaps too much shouldn’t be expected from a defender who has made just seven appearances in the Premier League.

More concerning are the efforts of players who were at Stamford Bridge last season, particularly Marcos Alonso and captain Gary Cahill. The left wing-back just hasn’t reached the same levels defensively and offensively this term, in comparison to a 2016/17 when his mix of height, power and technical quality proved so pivotal to the success of Chelsea’s 3-4-3.

Cahill too, always seemed like the weakest link in Chelsea’s back three, if not for the fact alone that he’s a right-footer in a left-footed role, but that has been even more prevalent this season. Incredibly considering he’s Chelsea’s club captain, the west Londoners hadn’t won a league fixture with the England international starting before last weekend and his only top flight clean sheet in 2017/18 so far came during the scoreless draw with Arsenal.

There is an argument that we shouldn’t be focusing on individuals; after all, Chelsea finished up with only the third-best goals conceded record last season despite winning the title and they even went a staggering eleven games without keeping a clean sheet. That suggests Chelsea aren’t the water-tight outfit Conte’s focus on industry and aggression often insinuates, and that the defensive issues have existed since before this season.

But even when the statistics weren’t on their side last season, there was always a feeling that Chelsea were confident at the back – that the players believed in the system and that their team-mates would cover them when errors inevitably happened. Over the last three games, the Blues have appeared anything but assured when threatened in defence. That level of belief has drastically waned.

Considering how few goals Manchester United, Manchester City and Tottenham have conceded this season, a mere 14 combined albeit for differing reasons, that could well be the difference between Chelsea and the rest of the top four come the end of the campaign unless the situation improves.

Conte needs to find solutions quickly – fortuitously, Kante is expected to return to action this week – but in the long-term and on the left side of defence particularly, it feels like Chelsea need an overhaul with true top-class quality coming in.