It’s not normal when a Chelsea youngster makes his way into the first team at the club. So many times before, it’s been said that Stamford Bridge is a place where young players go to be treated like a simple commodity: sums in an accountant’s book, not players to help win trophies. Indeed, in reality, that’s Cobham: Stamford Bridge is a place they go to watch Chelsea from the stands like everyone else.
What’s very normal at Chelsea, however, is a manager fighting with players and board in a struggle for power. This weekend, the two seemed to merge rather unexpectedly.
After reacting badly to being substituted in Chelsea’s Champions League defeat away to Roma in midweek, David Luiz was dropped for the visit of Manchester United to Stamford Bridge, whilst his manager then admitted that he “doesn’t know” if the defender has a future at the club. His replacement, though, was Andreas Christensen, a player who, if he takes the opportunity, will be one of the few success stories of Chelsea’s penchant for hoovering up the best young European talent.
The 21-year-old Danish central defender has played more times for his country than he has for his parent club, having won 11 caps for Denmark and played just seven Premier League games for Chelsea, but that looks set to change very soon.
One of the most impressive young defenders in the Bundesliga over the last few seasons while on loan at Borussia Monchengladbach, Christensen wouldn’t have looked out of place had he been a summer signing for the Blues, instead, his status as “one of those Chelsea youngsters” is probably what stands against him so far and makes him look like a gamble. If he were a £20m summer signing from the five-time Bundesliga champions Gladbach, then perhaps he’d be treated with a bit more deference.
But the most important part of that is what it does to the perception of David Luiz.
Since they won the title, Chelsea have lost John Terry and now there are rumblings around Luiz. Indeed, Cesar Azpilicueta and Antonio Rudiger have even played more times this season than Gary Cahill, whilst Christensen has only managed around 60 minutes fewer than the current club captain. It all points to the possibility that there is to be a severe defensive shake-up at a club who just seemed to see one last season, with the trimming of the game time for Terry, and the remarkably successful switch to a back three, including the revelation that was Azpilicueta at left-sided centre-back.
The biggest addition was Luiz, though. Most importantly for Chelsea last season, Antonio Conte had found a position in which he could nullify all of Luiz’s weaknesses and amplify his positives. No longer was it a problem for the Brazilian defender to wander out of position, because he had two good defenders either side of him to fill in and make their defensive line, essentially, a back four when needed. Indeed, Luiz’s comfort on the ball and ability to launch attacks meant he was actively encouraged to step into midfield.
This season, things have been less simple for Conte’s back three. Teams may have worked out how to play against them, and their added commitments of Champions League football may have taken a toll, especially on a team managed by a manager like Conte, who likes to keep consistency in his starting XI as much as possible.
But if this is all just one big power game, then Luiz may have to concede defeat at some point fairly soon. If he wants to get back into the team, he can’t let an improving player like Christensen get a run in the team ahead of him or he may lose his place on sporting grounds as well as political ones.