Inconsistency is the clearest tell of a side in transition, which is why Chelsea have fallen victim to complacency not only from game-to-game but also for periods in games at times this season.
The Blues put together a 13-game winning run to push themselves clear of the chasing pack last term, but after making fundamental changes to the spine of the team during the summer transfer window, their longest victorious stretch so far this season has been just four matches. Accordingly, questions have been asked of Antonio Conte, and Antonio Conte has asked questions of those who oversaw the summer recruitment.
But in truth, to expect much else from Chelsea this season would be somewhat naïve. The fact no side has successfully defended the Premier League title since 2008 justifies the decision to part with three first-team stalwarts – Diego Costa, Nemanja Matic and John Terry – and replace them with younger alternatives offering a more mobile and modern style of play – Alvaro Morata, Tiemoue Bakayoko and Andreas Christensen – during the summer.
But three players who had never set foot in the Premier League before were always doomed in attempting to provide the same level of consistency, quality, leadership and experience. All three have enjoyed decent starts to their Chelsea careers and all three are talented players, but it’s that extra few percent familiarity and maturity ensures which can make all the difference in a title charge.
In any case, Chelsea’s transition process doesn’t feel complete. Chelsea are still short of world-class wing-backs, something that seems imperative if the west Londoners are to reap maximum reward from their 3-4-3 setup, and a Morata understudy that Conte truly trusts. Perhaps more important than what Chelsea still need, however, is what they’re still yet to part with; from Chelsea’s strongest starting XI this season, the most obvious weakest link is unfortunately captain Gary Cahill.
That may seem like a superficial analysis of an old-school defender who better belongs to a bygone era, but that’s exactly why Cahill has begun to stand out in the Chelsea starting XI. Surrounded by younger players more befitting the idiosyncrasies of 3-4-3, Cahill’s no-nonsense approach has become aged and old-fashioned.
While there’s certainly still some place for that in the modern game – just look at how far mastering the fundamentals has taken Burnley this season – Chelsea’s focus should be competing at the very top of the domestic and continental stage. The technical demands of that level are starting to look a little beyond Cahill.
Perhaps the biggest problem is the position he fills in the backline, left centre-half. When Cahill arrived at Chelsea in 2012, he was no slouch on the ball by centre-back standards. But fast forward five years and the vast majority being produced these days are far more natural ball-players with better technical quality. Additionally, he’s quite simply a right-footer playing on the left.
Much like the situation at wing-back, if Chelsea want their three-man defensive setup to be as effective as possible when in possession, the Blues need a left-footed defender on that side to provide balance on the ball – someone like Barcelona’s Samuel Umtiti, who also has the physicality to be a success in the Premier League, or Athletic Bilbao’s Aymeric Laporte.
But some would argue, considering the title race is already over this season, Antonio Rudiger deserves his chance there as well. The former Roma man fits the Chelsea template of powerful and athletic defenders and while he’s a right-footer as well, his consistency in possession exceeds that of Cahill’s. He’s more comfortable and ambitious with the ball, and his passing accuracy in the Premier League has been 4% higher than Cahill’s so far this season. Not a gigantic difference, but the kind of gap that can separate a team from being title winners and also-rans.
That being said, there’s one obvious reason Conte continues to depend on Cahill. In a squad that had a substantial dose of youth injected into it during the summer, his experience, leadership and ability to organise is still vital to the rest of the team, and especially alongside Christensen who is learning the finer details of the sweeper role.
Cesar Azpilicueta on the other side is a phenomenal defender and a key presence in building attacks from the back, but he’s not the reassuring vocal presence and on-pitch instructor Christensen needs to avoid errors at this stage of his career. Excluding Cahill and David Luiz, who now appears to be completely out of the picture at Stamford Bridge, the average age of Chelsea’s current centre-back cohort is just 22-and-a-half years. Cahill is an obvious and proven natural remedy.
That may well give Cahill a stay of execution in the starting XI until the end of the season, which may well lead to a longer one should Conte move on. But aged 32 and only becoming a more outdated style of defender, it feels like the England international’s career at top level – especially as a left-sided centre-back – is inevitably coming to an end. Should this be Cahill’s last season as a regular in the Chelsea first-team? Let us know by voting below…