Chelsea Must Tighten up Defensively to Mount Premier League Title Challenge

Chelsea Must Tighten up Defensively

It was an oft-repeated statistic intended to damn Chelsea. Last season the Blues conceded 54 goals in the Premier League, more than any other top-half finisher and the same number as Brighton and Hove Albion, who ended the campaign down in 16th. Their leaky defense did not prevent Chelsea qualifying for the Champions League, but it was clear going into the summer where the priority lay for Frank Lampard and co.

Yet despite their obvious shortcomings at the back, last term, Chelsea’s transfer business has been primarily focused on strengthening at the other end of the field. Timo Werner has arrived from RB Leipzig as an upgrade on Tammy Abraham and Olivier Giroud up front, while Hakim Ziyech and Kai Havertz will add further creativity and guile to the forward line. Even Ben Chilwell, the former Leicester City left-back, is better going forward than he is defensive.

Centre-backs Thiago Silva and Malang Sarr have joined from Ligue 1, although the latter will spend this season out on loan. Silva has been a magnificent player over the last decade but he turns 36 next week and will surely not have the legs to play week in, week out this campaign. There is still time for Chelsea to improve their options at the back, and Rennes goalkeeper Edouard Mendy is indeed on the verge of moving to Stamford Bridge, but they have not done as much business in that area as many expected.

Lampard’s side began the 2020/21 season on Monday with a game against Brighton, the team that conceded the same amount of goals as the Blues last time out. Chelsea got off to the perfect start results-wise, triumphing 3-1 at the Amex Stadium, but it was not an overly convincing performance from the visitors. Expected Goals (xG), a statistic that measures chance quality, had it down as a Brighton win: 1.44 to 1.27.

Formation Tweak and New Goalkeeper Should Bring More Solidity

Werner and Havertz were handed their competitive debuts by Lampard, but Silva and Chilwell did not feature. The former looked sharp, particularly in the first half when he won the penalty that was converted by Jorginho, but Havertz struggled to get in the game. Perhaps that was because of his position out on the right; the former Bayer Leverkusen man does his best work in central zones and may well be moved there when Liverpool visit west London this weekend.

That slot is certainly available after Lampard shifted to a 4-2-3-1 formation against Brighton. This was a subtle but significant change from the 4-3-3 he employed for much of the last term. For starters, it makes room for a No.10 – Havertz may be the long-term option there but it was Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Ross Barkley who played behind Werner on the south coast. Loftus-Cheek was disappointing, but Barkley showed flashes of quality after entering the fray as a second-half substitute.

Just as significant, though, is the new shape’s impact on the deeper roles. In effect, Chelsea’s midfield triangle has been flipped: whereas the 4-3-3 provides one holding player alongside two box-to-box shuttlers, the 4-2-3-1 system offers two deeper players in behind one who is more advanced. Jorginho and N’Golo Kante were selected for those roles on Monday and will probably be Lampard’s first-choice duo throughout the campaign.

In theory, the presence of two sitting players should afford the Chelsea defense greater protection. Football is a team game and it is overly simplistic to believe the only way to strengthen a backline is to sign better individuals. Defending, even more so than attacking, is about structure and organization, and increasing the protection in front of the back four is a way to make a team more solid.

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Chelsea was frequently far too open on the counter-attack last season, so pulling one midfielder deeper should be beneficial. It could also help to get the best out of Kante, who had his worst season in English soccer last time out. That is not to say the France international performed poorly, but he did not reach the levels he had previously hit at Leicester City and in his first two campaigns at Stamford Bridge.

Kante is often mischaracterized as a holding midfielder who has played his best soccer in a restricted role. In fact, his strongest seasons in the Premier League – in 2015/16 with Leicester and 2016/17 with Chelsea – saw him play in two-man midfield with a less mobile partner, which allowed him to use his dynamism and athleticism to good effect with and without the ball.

The Jorginho-Kante axis should help Chelsea’s defensive record this term, although Monday’s match against Brighton suggested that this team remains vulnerable. Clearly Kepa Arrizabalaga should have saved Leandro Trossard’s equalizer, and there is little doubt that Mendy will be an upgrade on the beleaguered Spaniard. But that was not the only chance Chelsea conceded, and it is difficult to envision them pushing Liverpool or Manchester City close without significantly limiting the opportunities they give up to opponents.

Chelsea are third-favorites to win the Premier League title this term, with DraftKings Sportsbook offering odds of +700. While Liverpool and City are available for much shorter prices, it is notable that fourth-favorites Manchester United are listed at +1600. As far as the bookmakers see it, Chelsea should be finishing third quite comfortably.

Lampard knows that a failure to do so would see questions asked of his management. The Chelsea boss has been heavily backed in the transfer market this summer, and the Blues now have an extremely talented squad – particularly at the top end of the pitch. However, finishing in the top three – and certainly challenging for the championship – will be beyond the Blues unless they can improve defensively. With all due respect to Brighton, conceding the same number of goals as Graham Potter’s side will not be good enough this season.

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Greg Lea

Expert on Soccer

Greg Lea is a freelance soccer journalist from London. He is the former editor of The Set Pieces, and has contributed to the Guardian, FourFourTwo, and ESPN. A Crystal Palace fan, he is a long-time subscriber to the belief that it's the taking part that counts. Email: [email protected]