A majority of top flight European football teams have identities. Thomas Tuchel’s Chelsea has found success over the last year by stumping opposing attacks. The Blues came into the year as one of the best defensive teams on the planet, keeping out some of Europe’s elite en route to a UEFA Champions League title in May. This defensive solidity carried over into the current campaign as Tuchel’s men topped both the Premier League and Group H in the UCL.
However, as we turned the page on the calendar and moved into the infamous winter period, Chelsea’s rock solid defense began to crumble. It dropped to third in the league and a late Zenit equalizer cost them the top spot in Group H. The Blues have now let in two or more goals in three consecutive games, not keeping a clean sheet in their last six matches. After all, Tuchel only manages Chelsea right now because his predecessor’s leaky defense eventually fell apart and the results took a turn for the worst. The Blues have been able to keep themselves in the title race and advance to the Round of 16 in the UCL due to their attacking play over the last few weeks, unlike Frank Lampard’s boys. Nevertheless, for a team that entered the season trying to fix offensive woes, this method of winning is simply not sustainable in the grand scheme of things.
Despite playing poorly, Chelsea has only lost one of its last five, but the Blues’ form is not sustainable at the current rate in which they’re letting in goals.
It’s no secret that the Premier League title sprint is seemingly a three-horse race between Chelsea, Manchester City and Liverpool. Each has stumbled at one point or another this season, but none have seen a downtick in form quite as drastic as the Blues over the last few weeks. Tuchel’s men have only grinded out a handful of these results due to dumb luck—look no further than the Leeds match as proof of this theory.
Antonio Rudiger played a huge part in winning the contest for the hosts. Despite the fact the German’s back line let in two goals, he managed to earn two penalties from open play in a crazy turn of events. Jorginho buried them both en route to the 3-2 victory. While outscoring opponents in shootouts may have worked for Lampard’s team until the wheels fell off, it won’t be enough now that the Blues have their sights set significantly higher. The reality is this Chelsea team does not have the means to get entangled in high scoring affairs as often as it is right now. Therefore, it needs to figure out the issues at the back before it is too late.
It’s fun to laugh and joke about Rudiger of all people earning the Blues two penalties on Saturday night. However, this is extremely alarming. The German is known for his signature charge forward at some point during nearly every match. This was something altogether different. Too often lately, Rudiger and other centerbacks have found themselves far more involved in the opponent’s final third than Tuchel would perhaps like from his centerhalves. Thiago Silva was guilty of this too, sitting at the edge of Leeds’ 18-yard box in the 80′ on Saturday and firing a shot just wide, despite his side clinging on to a narrow lead.
It’s understandable that those defenders want to compensate for the loss of Ben Chilwell. Nevertheless, Marcos Alonso is perfectly capable of doing that himself. Tuchel has obviously also been thinking of ways to address this, judging by the way Reece James made more runs into the midfield—in typical Chilwell fashion—than he likely ever has before. Chilwell’s loss is huge, but it’s almost as if the centerbacks are forgetting their jobs while trying to make up for the absent Englishman. Players like Rudiger and Silva straying away from the back line puts individuals such as Cesar Azpilicueta and Andreas Christensen under immense pressure. The amazing thing about three-man defenses is the flexibility to attack with six or seven and still have serviceable cover left behind in case of a counter attack.
It’s impossible to tell whether this is complacency, misunderstanding or a bit of both without being at training daily. Nevertheless, whatever it is, the Blues need to address it. The injury excuse can only go so far seeing as important individuals like Jorginho are back in the team and controlling tempo. Communication and discipline amongst the centerback trio needs to be restored if Chelsea wants to have any chance to compete with the likes of Man City and Liverpool come March. Trophy hunts and title races aside, the way in which the Blues are competing right now simply isn’t sustainable given the DNA of their nucleus.