It would be too simplistic to state injuries to key players have been the difference between Chelsea and Manchester City in the Premier League title race this term. Yet there is no doubt Thomas Tuchel’s side has been hugely impacted, especially over the past three months.
The Blues head coach had to navigate four weeks without Romelu Lukaku and Timo Werner. Mateo Kovacic, meanwhile, missed almost six weeks with a hamstring injury and Covid.
N’Golo Kante has started only 12 matches across all competitions this term due to a number of knocks, niggles, and illness. Ben Chilwell is ruled out for the remainder of the season with a knee issue. And Reece James is sidelined for the foreseeable future with a hamstring injury suffered at the end of December.
Despite those many absences –and others due to positive Covid tests – Chelsea have still been able to reach the Champions League knockout stage, book their place in the Carabao Cup final, progress into the FA Cup fourth round, and currently sit second in the Premier League table.
They have also been beaten just once in all competitions since September; that is testament to Tuchel and his coaching staff, the playing staff, and the depth of the squad Chelsea possess.
Yet every club – no matter their resources – have key players that the team is built around. And when they are unavailable, gaps are left that can’t quite be filled.
It is no different at Chelsea and ahead of the Blues’ trip to the Etihad Stadium to face Manchester City, who lead the Premier League by ten points after 21 matches, Tuchel outlined the two players whose absences had a significant impact.
“If you have players out like Mateo and N’Golo,” Tuchel said, “they share the work with Jorginho on the very highest level in the middle of the pitch. So you miss the core of your team.
“Players like N’Golo and Kova are so, so important for the way they come to training and the way they push everybody. The way they are positive. The top, top players behave every day the same, no matter even if they have to rest one game or have personal differences, or sporting decisions against them, or they have to fight. Still, they have the experience and the attitude right.
“They know what it takes to overperform consistently and this is how they behave. They push everybody to the limit because they push themselves all the time.
“N’Golo does it without words. He does it just by doing it and it makes everybody see what the benchmark is. Kova does it with work and attitude and a lot of empathy. And there are many more.
“Then we have to talk about relationships on the pitch we are getting this season. Last season, it was like Azpi (Cesar Azpilicueta) with Thiago (Silva) and Toni (Rudiger) most of the time [in the defence]. This season, when we had an injury to Azpi, suddenly Andreas (Christensen) stepped up and was very strong with Toni and Thiago in the back three.
“If you can play these guys more consistently, they will know when to step up, when to cover, that he will do this, that he will do that, you get a feeling for each other, a connection.
“In the last weeks, we have never, never, never played the same back three. We change during matches and you see it, something is missing. So we think how much can we demand? What is our 100%?
“We need this intuition, we need this understanding and fluidity in the movements in defending. And that is what we are missing. It is simple as this.”