Chelsea's Squad Review - Who Stays and Who Goes in Defence
Antonio Conte’s first season at Stamford Bridge was a tremendous success. They sped to the title leaving Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City in their wake. However, with European football being added to their calendar in 2017, it was a different story altogether.
Conte likes to play with five defenders at the back. Though it’s popularised as 3-4-3 or 3-5-2 formation, the two wing-backs act as cover for the three central defenders while in their third. As a result, their defensive record and discipline are of paramount importance.
However, Chelsea’s losses to Watford, Bournemouth, Newcastle United and West Ham United will indicate that all wasn’t well. By the end of the season, the Stamford Bridge club was ousted from the top four and had to settle for a fifth-place finish after a title-winning campaign.
In this part of the series, we’ll take a look at how Conte’s defenders fared this past season. We’ll also explore any news of incoming transfers or looming exits.
The England international was a Conte mainstay in the Italian's debut year. He, along with John Terry, formed an unbreakable partnership at the back. However, with Terry leaving for Aston Villa, the responsibility to provide leadership rested on Cahill.
Unfortunately, the 32-year-old could not repeat the form from the season prior. In 27 Premier League appearances, Cahill managed 4.6 clearances per game while making one interception. The clearances dropped when playing in the Champions League, resulting in only 2.5 average clearances per game.
In addition, he received three yellow cards and a red card during the Premier League. As of now, Cahill remains a Blue and is likely to lead them again next season.
Conte brought in the Brazilian from PSG during the early months of his tenure. Luiz had formerly played under Mourinho, before being sold to Paris Saint-Germain. After joining Terry and Cahill in a back-three, Luiz’s second season at the club fizzled, largely due to his awry tackling and hunger for the ball.
While Mourinho and Conte prefer central defenders to cover the space and acts as the last line of defence, Luiz typically likes to run with the ball. This often leaves open space behind him. As a result, the team becomes vulnerable to counter attacks.
That is likely to be the key reason why the 31-year-old could only manage 14 appearances in 2017/18. His clearances in the Premier League stood at 4.1 per game while pulling 1.8 successful tackles per game with a 64% success rate. There were rumours of him looking for another club, but nothing solid has materialised as of now.
The German international was signed just one year after he completed a move to the Serie A with AS Roma. The former VfB Stuttgart defender rose through the ranks at the German club and spent two seasons on loan at in Italy, before making the move permanent. Conte decided to bring in another central defender to support Cahill, with injury issues beginning to form across the back line.
Rudiger made 45 appearances in all competitions for the Blues. During that time, he made 3.7 clearances per game in the Premier League while making less than one interception per game. His reputation for not diving into tackles was further established as the made only 1.1 tackles per game. However, he does become a liability at times for the defence, committing silly fouls. His current contract extends till 2022. He is likely to remain at the club for at least another season.
The Denmark international appeared 40 times for Chelsea in his debut season. Conte handed him a start after he spent two campaigns on loan at Bundesliga club Borussia M’Gladbach. He came through the ranks at the Chelsea academy and caught the manager's eye, as he looked to provide depth to his defence.
Christensen offered a versatile option to Conte, being able to play at centre-back, right back and defensive midfield. He impressed in his first season and often put up mature displays; Apart from a couple of occasions when his inexperience was exposed.
He impressed in European competition as well as domestically, making 3.5 and 3.9 clearances per game, respectively. Additionally, he had a keen understanding of the game, making 1.4 interceptions per match. His professional contract extends till 2022 and he is likely to provide many memorable performances in the blue shirt.
The Spaniard has spent six seasons at Stamford Bridge, arriving at the tender age of 22, from Marseille. The 28-year-old made 48 appearances for Chelsea this past season. He has been a constant at the Chelsea defence for the last four seasons.
In this season particularly, Azpilicueta added that extra impetus to attack often bringing the ball forward from defence. His ability to carry the ball allowed him to rack up six assists in the Premier League while scoring three goals. Apart from that, he is diligent in his defensive contribution and reads the game intelligently.
The Spaniard just enjoyed the best season of his career. His current contract lasts till 2020 and he is unlikely to move anywhere.
Alonso signed with Chelsea in 2016 from Fiorentina. The 27-year-old left back put in 45 appearances for Conte’s side that season. He adapted well to the left wing-back role, aiding in attack build-up as well as marshalling the flanks in order to provide cover. In his 33 Premier League appearances, the Spaniard picked up seven goals and two assists.
He remains as probably the best crosser in the squad, and his darting runs going forward has been a huge bonus for Chelsea. Alonso’s contract lasts till 2021. He's not going anywhere anytime soon.
Moses is Conte’s largest success story. The Nigerian international has spent 9 years at the club, but the majority of them have been on loan to other Premier League sides. Chelsea's Italian gaffer brought him back from loan and he's never left the first-team fold since. The midfielder was converted into a wing-back to make use of his pace, strength and technical ability to outnumber opposition defenders.
In addition, his defensive awareness improved, while Moses' understanding of the game developed. He pitched in with three goals and three assists this season; in 40 appearances for the club. Along with goal scoring contribution, Moses made 1.3 successful tackles per game with a 76% success rate. As of now, his contract extends till 2021.
The 26-year-old Italian was brought in from Torino last season, as Conte looked for depth for his wing-back positions. Zappacosta made 35 appearances for the Blues in all competitions. Zappacosta’s main value lies in going forward and putting in crosses from the sideline. He was brought in to provide deliveries into the box for Alvaro Morata. In his debut year, the Italian picked up two goals and an assist.
However, his defensive contribution does not tally up with his attacking outputs. Time will tell if Conte’s new acquisition can stand the test of Premier League football.
The Brazilian was signed from Roma in the January transfer window but made only 7 appearances for the Blues. While he did pick up an assist during that time, it’s still too early to evaluate his ability in the English top flight.
Kurt Zouma was sent out on loan to Stoke City. The 23-year-old Zouma made 37 appearances for The Potters. The Frenchman made 6.8 clearances per game while making 1.5 successful tackles with 88% success rate. He should make his way back into the Chelsea first team after a season like that.
Given Chelsea’s current squad depth in defence, it is unlikely for any incoming transfers. As for exists, Luiz seems to be the only option this season. But with the August 9th deadline looming, it’s looking likely that he’ll remain with the London club.