It’s cumbersome to determine partnership dynamics, whether in midfield, defence or in the attack. For instance how vital were Paul Scholes and Roy Keane at the heart of Manchester United’s treble-winning midfield or for that matter Dennis Bergkamp and Thierry Henry upfront for Arsenal in their respective title-winning eras. Numbers only reveal half of the picture, whereas unmeasurable qualities like understanding and harmony are often the make or break for a successful pairing on the pitch.
The success of a partnership has many intrinsic qualities that can’t be quantified, for instance, how effective and complementary players are to each other’s strengths and how together they can overcome their individual weaknesses.
One such partnership at the heart of Chelsea’s title-winning side under Jose Mourinho was that of John Terry and Ricardo Carvalho. Terry was the no-nonsense, gung-ho stopper back who put his body on the line to block shots and crosses and put in challenges before strikers had the chance to get to the ball. He was gifted aerially and physically but wasn’t the quickest or blessed with the most pace on the deck, but to compliment that weakness there was Ricardo Carvalho.
The Portuguese international was quick on the ground and played more with the ball and was an instant thwarter of swift counter-attacks by the opposition. The way Carvalho and Terry worked like clockwork, in tandem, covering space and always complimenting each other’s game, mitigating mistakes, managing shut outs at the back in games and recovering the ball quicker to build attacks was paramount to Chelsea’s success. Terry made up for his lack of pace positionally and Carvalho helped cover for his captain and teammate apart from mopping up at the back and being more productive as a 1 v 1 defender, not afraid to partake in the darker arts of defending.
Speaking with the Chelsea magazine the Portuguese defender recounted, “In my first year here, it was hard for me because I was at a new club, in a new country, in a new league and playing a much more physical kind of game than I was used to in Portugal,”
“JT recognized this straight away and was such a big help, on and off the pitch,” Carvalho said. “He really made me feel comfortable. He is one of the best I’ve played with and a great leader too.”
Recounting their understanding and complimentary attributes Carvalho said, “He is stronger than me and likes to get in the air whereas I play more with the ball than him. But that is what makes us such a good partnership together. As a center-back, whoever you are playing with, you have to know your partner very well and have an understanding. It’s like being two halves of the same whole. Instinctively, I have to know what he is going to do and he has to know what I’m going to do. The understanding between the two players is very important.”
In Chelsea’s 2004/05 title-winning season, Terry and Carvalho managed 25 clean sheets and conceded just 6 goals at home through the whole season of 38 games. A standout statistic that hasn’t been replicated since.
Terry also rolled back the years to form a successful partnership with Gary Cahill in our title-winning campaign of 2014/15 conceding only 32 goals all season.
The question remains if Chelsea can find such a harmonious defensive partnership like Terry and Carvalho in the combinations of Tomori, Rudiger, and Zouma. It also begs the question as to whether a partnership comprising of any of the latter three can have that level of understanding and be a title-winning partnership at the heart of the Blues defence.
The answer is no, not at the moment. Perhaps Tomori, if he matures with time could replicate Carvalho’s success, but he will need an able partner. If Chelsea are to reproduce their past success, they will need to shut shop more often and get more clean sheets and concede lesser goals, which with the current roster of center-backs, is seemingly an uphill task. Perhaps the signing of Koulibaly or a player of his calibre, just like Liverpool swooped in for Virgil van Dijk to rectify their defensive woes, is in order for Chelsea because at the moment our defensive stats bleed of carelessness and mistakes.
This season, at the halfway stage of the campaign, Chelsea have already conceded 29 goals in the Premier League at the rate of 1.38 goals per game and have managed only 4 clean sheets. It’s an area Frank Lampard must address with utmost urgency.
If Chelsea are to get anywhere near their past success, they will have to start with and build a successful partnership at the back.