Football’s long-awaited return is just around the corner, as the clock ticks down to Chelsea’s trip to Aston Villa. It’s vital that the Blues get off to a good start, with only three points between them and a Europa League spot, currently occupied by Manchester United.
Frank Lampard has decisions to make about who to start at Villa Park, though some are more certain than others. Kepa Arrizabalaga will start in goal, having put in two outstanding performances before the suspension. Mateo Kovačić will feature in midfield, while Tammy Abraham will hope to add to his 15 goals for the season.
But, if there’s one position which echoes uncertainty over all else, it’s at the heart of defence.
There is no more unpredictability than Chelsea’s centre-backs, and who will start at the back. Lampard hasn’t had one pair he has been comfortable with this season, regularly changing and reshuffling his back line throughout the campaign.
Chelsea have used 9 different centre-back combinations in the Premier League alone, changing on average every 3 games. Four of these have been in the form of a back three, two of which include captain César Azpilicueta dropping back in from right-back. In comparison, Liverpool have used 3 different centre-back combinations this season.
If that says anything, it proves that Chelsea don’t have a consistent, preferred centre-back partnership – nor a solid idea of which one is their best.
Lampard went into the new season with 4 centre-back options. Antonio Rüdiger and Andreas Christensen continued on from last season, while Fikayo Tomori and Kurt Zouma returned from loan to complete the quartet. It looked to be a promising set of centre-backs, but the stats haven’t been pretty.
Chelsea have conceded 39 goals, the 12th worst defence in the top flight. In all competitions, they have only mustered clean sheets in a quarter (21.4%) of their games, an alarmingly low number. The numbers don’t lie, whether it’s showing how lacklustre the defending has been, or how many combinations have been executed to no avail.
So, why is there a centre-back dilemma?
One issue is that the resources available. While Lampard did have the choice in his starting centre-backs for the season – choosing who to recall, keep and sell – his hands were still tied behind his back. The transfer ban reduced his options of new recruits, and by the time it was lifted in January, there wasn’t enough time.
Money hasn’t been an issue for Chelsea, but time has. Six weeks before the start of the season was a promising period to choose his backline, only to be thrashed 4-0 by Manchester United at Old Trafford. That was the first of the 9 combinations, one which was soon ditched when results weren’t going the Blues’ way.
Another problem is a question that has been asked all season: who is Chelsea’s best centre-back?
There hasn’t been a clear favourite, though Christensen usually comes out top in polls and surveys. Even then, the Dane isn’t really clear of the rest, though neither are any of the other three. They are all good defenders, but not one has an outright claim of being the best in their department at Stamford Bridge.
Rüdiger is the oldest, though has played the fewest games – mainly due to injury problems throughout the campaign. Zouma has played the most, but has the most yellow cards to his name. The debate will rage on, but there isn’t a clear favourite.
Even the stats show a range of abilities. Christensen’s passing (90%) is far more accurate than the rest, as are his number of tackles per game (2.1). But Tomori has more interceptions per game (1.5), while Zouma has a better win rate for duels (66%).
|Passing accuracy||Tackles per game||Total duels won||Key passes||Interceptions per game|
All of their respective stats show a range of abilities, strengths and weaknesses, yet provide a difficult dilemma for Lampard. These stats in particular suggest that Christensen and Zouma are the best pairing, one that has been put into action well this season. But there’s a strong argument for each player.
Lampard needs to find his favourite centre-back partnership, and soon. That may involve spending money to buy a new top-class defender, with Napoli’s Kalidou Koulibaly an option mentioned. Koulibaly would be an incredible addition to the Blues, though the prospects of him switching Naples for west London remain theoretical.
The debate will go on for the rest of the season, with a range of opinions and claims for each potential partnership. It is one of the many issues that needs addressing, whether it requires more experimentation or the recruitment of a new player.
It will remain a long-term issue until at least the summer, but for now, all eyes are on the trip to Villa Park. Who will start in defence for Chelsea? Who knows.
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