There a few feelings in football more painful than the very first International Break of the season and woe-behold, it’s already upon us. This is a particularly painful one for Chelsea fans, whom having watched their club splash just under £230 million this summer, will be forced to wait another 14 days before they see the side in action again.
Of the seven summer signings, only Kai Havertz and Timo Werner featured from the first gameweek. Although the former, Kai Havertz, has clearly still been in the process of building fitness. Thiago Silva, Edouard Mendy and Ben Chilwell appear to have caught up with the others and now seem to be fully match-fit and even Hakim Ziyech has been called up by Morocco for international duty. It seems, after months of waiting, we’re closer than ever to watching these six players play for Chelsea Football Club.
It’s been a strange start to the season, with it not getting underway until September 14th teams have had less time than ever to prepare for the new season which has undoubtedly affected the quality of play in most teams. In particular for Chelsea, who’ve added three new bodies to their backline (Four if you include the signing of coach Anthony Barry from Wigan Athletic).
Unfortunately, as we all know, Chelsea were knocked out of the League Cup last Tuesday by Tottenham Hotspur. However, this may turn out to be a blessing in disguise when you take a look at the fixture list. Because of the late start to the season, Chelsea will have just 45 days to play all six Champions League Group Stage games. Thankfully, they now only have the Premier League alongside this but there is still a game every three to four days in most cases.
The question is, how do they maintain fitness and maintain a winning formula throughout this congested period?
In some ways, Frank Lampard has been lucky. Chelsea have received seven points from a possible 12 in the opening four Premier League games whilst the squad have still been desperately grasping for fitness and consistency. With Christian Pulisic also not yet really featuring significantly after the hamstring injury he sustained in the FA Cup final, his return will be a huge boost to the side.
The most important way to build consistency is to focus on the backline. Kurt Zouma and Thiago Silva should now be starting every game going forward with Edouard Mendy behind them in goal. The partnership of Zouma and Thiago has huge potential, with Thiago Silva’s experience and ability to read the game coupled with Kurt’s physicality, could this be the perfect combination? Chelsea are also blessed with the option of both Reece James and César Azpilicueta at right back. I expect Reece to play the majority of the Premier League games but César’s experience will be vital for Champions League away games. I’ve always been wary of Reece’s ability to play back-to-back games in quick succession. Left-back also could prove to be an issue as Ben Chilwell seems to be significantly better than Alonso and Emerson. In terms of style of play, Palmieri is certainly closer to Ben Chilwell so expect him to receive significant game time.
I was somewhat surprised to see both Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Ross Barkley go out on loan, but I think it’s clear Lampard has a select group of players he implicitly trusts to play his “brand” of football and with Ruben’s struggles for fitness he unfortunately doesn’t fit into that just yet. Chelsea are blessed to have the trio of Jorginho, N’Golo Kanté and Mateo Kovačić who are all able to play a little deeper in the midfield. I expect two of these to start at all times excluding games against slightly easier opposition. For example, against Krasnodar I would expect just one of them to start with Kai Havertz and Mason Mount ahead to allow Chelsea to really take advantage of sides who sit deep.
Sevilla away will surely be the hardest test Chelsea face in the group stages. In these games I think a partnership of Kanté and Jorginho makes most sense to allow Chelsea to both recover the ball and dictate the game. Again, Chelsea are blessed with the midfield trio and I would have complete confidence playing the three of them at all times, they are a truly class group of players and keeping hold of Jorginho is a huge boost to this side.
The attack is where we will see the biggest difference after the international break. Pulisic and Ziyech have featured only briefly (Ziyech only in pre-season) and their return will also allow Timo Werner to play through the middle. So far the German has been forced onto the left-wing and whilst he can do a job there (winning two penalties), through the middle is his preferred position. We will see a different side to him in October and November I’m certain. Beyond Ziyech and Pulisic we’re also fortunate to have Callum Hudson-Odoi. Pulisic and Callum are certainly more natural wingers than Ziyech so expect him to feature plenty.
Up top we have the option of Timo Werner, Olivier Giroud and Tammy Abraham. Three very good strikers, and the fact that Olivier Giroud wasn’t interested in leaving this summer tells you everything you need to know about his mentality. We have three very different strikers too, so we can deploy multiple different game plans with them and ensure that they’re always adequately rested.
All in all, I think this Chelsea side has the perfect blend of both youth and experience. Whilst players such as Hudson-Odoi, Mason Mount and Reece James may not have a huge amount of first team experience, they’ve won everything at youth level. Couple this up with senior players such as Thiago Silva and César Azpilicueta, I think you have the perfect combination of fearlessness and leadership combining for Chelsea’s winning formula.