“Defending diagonal balls in and around the back three…they don’t know where they are, all of them.”
Well that’s hardly a surprise, Rio Ferdinand, because it can be pretty disorientating to be constantly moving across the back three, in and out of the team, with ever-changing teammates. Chelsea have now played 17 matches this season, with nine different combinations, and only once have they retained the same back three. It’s little wonder they look confused. And it’s little wonder they have kept just five clean sheets.
Forgive us the long, cumbersome list but below is the make-up of Chelsea’s three-man defence this season, with an asterisk marking a clean sheet. You may notice that the one thing all those asterisks have in common is that they occur next to the name of Cesar Azpilicueta, not at wing-back but in the centre of a three-man defence.
Only once – after a clean sheet against Everton – has Antonio Conte retained the same back three. He is of course dealing with an increased workload but it appears to defy logic that such a meticulous coach would constantly tinker with the heart of his defence. When you are as uncertain defensively as Chelsea have uncharacteristically been for much of the season, surely any good performance should be seized upon as an opportunity for continuity.
So when a back three of Antonio Rudiger, Azpilicueta and David Luiz (incidentally the same trio who kept that first clean sheet against Everton) excelled against Bournemouth – with Davide Zappacosta also excellent at wing-back – the instinctive response would be to task the same trio with the same jobs against Roma, even if that once again means your captain watching from the sidelines.
Instead, Azpilicueta was shunted wide, Luiz moved central and Rudiger switched to accommodate Cahill. The result, unsurprisingly, was total chaos. Hardly surprising, you might think, when the only other outing for this incarnation was the 4-2 win over Watford when Chelsea initially looked very vulnerable.
Eventually, in Rome, Conte reacted by taking off Cahill, but that only led to further confusion as defenders who have spent over a year in one formation understandably struggled with another. In the end it was impossible not to feel sorry for Rudiger, who suddenly looked like a lost schoolboy rather than an accomplished international defender.
Of course there were other issues in Rome, with the absence of N’Golo Kante leaving the defence further exposed and Cesc Fabregas looking every one of his 30 years, while Alvaro Morata’s radar was sadly off, but the most glaring problem was the defensive confusion for which Conte must take responsibility.
This result heaps a great deal of pressure onto the Italian’s shoulders ahead of Sunday’s visit from one of his predecessors, with pundits and journalists keen to speculate that something is awry at the Bridge. He could alleviate a fair amount of that pressure by simply picking a defence that works. And picking it again and again and again until the goals have stopped flying in and the clouds have lifted.