It wasn't supposed to be like this with Gary Cahill. While we knew that he was a capable defender with slightly inflated stats - thanks to the generally poor Bolton team around him - he was never meant to be our rock and savior. Unless we're talking rock bottom, as in his price: a measly £7M (although the same couldn't be said for his wages). Even our SB Nation brothers and sisters at the Lion of Vienna Suite doubted his chances: "it's hard to see Cahill becoming a regular starter at Chelsea anytime soon."
Fourteen months and 58 appearances later - a span that included starts in the final three matches of Chelsea's Champions League winning campaign - he's become the most often used center half on the roster. Don't believe me? Check it (minutes spent at DC for Chelsea this season, excluding the 89 minutes spent playing with just 9/10-men):
John Terry's troubles with the law, footing, and football in general have certainly played in part in elevating Cahill to such lofty playing time totals. So have David Luiz's excursions into midfield, both of the hair-raising sideshow as well as of the manager's instructions variety. And with overall minutes leader Branislav Ivanovic still playing a healthy amount of right back, it's easy to see why Cahill has become such a key member of the squad.
Measuring over 190cm, Cahill is the most imposing center half at our disposal (just don't mention the name Pavel Pogrebnyak to him). It's no surprise then to see him leading the team in whatever the things Opta calls clearances are (all 180 of them) as well as blocked shots (33; no one else has even half as much). Six goals from the occasional long bomb or set piece header round out his classic English-type center half resume.
In short, he's firmly established himself as a younger, slightly faster, and a lot less legendary John Terry, with a penchant for spectacular last-ditch tackles.
Of course, spectacular last-ditch tackles are often a result of bad positioning. Luckily for Gary, such errors are not as visible as, say, David Luiz murderspasms, so the narrative will often bypass them and him. Nor is it easy to quantify awkwardness on the ball, although that may just be a personal opinion. But what we are able to quantify (and stats don't lie; no sirree, never ever) have not been all kind to him.
For example, he has been on the pitch for six of the seven Chelsea losses in the Premier League with last week's away debacle at Southampton the first and only exception. He was also there for Atletico Madrid and Shakhtar away and Juventus away and Swansea home in the League Cup and even the Brentford scoring draw. Cahill is the most used center half on the team so there's certainly plenty of correlation here, but it's not a good start.
But let's narrow the data set and look at just the Rafalution. After all, we wouldn't want other results interfering with the Interim Tactical Genius One's work now would we?
As we saw last week and can again see in the updated DC pairings plus/minus at the top of this post, regardless of with whom Cahill is paired, he consistently ships more goals than the Chelsea season average. This holds true when looking at just the Interim Great Season as well. Interestingly, all three of Cahill's pairings score more than the Chelsea Interim average although that may just be a residual effect of the 6-1 drubbing of FC North-Alphabet-Soup-Land and the 8-0 versus the backyard kids who stole Aston Villa's uniforms.
The individual numbers don't look any better, with per-90 averages consistently placing Cahill near the bottom. Sure, some of this may be influenced by strength of opposition*, but let's come back to that in the next section.
* not to mention, lack of any actual sophisticated defensive statistics
I wasn't ever overly excited by the Gary Cahill acquisition and I'm still not convinced that he is a long-term answer in the center of Chelsea's defense, but I'm pleasantly surprised that he has not been an abject failure of a certain other January signing's proportion. He is certainly a good defender and a valuable member of the squad, but he should not be the number one starter. Even The Interim One seems to have recognized this - since the 2-0 defeat away at the Etihad, his 20th start in 22 matches, Cahill has only played in two of the eight matches (United away in the FA Cup and West Ham at the Bridge).
What has excited me is the recent (re-)development of the David Luiz - Branislav Ivanovic partnership. When Di Matteo was shown the door, the new man in charge chose this pairing in his first two matches - both clean sheets, albeit both 0-0 draws. For some reason they were then shelved for five matches, then reemerged for a 5-1 drubbing of Leeds. For some reason they were then shelved for SIX matches, before being deployed for a 4-0 away stomping of Stoke (to be fair, Chelsea played with 12 that day - thanks again, Jonathan Walters!).
Their next start would come no less than 12 matches later, a 1-0 victory over a Lukaku-less West Bromwich Albion. They repeated that scoreline on Monday versus Manchester United. In short, the pairing of the Bold and the Bear has kept a clean sheet in five of its six starts, scoring twelve and conceding just once. Slightly less than half - 5 of 12 - of all of Benitez's beloved clean sheets have come courtesy of David Luiz & Ivanovic.
So while Cahill (and rotating partner) had faced and leaked goals to all manner of opposition from the Brentfords up to the Arsenals, David Luiz & Ivanovic shut up shop versus both Manchesters and a previously undefeated at home Stoke City. I call that quite impressive and a decent answer to any strength-of-opposition arguments (it's less of an answer to any sample size arguments, at least for now).
Of course, as good as the Sideshow - Bane pairing looks on paper, they cannot play every single match of the busy schedule (five in the next 14 days). And with John Terry just a shadow of his former self and all young center halves of promise out on loan, the squad will definitely miss Cahill. So should we panic?
Well ... maybe?