After an up and down start to the season under new head coach Antonio Conte, Chelsea have hit a truly rich vein of form. Five wins in a row, all clean sheets and an average of 3 goals scored per game against the likes of Manchester United, Everton, Southampton, and defending champions Leicester City truly speaks to a general level of excellence probably not seen since the early days of Carlo Ancelotti’s reign.
Chelsea sit second in the league, one point behind Liverpool with 11 games played. Just past the quarter-way point of the season, Chelsea are brimming with confidence and hope, though Conte will be the first to remind us that there’s plenty of room for improvement and that lots of work remains to be done.
With the international break providing for a natural breather, let’s take a look back at the first quarter of the season and hand out some individual grades.
Central defence was a great cause for concern before the start of the season. A slow and aging core was repeatedly exposed last season, and many years of poor planning finally caught with the squad. After much consternation, captain John Terry had received yet another one-year extension, but the implied understanding was that it would be at a reduced role. But with Zouma injured and Ivanović playing right back, the Terry-Cahill partnership was once again looking likely.
The chase for reinforcements in Bonucci, Koulibaly, Rudiger, or Romagnoli proved fruitless until the eventual re-signing of former Chelsea-hero David Luiz saved the day.
The situation was similar at full-back, where Cesar Azpilicueta and Branislav Ivanović looked to reprise their roles. Baba Rahman and Ola Aina slotted into backup roles, but the former was sent on his merry way to Schalke 04 on loan after failing to impress like the Academy graduate Aina in pre-season. Signing a fresh pair of legs was imperative and the capture of Marcos Alonso seemed like a decent, if slightly overpriced move.
CURRENT STARTERS (GRADES):
Chelsea have earned five clean sheets in a row in the Premier League. The defence have cut out most errors. They have built tremendous confidence. They stand as a rock at the back and provide assistance in transition and up front.
The decision to change formation to 3-4-3 is proving to be a masterstroke and has backed up all talk from our Conte about tailoring the shape of the team to suit the players.
The most central defender in the system anchors the line, leads and organizes the system, and also provides some of the more incisive distribution along the lines of what Fàbregas used to do from midfield. David Luiz (A) has been excellent in this role, earning plaudits even from the most skeptical of observers. In theory, moments of madness still exists in his game, particularly when he joins the team higher up the pitch, but he is perfect in his imperfection.
On his right stands César Azpilicueta (A-). Antonio Conte took note of his defensive abilities and decided there was no reason not to play the classified full-back as a center back. Tackling, marking, reading of the game, stamina, strength, bravery, composure, concentration, and good communication with the right wing-back has helped Dave to remain Chelsea’s most consistent defender. His only weakness is in the air, but so far, Chelsea have not been exposed too badly in such situations.
Over on the left side of the back-three, we find Gary Cahill (B). After multiple obvious, impactful errors, Cahill has settled down, taken the captain’s arm band and has gone back to his previous consistent, unspectacular solidity. Conte keeping faith in Cahill was not only pleasing, but it’s turned out to be tactical masterstroke as well. Cahill has managed to add power, good tackling and strong height to the backline.
Just ahead, at left wing back, Marcos Alonso (B+) has displayed plenty of maturity and experience. His positioning is excellent both in defence and in attack, making up for his lack of extreme pace. With good stamina, he travels the wing well and seems difficult to take the ball off. The connection with Hazard could use some work in training and it has become clear that opposition tactics will often target his side.
Switching to right wing back, we find a most unexpected Victor Moses (A). Previously just a backup winger, Moses has been a revelation at right wing-back, his speed and direct running posing questions on offence, his strength and stamina paying dividends on defence. Moses has generally been the more attacking of the two wing-backs and has chipped in with a fair share goals and assists.
John Terry (C), captain, leader, legend is surely approaching the end of his final year of first team football at Chelsea. He was decent enough at the start (with Cahill taking most of the notice with his errors) but it remains to be seen if he can back up the central defence in its current form and format. His start against West Ham in the League Cup was not promising.
Branislav Ivanovic (C-) also has an expiring contract, but with the theoretical ability (at least in theory) to provide support in both central and wide-right areas. The reality is probably a bit harsher than that. Ivanović has barely been seen in the last fews month (though it should be noted that was also injured for a bit); it is up to him to prove his quality at Chelsea.
Kurt Zouma (—/Incomplete) remains a huge part of Chelsea future. His rehab apperances in the U23 have been promising. On current form, he’s unlikely to unseat any of the starters.
In Ola Aina (—/Incomplete) there exists great potential as a full-back or a wing-back, some of which he showed off during preseason and also in the few games we’ve seen him since.
Andreas Christensen is set to return to his parent club at the end of the season from Borussia Mönchengladbach and will hopefully slot in perfectly. An intelligent defender with an eye for a pass, the youngers should get plenty of game time.
Already on Chelsea’s books, the on-loan Baba Rahman looked useless in the summer but would theoretically be a perfect fit for left wing-back in the new system that’s been instituted since. Alonso and Baba would be a synergetic pair of LWB’s to have, with one more defensive and one more attacking. The only question is whether to or not Baba himself wants to give it a go again at Chelsea.
Other defenders already in the system to keep an eye on include Tomáš Kalas (having a solid season at Fulham), Matt Miazga (slow start; starting to flourish at Vitesse), Nathan Aké (very good left back for Watford last season), and perhaps Kenedy (not very good yet for Watford).
Chelsea’s defence is in excellent shape at the moment, but with work on the training ground, there is potential to improve even further. A few top quality additions (or recalls) in terms of squad depth would not go amiss.
OVERALL GRADE: B
Worthy of praise; room for improvement.