The early optimism brought on by Antonio Conte’s first few matches in charge of Chelsea has waned somewhat this week following two frustrating performances.
Chelsea’s 2-2 draw away at Swansea may have been clouded by a controversial refereeing decision, but we also failed to display our ruthlessness in front of goal. Despite registering a staggering tally of 28 shots, Chelsea scored only two goals — a conversion rate of 7.1%. That simply isn’t sufficient, especially when our defensive fragility persists and truly perplexing decisions continue to be made, like the one by Thibaut Courtois that resulted in Swansea converting a penalty against the Blues for the second successive season.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t the worst performance under Conte’s reign so far. The Blues’ first-half display against Liverpool was shamefully catastrophic as the visitors successfully and repeatedly exposed our tactical and defensive deficiencies and showed off their impressive array of attacking talent.
In truth, the defence reeked of disorganisation — the absence of John Terry was sorely felt — but the Blues also lacked the creativity and the vision to engender a serious second-half response. Conte’s substitutions came far too late, as Liverpool’s resilience secured a significant three points. It is unequivocally clear that the Blues’ defence must improve significantly if Conte is to realise his ambition of mounting a genuine title challenge.
Nonetheless, the one aspect of Conte’s reign that has perplexed me the most is the Italian’s insistence on playing Nemanja Matic ahead of Cesc Fabregas. Antonio Conte is an outstanding manager, which makes this decision even more infuriating.
Nemanja Matic is a competent defensive midfielder. The first year of his Chelsea return testified his credentials as one of Europe’s foremost holding midfielders. However, Matic has been a shadow of his former-self for a considerable period. N’Golo Kante has demonstrated first-hand what the Serbian has lacked over the duration of the previous season.
In the 2014-15 season, Matic was averaging almost 3 tackles per game, to go along with about 2 interceptions and almost 4 clearances. In 2015-16, other than averaging a few more interceptions, the other two metrics dropped considerably. The early numbers from this season are even worse, further confirming that Nemanja Matic is experiencing a deterioration in form.
Chelsea do operate with one more central midfielder this season and have added a certain N’Golo Kanté to the mix. While these could partially explain the drop in numbers for Matić, has Conte’s plan for a solid midfield successfully fulfilled it’s objective?
The Blues have conceded 6 league goals in 5 league games. Admittedly, Matic isn’t solely responsible for conceding six goals, but he also hasn’t prevented these goals. The current midfield trio have not fulfilled their primary purpose. Meanwhile, they have kept one of the most gifted midfielders in world football on the sidelines.
Cesc Fabregas is unequivocally the best passer in Chelsea’s squad. The Spaniard formed an integral role in sweeping the domestic double in the 2014/15 season, registering 18 league assists. In fact, since the start of the 2006/07 season no other player in the Premier League has recorded more assists than Cesc Fabregas. A player of this exceptional calibre sitting on the bench is a chronic waste of resources.
Diego Costa has been thriving under Conte’s guidance, scoring five goals and assisting once. Just imagine how much more the Spaniard could score if Fabregas were frequently playing. The telepathy that exists between the two is unrivalled in the Chelsea squad and is reminiscent of the relationship that Lampard and Drogba shared. No one understands Diego Costa’s play better than Cesc Fabregas.
Costa wouldn’t be the only player to reap the benefits of Fabregas’ inclusion. The 29-year-old operates as the orchestrator; he provides the team with direction, and his vision is practically unrivalled. No player in the current squad exhibits the ability that Fabregas does, to identify the space and execute the pass – in his absence, a key component of Chelsea’s attack is lost. Fabregas is often the individual responsible for instigating a counter-attack, or providing the early ball for Diego, thus allowing the team to advance.
The presence of Kanté and Oscar would provide Fabregas sufficient protection to utilise his creative talents. After all, the inclusion of the Matic-Oscar combo has failed miserably to enhance the defensive aspect of Chelsea’s game. With Chelsea’s attack thrivin — Costa and Batshuayi have eight goals between them — this is the perfect opportunity to re-introduce Cesc Fabregas.