Chelsea's defensive fragility has been an area of considerable concern for some time, and the initial signs under Conte's guidance haven't been particularly favourable.
It seems a long time ago that Chelsea were renowned for defensive solidity. When Jose Mourinho was appointed manager in 2004, the Blues were moulded into a relentless defensive machine with a cohesive and compact back-line. Under the now Manchester United manager, it became quintessential Chelsea to take the lead and shut up shop. Despite the extraordinary wealth of attacking talent at Mourinho's disposal, the Pensioners' focus was placed on defensive work. It was the key to the team’s success.
During the 2003-04 season, the year before Mourinho, the foundations were laid. The Blues only conceded 30 league goals, registering seven defeats. Mourinho then operated as the catalyst; in his debut season, the Blues only lost 1 of 38 league games and conceded just 15 goals, a record that stands to this day. On average, that was 0.4 goals conceded per game.
The following season entailed further acclaim for Chelsea's defence as the Blues conceded only 22 league goals on the way to back-to-back Premier League titles. The pattern continued for the next two seasons, with 24 and 26 goals in 2006-07 and 2007-08 — an average of 0.6 and 0.7 per game, respectively.
Mourinho had revolutionised Chelsea's style of play and created arguably the strongest defensive unit in world football, able to negate the threat of even the most lethal attacking force. When he resumed managerial duties in 2013, it wasn't difficult to envision a re-emergence of Chelsea's defensive might.
In the 2012-13 season, Chelsea had let in 39 league goals, averaging just over a goal conceded per game. The following season, the first of Mourinho's second stint as manager, saw this total decrease by 12 goals, to a rate of just 0.7 goals conceded per game. The following season, despite conceding five more goals than the previous season, the Blues won another Premier League title.
And then, it all fell apart. It is exceedingly difficult to comprehend how the same defensive unit has now let in 62 goals over the course of the next 44 league games, almost doubling the average rate of conceded goals. The deterioration has been as sickeningly sudden as it’s been shocking.
Last season's wretched title defence was a catastrophic display of defensive ineptitude, and despite the early promise of Antonio Conte's appointment, Chelsea's horrifying defensive frailties have lingered. In the Italian's first eight games in charge, he has witnessed his side concede thirteen goals and seven in the last three fixtures alone. For a man recognised for moulding one of the greatest defensive units in the world (Bonucci, Bazgarli and Chiellini) this is a highly troubling issue.
Many factors have contributed to this problem, but most prominent of all has been Chelsea's continuing reliance on John Terry. Unquestionably, John Terry has been an instrumental figure for Chelsea Football Club and he is arguably the greatest defender who has ever graced the Premier League. Nevertheless, we should not be so dependent on a 35-year-old who is nearing his retirement anymore. When Terry was deservedly rewarded with his latest one-year contract extension, his purpose was supposed to be to feature sporadically and provide leadership to a squad evidently devoid of leaders.
Rather alarmingly, Chelsea requires his presence now more than ever — Chelsea have lost just once in the 2016 calendar year when Terry’s started (3-2 to Sunderland, when he was sent off). That’s one loss in fifteen games (and zero in four under Conte), compared with seven losses in the fourteen other games that did not feature Terry from the start or at all.
The failure to acquire a proper replacement for John Terry is just one glaring example or the mismanagement that’s stunted that club’s progress in recent season. The average age of John Terry, Gary Cahill, Branislav Ivanovic and David Luiz is 31.5, and even with the inclusion of Kurt Zouma and Marcos Alonso, the average age is still relatively high at 28.7. (Tottenham, for example, have an average age of 25.7.) Meanwhile, the player poised to take over Terry's duties at centre-back is currently excelling in Germany, and Borussia Mönchengladbach are actively seeking to acquire his services on a permanent basis.
To exacerbate the situation, this core of typically reliant players have seen their form deteriorate dramatically as well. Branislav Ivanovic and Gary Cahill have served the club remarkably well, amassing a total of 570 appearances and adding an impressive 51 goals between them as bonus. Nonetheless, their time as prominent first-team members seems to be drawing to a quick close.
At the height of his prominence, Branislav Ivanovic was arguably the greatest right-back in the league. Once renowned for his aerial prowess, physicality, and an eye for goal, the 32-year-old has not been himself since the humiliation by Jefferson Montero at the start of last season. Whenever Ivanovic is faced with a relatively quick winger, the right-flank of Chelsea's defence is exposed. It is evident that the he no longer possesses the essential traits to operate at right-back; he is far too slow and immobile. His expertise would be better equipped at centre-back, a position in which he could still utilise his considerable aerial strength.
Gary Cahill’s habit of backing off whenever a player is approaching him is well documented, but this season has seen the emergence of an even more troubling pattern. The 30-year-old seems either uncomfortable or far too lax in possession, and he’s now been directly responsible for a goal in three successive games by providing an assist for the other team, including Arsenal's opening goal on Saturday.
It would be incredibly harsh to highlight the performances of only two individuals, especially when several players have been distinctly poor as well. Take the goalkeeper, for example, whose defensive contributions have been practically non-existent for the past two years, who now admits to wanting to return to a club who are unable to sign him for the next three years, and that after Chelsea sold the best goalkeeper we've ever had to make space for a self-centred, egotistical kid whose only expertise is to divert blame from himself. Perhaps when he starts to take accountability for his actions alongside showing a desire to play for the shirt he will have earned the right to make such remarks. Until that day comes, he’d be well advised to keep his head down and focus on reviving his middling form.
The players' form alone isn't responsible for the defence's terrible performances. Antonio Conte's tactics for our previous league fixtures have been questionable as well. When playing against Liverpool, he appeared to instruct the defence to sit deeper than usual in an attempt to soak up the pressure and utilise our counter-attack. This tactic failed miserably, and Liverpool punished our incompetence in emphatic manner. They ruthlessly dissected our defence, making it clear that we didn't possess the defensive quality to employ such tactics against such a formidable opponent. Yet we opted to repeat this strategy against Arsenal, a team whose attacking might is arguably superior to Liverpool’s. Unsurprisingly, the outcome was the same, as Arsenal raced into a 2-0 lead in the game's opening twelve minutes.
Questions must be asked of Conte; Liverpool's attacking performance rendered the strategy null, so why did we opt to repeat the same failed tactic against Arsenal?
On a brighter note, our attack has been an area of relative strength, and an aspect of our game we should look to exploit. Diego Costa has been in inspired form, and the acquisition of Michy Batshuayi seems to be proving a shrewd piece of business. Our performance against Leicester in the EFL Cup was evidence that we're at our best while attacking our opponents; let's utilise this advantage as the alternative has seen us concede five goals in the space of two league games.