The big surprise in yesterday’s starting lineup was young Andreas Christensen starting in the heart of the defensive line instead of David Luiz. The veteran Brazilian had made that position, the center of the back-three, his own since returning to the team at the start of last season, but in arguably the biggest game of the season so far, it was instead the former Academy youngster and loanee playing for the first time in three games.
It was Christensen’s eighth start of the season and twelfth appearance in all competitions, and his reintegration after two years away at Borussia Mönchengladbach on loan continues to progress along swimmingly. The 21-year-old is proving a shining example of Chelsea’s player development and loan army policies working precisely as intended.
Conte’s decision to start a young player over an established veteran could’ve been lauded for giving youth a chance, or for practicing the oft-fabled ideal of meritocracy. Instead, the first instinct was to reach for the BLAZING ROW button.
For Conte, at least in terms of the public message, it was purely a decision on form and work shown in training.
‘It’s very simple. The coach has to make the best decision for the team. Tonight the best decision for the team was to play with Christensen and to have Ampadu on the bench, young players, really good players for the present and the future.
‘Maybe in the future I can decide in a different way, or continue in this way. I must take the best decision for the club, not for a single player. Sometimes I can make mistakes or sometimes I can do the best thing.
‘It was only a tactical decision. This can happen to any one of my players. If I see they are not in good form, it’s normal. I have to put my face in every situation, and sometimes make important decisions. Today I did this, and Christensen played an amazing game. I was very happy for this.
-Antonio Conte; source: Chelsea FC
Present Christensen certainly was impressive for much of the game. The video at the top isn’t really going to do his performance justice, since so much of defending is about off-the-ball actions, but he was strong in the air, aware in positioning, and solid in possession. He was a threat on set pieces and probably should’ve scored. He blocked a shot, he made several clean clearances (the one in the last minute that went straight Matić was not one of them), and he made multiple excellent interceptions while keeping Romelu Lukaku contained for the most part (just one shot for the other former Chelsea loanee). An excellent performance overall, showing lots of promise for Future Christensen, while also justifying the coach’s decision to not start David Luiz.
Of course, that’s only half the story.
The rumor of David Luiz not playing on Sunday was first reported in The Sun, as most juicy (and unlike this one, wildly inaccurate) rumors are, with Mike McGrath getting wind of Conte making this change in training the night before. Stray rumors of tension between Conte and David Luiz were part of the building narrative of course, but so were rumors of tensions everywhere else. The Sun’s rumor also included Cahill getting dropped, but instead it was Rüdiger who also paid the price from Tuesday night.
And while it’s easy to laugh off this bit of palpable discord, David Luiz not even making the bench lends that situation some credence. Giving Christensen the start may have been a tactical decision, but it’s hard to see what tactical advantage there was to be gained from putting 17-year-old David Luiz-lookalike Ethan Ampadu on the bench instead of the real deal. To be clear, we’re talking about on-pitch tactics there, rather than any sort of off-pitch maneuvering.
Before Conte could give the thoughts above on this situation in the post-match press conference, he stopped to chat with Sky’s Geoff Shreeves in the tunnel immediately after the game. Shreeves of course asked about the David Luiz issue, framing his question in terms of the defender’s long-term future. Conte gave one of his standard answer-opening delayer phrase (“I don’t know”), which of course was then interpreted literally.
But it shouldn’t be.
Conte/Chelsea's position is he often says "I don't know" at the beginning of his answers. Hard to misinterpret the rest of that quote though https://t.co/J8ZkBaLYa0— Liam Twomey (@liam_twomey) November 5, 2017
Then again, nobody should assume that David Luiz is “safe”, most of all David Luiz himself.
Conte asked by Sky Sports if Luiz has a Chelsea future: "I don't know. He has to work really hard otherwise he is on the bench/in the stand"— Liam Twomey (@liam_twomey) November 5, 2017
You can see Conte answer this question around the 2.5-minute mark in the video below.
As ever, the key is now the response of the squad, the coach, and most importantly David Luiz himself. Beyond the rumors and the narratives, it’s the professional relationship that truly matters.
Then again, if Christensen keeps this up, David Luiz and his terrible Movember mustache are going to have their work cut out for themselves.