We all make mistakes. Yes, even you. Yes, even Antonio Conte. He’s quick to own up to them — though that’s extrapolating from our only real piece of evidence for this, which was his early season tactical rethink from the 4-2-4 to the 3-4-3 — but let’s say he’s self-aware enough to recognize his own mistakes, and, more importantly, learn from them.
Conte was also quick to take responsibility for Chelsea’s defeat at Old Trafford on Sunday. Which is classy and expected and proper, and also correct, at least to a certain extent. Chelsea made many mistakes on Sunday. Each and every player contributed his fair share of negative actions to the outcome. And so did Conte. He’s not made too many bad decisions this season, but while he may not ever specify this (at least not in public), I do wonder if he looks back on his own decision to start Kurt Zouma as the incorrect choice that got the whole ball of craptitude rolling against Manchester United.
Two aspects of that decision have continued to baffle me to no end ever since the first images of Alonso being led off the pitch by the physio filtered through the airwaves. The first question is perhaps the crux of the matter, while the second question is more of an academic exercise.
- Conte revealed after the game that Alonso’s ailment wasn’t an actual injury but rather illness, which the team were aware of at least the morning of, if not the night before. If we knew there was a chance that Alonso would not feel good enough to play, why was our response to that development so subpar and seemingly haphazard?
- What’s the deal with Nathan Aké?
If we’re talking about mistakes, Conte’s response to Alonso’s illness seems to be filled with them. We all know that we don’t have an actual left wing-back to back up Alonso, but we’ve used Pedro, Nathan Aké, and even Kenedy in that position to decent-to-good effect. We’ve also used César Azpilicueta there once (West Ham, away, in the League Cup), to very poor effect. Azpi’s 20-25 minutes on Sunday in that position did nothing to change that assessment. (Moses was slightly better, though still far from good, after he switched with Azpiliuceta halfway through the first half.)
Switching Azpilicueta around as if we actually believed that he can play all 11 positions equally effectively had several knock-on effects as well, most of which were almost as bad as the initial switch itself. The right side of the defensive line greatly missed Azpi’s comfort on the ball, and the effective defensive partnerships he’d formed with Moses on his right and David Luiz on his left were instead replaced by Kurt Zouma looking lost and even getting in the way of his teammates multiple times. Zouma’s last appearance was a similarly shaky 45 minutes against Manchester City ten days prior. All sympathy and allowances made for his unfortunate ACL tear a little over 12 months ago aside, Big Kurt has looked a shadow of his former promising self since his return.
Why insist on starting Zouma then? Why make him our apparent first replacement should Alonso fail to pass his fitness test, creating multiple disruptions in the back five, when other options like Pedro or Aké would’ve been far more viable? Only Conte knows. Pedro won’t ever be confused with an actual defender, but he’s good going forward, while Aké was recalled from AFC Bournemouth in January specifically to help with defensive cover after Chelsea’s bid for Sead Kolasinac fell through. Aké’s played just 180 minutes for Chelsea this season, a good portion of which he spent at left wing-back (against Brentford in the FA Cup 4th round).
I’ve seen suggestions on Twitter and elsewhere that the reason Conte couldn’t start with Aké was that the young Dutchman was not included in the original matchday 18 (11 starters + 7 substitutes). Instead, the suggestions go, Conte had to pick a substitute to replace an injured starter, then name a player not in the original 18 to fill that now empty spot on the substitute bench.
But those suggestions are incorrect. Premier League rules do not stipulate that matchday squads work in such a manner. In the case of a pre-match injury, the replacement player can be named either as a starter (i.e. “Player”) or as a substitute.
If any Player (or substitute Player) named in a team sheet is injured or otherwise incapacitated after the submission of the team sheet but before kick-off, upon his Team Doctor or, if he is unavailable, another doctor certifying that the injury or incapacitation is such that the Player in question cannot reasonably be expected to play, the Club may add the name of another Player to the team sheet as a Player or substitute Player.
Aké did get added as a substitute and was even seen warming up in the second half, but he seemingly never even entered Conte’s reckoning for anything beyond that, and that’s as close as he got to seeing any minutes.
And even if Conte doesn’t quite rate Aké as much as we’d like, he still had the easy option to move Pedro to left wing-back (a known quantity at this point) and give the start to Willian in Pedro’s position (also a known quantity and exactly how we lined up in attack against United in the FA Cup). That would’ve most certainly caused less of a disruption in the most crucial areas of the team.
Instead, Conte moved Zouma into the lineup, shuffling and incapacitating Azpilicueta in the process as well. It wasn’t the only mistake made by Chelsea on Sunday and it wasn’t the only reason we lost, but it was a pretty big mistake.
It’s not the end of the world of course. Chelsea still have a four-point lead in the league. The most important part now is learning from the mistake. Whether that’s Aké or Pedro or something different, we need to have a better plan than Azpilicueta as emergency left wing-back.