In yet another poor start as defending champions for Chelsea – their second in three years – Antonio Conte’s defence has struggled conceding 10 goals in the Premier League so far.
One of the key reasons for their defensive frailties this season has been the sale of defensive midfielder Nemanja Matic to former manager Jose Mourinho at title rivals Manchester United.
At United this season, Matic has played every minute in the Premier League and Champions League with the Serbian’s screening helping the club to keep 11 clean sheets in 14 games when he has started.
With Chelsea struggling to cope in the midfielder’s absence, here are five mistakes Conte has made while trying to replace Matic.
Under both Mourinho and Conte, Matic grew to become a key player in Chelsea’s two title wins in the past three years, providing defensive cover, allowing the attackers to do their job.
Last season, it was Matic’s partnership with N’Golo Kante that helped steer Chelsea to a record-breaking 30 wins in the Premier League, thanks in part to a 13-game winning run in which the Blues kept 10 clean sheets.
Despite showing possible signs of slowing down, Mourinho was convinced enough with Matic’s influence to spend £40million to bring the midfielder to Old Trafford.
Signing Bakayoko while injured – and then selling Chalobah
In Tiemoue Bakayoko, Chelsea fans felt they had an adequate replacement for Matic. The 23-year-old is six years younger than the man he replaced, looked strong in Monaco’s Ligue 1 title success and has a more attack-minded style of play.
One big problem, however, was that the Frenchman was signed while recovering from a knee operation and therefore unable to take part in pre-season or the start of Chelsea’s Premier League title defence.
When Bakayoko was able to make his Chelsea debut, in the 2-1 win over Tottenham Hotspur at Wembley, he was not fully fit but had to be thrust into the starting lineup due to Cesc Fabregas’ suspension and a lack of squad depth.
This could have easily been dealt with had Chelsea not had an exodus of young players during the summer transfer window.
Alongside Nathan Ake and Dominic Solanke, midfielder Nathaniel Chalobah left the club on a permanent deal, joining Watford with the aims of playing more first-team football.
The Englishman has already been rewarded for his playing time with Watford by being called up to one of Gareth Southgate’s England squads, though the midfielder did not play.
The same age as Bakayoko and with Premier League experience, Chalobah could have complimented the Frenchman and would have proved a valuable player for the club with the injuries of Kante and Danny Drinkwater.
These injuries have led Conte to have to consistently play Cesc Fabregas and Bakayoko – who is still struggling to get to grips with the squad after being thrown in at the deep end – as part of a two-man midfield which has not worked out for the Italian.
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Playing Fabregas in a midfield two
An exquisite passer of the ball with excellent vision and understanding of his teammates, especially when dropping slightly deeper, Fabregas has been a vital part to this Chelsea team since signing in 2014.
And while the Spaniard has continued to show his passing skills this season, creating more chances than any other Chelsea player in the league, his lack of defensively ability has been detrimental to the club.
Following the injury to Kante, Fabregas has had to play as part of a two-man midfield alongside Bakayoko which has often left the Blues struggling and under pressure.
In their 3-0 defeat to Roma in the Champions League group stage, Chelsea’s midfield were overrun by Radja Nainggolan, Daniele De Rossi and Kevin Strootman, and provided no screening for the Blues’ suffering defence.
Still playing as if he has the security of Matic’s partnership with Kante behind him, Fabregas has been caught out with his lack of pace and overly-attacking senses often being exposed.
In fact, the Spaniard was at fault for Roma’s third goal, receiving the ball in midfield before giving it straight to Nainggolan who set up Diego Perotti to complete the scoring.
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Playing David Luiz in midfield
Another problem to have stemmed from Chelsea’s lack of depth following the failure to replace Matic has been David Luiz’s deployment in midfield.
First tried out by Conte during Chelsea’s match against Tottenham in the second week of the season to some satisfying result as the Blues won 2-1, Luiz provided extra creativity from deep while putting pressure on Spurs’ midfielders.
Claimed he was told by his manager to “run a lot” against Spurs, as reported by the Standard, Luiz did exactly that. However, it was that same mindset that saw Chelsea fall apart in their 3-3 draw with Roma in game three of the Champions League group stages.
With Kante out injured and Conte wary of Roma’s attacking threat, Luiz was played as part of a midfield five alongside Bakayoko and Fabregas.
Despite scoring Chelsea’s opening goal, Luiz provided no defensive cover, leaving Fabregas and Bakayoko with the brunt of the work – a partnership which is yet to pay off for Conte.
Lauded for his defensive capabilities last season following a shock re-signing, Luiz has been playing with more confidence this campaign which has not proven to be a good thing.
Clearly comfortable on the ball, Luiz has been casual in his defending this season, letting mistakes slowly sneak into his game again.
And the Brazilian showed even more casualness in midfield, conceding more fouls than any other player during his time on the pitch against Roma before requesting to be taken off just after half-time as a knock had got the better of him.
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Playing a 5-man midfield
While the system may have worked last season with Matic’s presence in midfield, with Chelsea’s current crop of midfielders it cannot fully pay off.
Usually, a five-man midfield would be used to shut a game down, more often than not against a team with exhausting attacking ability – as Chelsea tried against Manchester City.
Although Kante is one of the best defensive midfielders in the Premier League, the Frenchman is lacking in height and can be overrun by stronger players – as Tottenham found out last season, using Victor Wanyama and Mousa Dembele to nullify Kante.
And with Fabregas and Bakayoko both offensively-minded, often their midfield teammate is left outnumbered when Chelsea are counter-attacked.
Against Manchester City at Stamford Bridge Fabregas was a passenger in the five-man midfield, offering nothing going forward or helping out the defence.
For this system to work, Chelsea need stronger and more defensive-minded players like the one they sold to Manchester United.
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Constantly changing back three/five
Without the presence of Matic in front of them, Chelsea’s defence have struggled this season keeping just five clean sheets across all competitions.
The lack of consistency in defence has been a thorn in Chelsea’s side, with last season’s key player Cesar Azpilicueta in uncharacteristically poor form, and Conte has to take some blame on that.
In the club’s 17 matches so far this season, the Italian has named nine different back-three combinations and has also constantly changed his right wing-back following the injury to Victor Moses.
Just once has Conte named the same back-three in consecutive games, when Antonio Rudiger, Azpilicueta and Luiz retained their place from Chelsea’s 2-0 Premier League win over Everton to face Leicester City the following weekend.
While the resting of players for cup competitions can be ignored, with Chelsea having faced ‘easy’ ties against Qarabag and Nottingham Forest in the Champions League and Carabao Cup respectively, the lack of consistency has damaged Conte’s men in their important games.
Conte’s in-game changes have also made Chelsea’s defence into somewhat of a laughing stock with players often not knowing where they are meant to be playing.
This was most clear in the 3-0 defeat to Roma as all three of Chelsea’s central defenders at the time (Azpilicueta, Luiz and Rudiger) ran out wide to try and retrieve the ball from Edin Dzeko, leaving the rest of the pitch wide open.
The injury to Moses has also seen Conte shifting his already struggling defenders.
Despite signing Davide Zappacosta from Torino during the summer transfer window, Conte has opted to play Azpilicueta as wing-back on four occasions.
In those four games, Chelsea have conceded nine goals and lost three, to Burnley, Man City and Roma – only beating Watford 4-2, in which Azpilicueta scored.
While usually solid defensively, the Spaniard has always struggled going forward. And in a more attacking role as a wing-back both Azpilicueta and Chelsea have suffered this season.