Premier League Playback: How can Chelsea improve defensively?

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CHELSEA A DEFENSIVE MESS

Following Chelsea’s humiliating 3-0 defeat at London rivals Arsenal on Saturday, Antonio Conte‘s eyes glazed over as the following words came out.

He was in a state of rage after yet another embarrassing defensive display, an area of the game the Italian coach prides himself on being a master at.

“We must work a lot. If someone thinks this season it is easy, we must work a lot to improve and to change the situation. I think that now we are a great team only on the paper. Not on the pitch,” Conte said. “To be a great team, I prefer to be a great team not only on the paper but also on the pitch because the pitch speaks. The pitch is the truth. The pitch is the most important thing for us. Not the words. Not the paper. We must change this.”

But how?

The most obvious answers is personnel and that appears to be Conte’s plan with reports already surfacing that he will phase out both Gary Cahill and Branislav Ivanovic in the coming weeks as John Terry and Kurt Zouma return from injury. To me, that means one thing: 3-5-2.

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Conte switched to the formation he mastered with Juventus and the Italian national team for the final 35 minutes of Chelsea’s drubbing at Arsenal and it seemed to work a little better, but it’s tough to tell how well it worked because the game was already over.

Something drastic needs to change in formation and personnel because the mindset of the current crop of defenders doesn’t seem to be strong enough to deal with what’s being thrown at them. Ivanovic came out after the game and said the players were not carrying out Conte’s instructions. That’s a huge problem.

Another problem is that Conte did not get the players he wanted in the summer. Reports suggested he went after center backs Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci but instead Chelsea signed David Luiz with many suggesting the deal wasn’t exactly what Conte wanted but Luiz’s connections with the club saw it pushed through.

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Conte is now left with a messy situation in defense.

Yes, mistakes happen, but his side have given up at least two goals in each of their last four games. That’s not good enough. Conte knows it and so do Chelsea’s players but the worrying thing for Conte is that on Saturday that apart from Gary Cahill and Thibaut Courtois screaming criticism at teammates, there was a real lack of direction out on the pitch. Without Terry, that’s to be expected, but the 25-year-old won’t be around forever. Chelsea must find a solution.

“I have to solve the situation. That is the most important thing. The situation is that every game we concede two goals, at a minimum,” Conte said, furiously. “For this reason, three back or two back or four back, I don’t care. It is important to solve the situations. I must find the right solution for this team because in every game we are conceding two goals. I work a lot to find the right solution.”

Three at the back is worth a go. Using the formation and personnel below when Terry and Zouma are fit should improve Chelsea’s display but only when individuals cut out huge errors can Conte really kick on his project at Chelsea.

—– Courtois —–

—- Zouma — Terry — Luiz —

—- Azpilicueta —-  Kante —- Matic —- Hazard —- Alonso —-

—- Costa —- Batshuayi —-

To me, that team above is Chelsea’s Best XI at the moment.

Away from the defensive issues, Eden Hazard looked lost out wide against Arsenal, bring him inside to influence the game and make the most of N'Golo Kante‘s supreme ability to intercept and win tackles. Marcos Alonso and Cesar Azpilicueta as wing backs are good enough on the ball to deliver crosses, something Willian, Pedro and others haven’t done consistently this season. Then up top, it is time for Diego Costa to get a partner in crime with Michy Batshuayi starting.

Again, all of these lineup changes are irrelevant if Chelsea’s entire team doesn’t adopt pride in doing the simple things correctly on the defensive side of things. You could tell as his post-match press conference drew to a close that Conte was getting more enraged by the second. He tapped on the table. He raised his voice. He took long, reflective pauses as he sighed deeply.

Let’s put this into perspective a little: it’s not the end of Chelsea’s title bid, even if Conte wasn’t exactly brimming with confidence when asked about it. Losing at home against Liverpool and away at Arsenal is no disgrace but for a Chelsea team billed as title contenders and meant to be tough to break down after acquiring their managers penchant for defensive excellence, this has been a bad few weeks.

I asked Conte why his teams have been so sloppy from the start in games in recent weeks. Like their bad defending, he simply can’t explain it and seems genuinely stunned.

“I was a footballer and it happens in one game. It can happen,” Conte said. “You don’t have a good performance for many reasons. I hope to improve this situation because this is the second consecutive defeat after Liverpool. They are great teams, Liverpool and Arsenal. We must reflect on this because we had two defeats in two big games. For this reason we must be humble and understand the moment. To understand we need to work a lot and improve to change our story.”


SPURS, ARSENAL, LIVERPOOL CHASING PERFECT CITY

A more positive story which has dominated the early weeks in this season is Manchester City’s excellence under Pep Guardiola. Following their 3-1 win at Swansea the Spanish coach has now won all 10 of his games in charge of City across all competitions and they sit top of the table with 18 points and a 100 percent record. Pretty easy this Premier League stuff, right Pep?

In all seriousness, apart from facing Manchester United away from home, Guardiola knows the fixtures have been kind to his team. No disrespect to teams like Bournemouth, Swansea, Sunderland or West Ham, but most title-chasing teams will also beat them. The next stretch is where we will find out just how good Guardiola’s side are, especially without Kevin De Bruyne who could be missing for up to a month with a hamstring injury.

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City face Tottenham, Everton and Southampton in their next three games, a real step up in opposition, plus they also have a UEFA Champions League clash at Barcelona and an EFL Cup match at Manchester United to negotiate. Jostling for position just behind the clear front runners are three teams: Tottenham, Arsenal and Liverpool.

Spurs are unbeaten and edged past Middlesbrough without the injured Harry Kane. Their manager Mauricio Pochettino wants them to be more clinical but they’re digging deep and getting the job done. The two teams with the more likely staying power to challenge City appear to be Arsenal and Liverpool.

As bad as Chelsea’s defending was, Arsenal’s offensive talents dazzled on Saturday with Alexis Sanchez’s pace terrifying in a central role up top and Mesut Ozil’s close to his bamboozling best. The Gunners look to have finally rectified any issues over their shaky defense and with Sanchez and Ozil combining, Arsene Wenger is a happy man as he celebrates his 20th anniversary in charge of the Gunners this week.

For Liverpool, well, they’re flying. Jurgen Klopp‘s side has scored more goals than any other team in 2016 and they brushed aside 10-man Hull City 5-1 with minimum fuss. When Sadio Mane, Adam Lallana, Roberto Firmino and Philippe Coutinho get going, there are few clubs who can stop them. The only issue remains not only defensive lapses but also, where does Daniel Sturridge fit in? Klopp will provide an answer to that question another day but for now his side are slowly building momentum and with no European action this season, he can work longer and harder on the training ground to fine tune his already well-oiled machine.

City are already many people’s favorites to win the league but the chasing pack is already showing plenty of promise that this will not be a one-horse canter to the title. Remember, we’ve only had six games. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.


NO ROOM FOR ROONEY

Jose Mourinho finally bowed to the suggestions of all of those “football Einsteins” and it worked a treat. Mourinho left his captain and talisman Wayne Rooney on the bench along with Marouane Fellaini and the balance in Manchester United’s midfield instantly looked better.

The Red Devils breezed past Leicester City 4-1 on Saturday at Old Trafford with Paul Pogba flourishing in a more advanced midfield role alongside Juan Mata and Ander Herrera sweeping up magnificently in front of the back four. It seems like Mourinho has found a winning formula, one that doesn’t include Rooney.

It has to be said that Leicester helped them out with their woeful set piece defending on three of United’s four first half goals, but there was a renewed energy, zip and purpose about United’s play, especially in midfield. The balance between Pogba, Mata and Herrera was spot on and it allowed the former to unleash his true self as he scored his first-ever goal in a United shirt, flicked delicate balls behind Leicester’s defense and was a general nuisance. Leaving out Rooney got the best out of Pogba. We all know how this is going to end.

Closing in on being the all-time leading goalscorer for United, Rooney will still play his fair share of games but at the age of 30 it seems like he’s coming to the realization that he will have to pick and chose which games to play in to prolong not only his United career but his effectiveness when he does step on the field.

“He’s my man, I trust him completely. He’s as happy as I am at this moment. He’s a big player for me, for United, a big player for this country,” Mourinho said afterwards.

He’s a big player for United, no doubt. It’s just that Pogba is bigger, younger and, crucially, better in that advanced midfield role. There’s simply no room for Rooney to start regularly anymore in this United team.


WEST HAM’S WOES

I was at the London Stadium on Sunday and it was clear all is not well at all levels of the club.

West Ham United were hammered 3-0 by Southampton on the pitch (their captain Mark Noble admitted afterwards it could’ve been 6-0) and in the stands there were still a few issues with the Hammers’ new home as fans in both the home and away sections were ejected by heavy-handed security staff.

After five defeats from their opening six PL games, Slaven Bilic‘s side are spiraling out of control. Dimitri Payet looks lost, the defending is poor and their lack of a clinical goalscorer is hurting West Ham badly. On top of all of that the move to the Olympic Stadium has not gone well initially. After infighting among West Ham fans in previous defeats at the stadium, there was more of a somber atmosphere inside on Sunday with most of the home end empty long before the final whistle.

The situation is bad but it appears West Ham have hit rock bottom.

Cast your mind back to pretty much every new stadium opening in the PL in years gone by. There have always been teething problems, issues with fans complaining about the view being too far away and things which seemed like a big deal at the time but now seem like nothing. A perfect storm of negativity has been created at West Ham, coupled with their shock Europa League exit in the playoff round and their worst-ever start to a PL season.

Their joint-chairman David Sullivan and David Gold issued a statement on Monday saying “there have been factors which have contributed to the poor start with injuries to key players and some key decisions which have gone against us. But we are not going to make excuses.”

The Hammers can’t afford to make excuses but when they work at the kinks at their wonderful new home of just under 60,000, all of this unrest will seem a million miles away. The only issues remain on the pitch. West Ham shouldn’t get dragged into a relegation battle but they must stop the rot against Middlesbrough at home next weekend. Another abject performance and defeat in front of their own fans is not an option. No excuses.

Premier League Playback comes out every week as PST’s Lead Writer and Editor takes an alternative look at all the action from the weekend. Read the full archive, here