Toni Rudiger has pinpointed more defensive commitment from the team as a priority as the German looks ahead to our quick return to Premier League action against Arsenal this evening, in the 200th meeting between the two London rivals.
Rudiger has played every minute of our past seven league games following his return to the side in early December after a frustrating injury lay-off. During that run of matches, we have conceded six goals and dropped 11 points as inconsistency and home struggles have disrupted an overwhelmingly positive start to the season.
Frustrations continued with our weekend defeat away at Newcastle as the Blues dominated a one-sided encounter but were unable to convert that control into clear-cut chances and goals, before conceding deep into stoppage time.
Kepa Arrizabalaga has since come under scrutiny for not doing better for the goal but Rudiger, alongside Andreas Christensen at centre-back for the second weekend running, also held his hands up to admit culpability for Isaac Hayden’s late header finding the back of the net.
The 26-year-old insisted that collective improvement and responsibility were now necessary for the team to take the required steps forward.
‘It was the first time it’s been really silent,’ the defender said of the post-match feeling in the Chelsea dressing room at St James’ Park.
‘Everyone was a bit down. It was an unfortunate game because we really tried everything but at the end we were sloppy.
‘I have to take the blame myself for that. All of us who played in defence have to – at centre-back, right-back, left-back, it doesn’t matter. It’s not only on Kepa, it’s a collective thing, it’s the whole team. We need more commitment in the defensive phase and I feel like that was lacking a bit.’
Centre-back conversation is perhaps not surprising ahead of our second meeting of the season with Arsenal, the club to which Rudiger’s former team-mate David Luiz departed in the summer. ‘We are good friends but we are professionals and on the pitch I want my team to win,’ says Rudiger of the Brazilian, who won six major honours at Stamford Bridge and returns for the first time since his August transfer.
Defensive competition has remained tough in west London, with Kurt Zouma and Fikayo Tomori returning from loan seasons at Everton and Derby County respectively to add to our centre-back depth, and Rudiger believes that is helping to push everyone to their best.
‘There have been a lot of ups and downs but it’s normal to have competition,’ he continued. ‘We have really good centre-backs and you should always be in for competition because that makes everyone better. At the end of the day, the coach then decides.
‘I’m very happy for Fikayo because he has really developed well. I’ve known him since I moved to the club as he was always there in the pre-seasons before he went on loan. You can see now he’s doing very well and this is the way the club is going – they want Academy players to make it in the first team and obviously now there are a lot of them here so it’s very good.’
Rudiger also had words of praise for two of Tomori’s fellow Academy graduates, claiming he was impressed by Reece James’s ability from the moment he first watched him train and hailing Tammy Abraham’s fine first season as Chelsea’s number nine.
‘I didn’t know Reece as well but then when I saw him in pre-season, I was like wow,’ admitted Rudiger. ‘I was very impressed with him and the way he plays is very mature for his young age so you have to give credit to him.
‘I’m happy for him and for Tammy. I always heard people say the number nine is not good for strikers when they come to Chelsea but he has done very well for himself. His commitment in the game is great because he tries and tries – sometimes he will fail but that’s just a process that he needs to learn from and then he will be fine.’
Frank Lampard’s side have lost three of our past five home league outings, a run of form that Rudiger admits has puzzled him, but the defender knows such things often count for little in the biggest of games.
‘Sometimes in football there are certain things you can’t find the answer to. For me, it’s very weird that we are stronger away than at home so we need to try to change this and in the previous games against Burnley and in the FA Cup, we did that.
‘We are going to try everything to do the same thing against Arsenal. It’s a derby so it’s a huge game with a huge history and to be part of this is something special.
‘With Mikel Arteta or not, they are always a dangerous team. Since they changed coach, they are doing well. When we played there, we had a very bad first half but in the second half we showed that we can match up with anyone. This is what we have to look forward to. I am very sure it will be a great atmosphere and that is what we need.’
Under the lights against such longstanding capital rivals, Chelsea take on Arsenal for the 200th time and Rudiger is certainly ready to make sure we mark the milestone in the right way.