In this week's column Pat Nevin makes a case for the defence, with the help of a goalkeeper and midfielder, and heaps praise on the newest player to have made a significant mark in Chelsea blue...
A month is a long time in football and it looks like it will be a very long month for everyone in England as well with the lockdown being announced this week. All around the world people are having to cope to a greater or lesser degree, so once again thank you to football for helping to save our sanity in the difficult times ahead.
In football and specifically back at Chelsea a month ago, we were shipping three goals against the likes of Southampton and West Brom. Since then, however, there have been four games and over six hours of football without a single leak at the back. Obviously there are a variety of reasons for this. English football certainly seems to have calmed down a bit in general since those wild scorelines at the start of the campaign, but it has to be something more than just that.
Our backline clearly has a more settled look right now and that always helps. Historically, the best defences have been not only solid in the way they play but in the regularity and length of their time playing together. You can take your pick as to who or what is the most important factor from a long list.
Maybe it is the full-backs. Ben Chilwell one side and either Cesar or Reece on the other has a rather rock-solid look about it. Square pegs in square holes and each perfectly capable of adding something special in attack alongside their specialities in defending.
Maybe it is the goalkeeper who has made the lion’s share of the difference? His stats right now are superb, only one goal lost in six games at the club and that was from point-blank range against Spurs. This isn’t new for Edouard Mendy. At Rennes last season he conceded less than a goal per game over the length of the campaign, so this seems unlikely to be a short-term run of glorious form.
His dominance of his area has had a massive effect on those in front of him as well, so he has definitely been part of the upward swing in our fortunes.
Goalkeeping still isn’t always the place that people look at first when thinking about clean sheets. Attention is just as likely to focus on the centre-backs, and surely by now every Chelsea fan has figured out just how special, calm and talented Thiago Silva is. It is a pleasure to watch him every week and he is certainly having a huge effect on the form of Kurt Zouma; the big man has even decided to go on a scoring spree to add to his dominant displays at the back. Three goals in six Premier League games would be a good average for most strikers.
Maybe there is something else. What about the cover in front of the defence? It is impossible to talk about that job without mentioning N’Golo Kante, who has been back in that deeper role more regularly this season. He has been his usual impeccable self, breaking up play and even becoming a bit of a passing machine.
I remember playing for my national team Scotland, and our coach Andy Roxburgh (now the head honcho in UEFA coaching circles) always used to try to get triangles all over the field that worked well together. The perfect answer was to get players from the same club teams playing in roughly the same areas as each other. It could be Celtic’s Paul McStay, John Collins and one-time Chelsea man Tom Boyd, or it could have been the likes of Ally McCoist, Stuart McCall and Iain Durrant of Rangers stuck close together.
This is a regular trick by managers and sometimes you can just use people who are actually just good personal mates who hang out together off the field. Having good mates together on the field develops good understandings and they always naturally look out for each other that little bit more.
Thiago Silva spent eight stellar years becoming a legend in France has quite an influence on Frenchmen Zouma and Kante in front. Then there is another Gallic triangle behind featuring Silva, Zouma and Mendy. The communication and comfort between all four looks very good at the moment.
There is a multitude of reasons for the improved defending and of course it involves the entire team in the end. It also has to involve the work done on the training ground by Frank, Jody and the rest of the coaching staff, even if that time is severely limited with the amount of games going on and travelling being done. The trick is not to rest on our laurels and think that is now fixed; it never is and it always needs tweaking and working on.
For all that defensive improvement over the past month, the one thing over the past week that has knocked me out has been the performance of Hakim Ziyech. In two games he has proved to be an even better player than I thought he was, and I thought he was very good anyway. That ability to see crucial through balls and be able to play them at the right time and the right pace in between packed defences is something we really needed to add to our arsenal. His pass to Timo Werner for the third goal was an overlooked moment of genius. Anyone from Kevin De Bruyne to Cesc Fabregas would have been proud of that assist.
It wasn’t his only moment of fabulous vision. The two goals in two games had the look of a natural finisher about them. He doesn’t panic when he is in the box, he is in total control of the situation, a sure sign of a very good player. The creativity is a given then, but most Chelsea fans and definitely the gaffer will have noticed his work-rate, too. His closing down and efforts to win the ball back high up the field were top class. Again I will be honest and admit that I wasn’t expecting that level of work-rate, but it looks very much like the right team spirit is in his make-up and it is not just the early efforts of a new player trying to impress.
Rennes arrive tomorrow at the Bridge and they will have to be in perfect form to overcome the Blues in their current form. A win would put us in a great position to qualify from the group and right now Frank has only one major headache: who to leave out in the midfield to forward area. For someone who loves creative players I am already hoping it is not Ziyech that is left on the bench. Considering all the other players in the frame, that is quite a bold statement after only two starts for the Moroccan.