David Luiz and Cesar Azpilicueta have secured their places in Chelsea’s three-man back-line. This leaves long-time partners John Terry and Gary Cahill vying for the remaining spot.
Imagine the looks you would have received if you told someone two months ago that David Luiz and Cesar Azpilicueta were Chelsea’s guaranteed starters at centre-back.
David Luiz, for all his well-documented liabilities, is the only centre-back on Chelsea’s roster with a semblance of mobility and ball control. He may put himself out of position as much as Gary Cahill. But unlike Cahill, the Brazilian at least has a chance of recovering. He has more offensive skills than any other back-liner.
Like Cahill or John Terry, Luiz has the height and aerial control to power in headers on corner kicks. He can score from distance on free kicks, as he nearly did against Leicester.
Luiz also has the rare ability to land on his face after botching a bicycle kick, and bounce (literally) right back up and move on with the play.
Cesar Azpilicueta earns regular praise for the intangibles of his performances, in addition to his one-on-one defensive abilities. One of the most surprising aspects of his move to centre-back is how strong he is in quintessential centre-back functions.
Against Leicester City, Azpilicueta went 4/4 on headed clearances. Luiz was 6/6, while Gary Cahill went 1/2. Azpilicueta won 2 of his 3 aerial duels, while Luiz was successful 5/7 times and Cahill 2/2.
These statistics are all the more impressive considering the height differential between Azpilicueta and his teammates. Azpilicueta is 15 centimetres shorter than Cahill and 11 centimetres shorter than Luiz.
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With Luiz and Azpilicueta proving themselves essential in the starting XI, Antonio Conte must choose between his two Englishmen. Terry was cleared to play against Leicester City, but Conte kept him as a substitute.
Gary Cahill had one of his better matches of the season against Leicester, following a solid spell for England earlier in the month. He recovered well from his error-riddled performances against Swansea City and Arsenal. He showed the necessary resilience and determination to break his slump and filter out the ensuing distractions.
John Terry’s greatest contributions to the side are discipline and organization throughout the match. He is less valuable as a centre-back than he is as captain, as evidenced by Chelsea’s juvenile and erratic defence against Arsenal.
Manchester United will play a very structured set of tactics against Chelsea. Whether they are parking the bus, counter-attacking or seeking to capitalize on set pieces, each Red Devil will know precisely his place and his role. Chelsea needs a similar level of on-field organization to counter this.
Antonio Conte can and will scream himself hoarse from the touchline, but a team needs a proper leader on the pitch. John Terry – and only John Terry – can provide this for Chelsea at this juncture.
If John Terry and Gary Cahill are essentially a toss-up against Manchester United at home, neither has much chance of staying in the starting XI once Kurt Zouma returns to full health. That Antonio Conte must choose one of these two to complete his back-line speaks once again to Chelsea’s weak transfer window and development pipeline.
Notably and intentionally missing from this conversation is Branislav Ivanovic. Ivanovic was clinging desperately to his place in the XI following a desultory start to the season.
Ivanovic withstood David Luiz’s arrival, but Marcos Alonso effectively ended his Chelsea career. Alonso’s abilities as a natural left-back allowed Azpilicueta to displace Ivanovic and return to his natural place on the right.
Alonso then propelled Chelsea’s evolution to a 3-4-3 team with true wingbacks. Having taken away Ivanovic’s spot on the flanks, Alonso reduced the number of centre-back spots. Azpilicueta and Luiz proved themselves more suited to the new formation, and their early-season performances were stronger across the pitch.
Ivanovic is not a wingback. Chelsea did away with full-backs, and the centre-back slots are filled or well-contested. Given recent performances and leadership capabilities, Ivanovic will not be able to displace Cahill or Terry. Barring a rash of injuries, the Serb no longer enters the equation.
Who do you think Antonio Conte will start on the backline? Will he go with John Terry’s organization and leadership, or Gary Cahill’s recent run of form? Let us know below!