Chelsea: Marcos Alonso and Emerson in a no-win battle for left-back

BUDAPEST, HUNGARY - DECEMBER 13: Emerson Palmieri of Chelsea FC controls the ball during the UEFA Europa League Group Stage Match between Vidi FC and Chelsea FC at Ferencvaros Stadium on December 13, 2018 in Budapest, Hungary. (Photo by Laszlo Szirtesi/Getty Images)
BUDAPEST, HUNGARY - DECEMBER 13: Emerson Palmieri of Chelsea FC controls the ball during the UEFA Europa League Group Stage Match between Vidi FC and Chelsea FC at Ferencvaros Stadium on December 13, 2018 in Budapest, Hungary. (Photo by Laszlo Szirtesi/Getty Images) /

Chelsea’s left-back is one of the few positions where Maurizio Sarri gives himself an actual choice, especially as Emerson starts to feature more regularly. The rest of Chelsea’s set-up on the pitch, though, leaves Emerson and Marcos Alonso fighting a losing battle against each other.

Chelsea offer plenty of ways to split opinions, but few real options. You can debate the merits of Jorginho, N’Golo Kante as a box-to-box midfielder or the 4-3-3 formation, but Maurizio Sarri brooks no alternative. Jorginho will always start, N’Golo Kante will remain the box-to-box midfielder, both partly because the 4-3-3 is not going anywhere.

One area where Chelsea fans can take sides between two actual outcomes is at left-back. Marcos Alonso and Emerson Palmieri both have their fans, their pros and their cons, and Maurizio Sarri is increasingly making left-back a true rotation.

After playing 13 Premier League minutes from opening day to January 29, Emerson has played in every other Premier League game since then, including two starts. He also played one leg of the Carabao Cup semifinals and the final, in addition to both games against Malmo in the Europa League.

The competition between the two is good for Chelsea and the players themselves. Marcos Alonso is not as capable as a left-back as he was as a wing-back. He would benefit from an occasional rest as well as the pressure to improve his performances in training and games. Emerson has spent enough time on the bench and in training to warrant at least a few opportunities to deputize, if not challenge, Alonso.

At the same time, though, the situation has a lose-lose element for both players. Regardless of who plays left-back, the rest of Chelsea’s organization on the pitch leaves them exposed, first to the opposition and then to criticism.

Chelsea’s left-back suffers from the contrast to the right-back: Cesar Azpilicueta. Every opponent knows what everyone knows: Azpilicueta is better at right-back than either Alonso or Emerson are at left-back. Azpilicueta is almost certainly a better left-back than either of them. All other things being equal, the other team will send their attacks down Chelsea’s left so they can avoid Azpilicueta.

But all things are not equal – they are even worse for the left-back. Joining Azpilicueta on the right side are N’Golo Kante ahead in the midfield triangle and Antonio Rudiger on defence. This stacks Chelsea’s best defensive centre-back, full-back and midfielder on the same side of the pitch. The right side also usually has the non-Eden Hazard winger. Willian or Pedro are more aggressive in their press and quicker in coming back to defend than Hazard, further adding to the imbalance between the right and left sides.

This pulls the opposition even more onto Chelsea’s left. They start against the less defensively-motivated winger. The left midfielder is not even a settled matter, let alone the world’s best defensive midfielder. And then, should the attack get past the left-back, they will find either David Luiz or – more likely – the space vacated by David Luiz.

Everything about Chelsea’s formation invites attacks down the left. Even the opponent does not send more attacks on that side, those that do come down the left will get further given Chelsea’s set-up. The left-back takes the blame because not only is he primarily responsible for that task but because he is the only one Maurizio Sarri can or will replace.

David Luiz and Eden Hazard will not lose their places due to their role in attracting attacks on the left. Mateo Kovacic and Ross Barkley will not have their place determined by the defensive support, except perhaps on interdicting counter-attacks. And in any case, if Ruben Loftus-Cheek is not fully in the mix, the criteria for that position are already pretty distorted.

Obviously, Maurizio Sarri is not going to change his formation or organization to balance their strengths and weaknesses. A three-man defence with Marcos Alonso as wing-back would solve many, but we are over such delusion.

The simplest change Sarri could make would be shifting Cesar Azpilicueta to the left. While Sarri does not much trust Davide Zappacosta, this would at least bring some balance to Chelsea’s defensive structure across the pitch. The right side would have the weaker full-back, but he would at least be better protected by those around him. Likewise, the left side would have the strongest full-back reinforcing the overall weaker side. This could prevent one Chelsea flank being overwhelmed over the course of the game.

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The major downsides would be the loss of a left-footed cross coming from the left, and the reduced support Azpilicueta could provide Eden Hazard compared to Alonso and Emerson.

Maurizio Sarri likes having asymmetry between his full-backs, with one being more offensive and one being more defensive. He certainly has that with Marcos Alonso or Emerson on the left and Cesar Azpilicueta on the right. However, the rest of the system results in an imbalance, rather than a simple and functional, asymmetry.

Teams who play very wide, like Sunday’s opponent Wolves, are best positioned to exploit this imbalance.

Neither Emerson nor Marcos Alonso will look as good as he could given the current set-up. The player ends up taking all the blame but only bears some of the responsibility for what happens at left-back.

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Maurizio Sarri is taking baby steps towards adjusting his structure to the players he has. Anything he can do to reinforce the left side will make the competition between them that much more meaningful and will lessen the partisan rancor among their respective fans.