Chelsea: Reece James may shape where, not if, Cesar Azpilicueta plays

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - AUGUST 11: Frank Lampard manager of Chelsea and captain Cesar Azpilicueta of Chelsea walk off the pitch during the Premier League match between Manchester United and Chelsea FC at Old Trafford on August 11, 2019 in Manchester, United Kingdom. (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)
MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - AUGUST 11: Frank Lampard manager of Chelsea and captain Cesar Azpilicueta of Chelsea walk off the pitch during the Premier League match between Manchester United and Chelsea FC at Old Trafford on August 11, 2019 in Manchester, United Kingdom. (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images) /

Frank Lampard’s comments about Reece James in the wake of Chelsea’s opening day loss could be an optimistic manager looking forward to a talented youth making a full return to play or an ominous toll for Cesar Azpilicueta. James’ return may have more influence on how Lampard arranges his side than who he includes in it.

Cesar Azpilicueta wrongfully bore a lot of public criticism for three of the four goals Chelsea conceded at Manchester United. Those who thought Azpilicueta put in a poor performance took a stark read of Lampard’s post-game comments about Chelsea’s extensive injury list. After mentioning Callum Hudson-Odoi and Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Lampard said “Reece James coming back, who is going to be a big player for us, I think.”

Yesterday we examined the plays building up to Manchester United’s goals. Assigning the bulk of the blame to Azpilicueta for the third and fourth goals requires a willful disregard of the 10 seconds before each goal, spells that implicate several other Chelsea players (and the referee) in the situation reaching Azpilicueta in a state of extremis. Even the first and second goals showed many of the same defensive issues.

We focused on the actions of the Blues involved, but did not look at how Chelsea’s structure enabled these situations.

Throughout the game at Old Trafford, Chelsea lacked a cohesive presence among their defenders. The main reason Cesar Azpilicueta came in for so much blame is because he was often the last man back.

Blaming him requires exonerating the centre-backs for not being where they needed to be on the transitions to defence. This, in turn, has its roots in the centre-backs playing such a high line when Chelsea were in possession. Likewise, both Blues’ full-backs played high up the pitch in possession.

This left them in a scenario Chelsea experienced repeatedly last season. Azpilicueta, the slower and more defensive of the two, stayed deeper. Emerson Palmieri is much faster, but not only does he linger higher up the pitch but he often starts his recovery runs a step or two too late. The effect is that both full-backs are chasing the play: one has positioning and reaction but less speed, the other has speed but worse reaction and less advantageous positioning.

Chelsea can survive this if they have N’Golo Kante, or at least one centre-back tending the deeper position with the physical skills and presence to bottle up the play. Antonio Rudiger was usually that player last season, and he often took the blame for situations similar to Cesar Azpilicueta’s on Sunday (except Rudiger normally had to cover in vain for David Luiz). But both Rudiger and Kante are out with injuries.

Maurizio Sarri lived with these deficiencies, because they were not worth him learning and implementing something new. He relied on N’Golo Kante to keep being N’Golo Kante despite persistent and unbecoming criticism.

Antonio Conte covered for many similar issues by playing a three-man defence. Not only did the three centrebacks give Chelsea the stability and permanent deep coverage they needed in all phases of the game, but two of them balanced out David Luiz. Additionally, the system addressed the now-perennial shortcomings at full-back, with the added bonus of Marcos Alonso’s revelatory turn at wing-back. Finally, Conte – like his countrymen Claudio Ranieri before and Maurizio Sarri after – had Kante.

The simplistic solution upon Reece James’ return is to put him in place of Cesar Azpilicueta, relegating Azpilicueta to the John Terry role of 2016/17 with a few more cup matches.

Not only would that be a disrespectful overreaction, but it would scarcely even qualify as a band-aid solution. The Blues would still be shaky at left-back, with the competition between Emerson and Marcos Alonso surely not resolved after a few preseason games. Emerson had two good shots on David de Gea, but that’s not what Chelsea need most out of their left-back. And if it was, Marcos Alonso is a proven offensive threat in several areas of the game.

James on the right could put Azpilicueta into a three-man battle for left-back. Azpilicueta started his Chelsea career and made his reputation on the left, so it there would be a certain symmetry to him entering the closing stages of his career in the same role.

However, playing around with full-backs still leaves the centreback situation unresolved. Among everything Frank Lampard accomplished with Derby County last year, defensive stability of the kind Lampard knew as a player at Chelsea was not among them. We need to see how the return of Antonio Rudiger and N’Golo Kante impacts the flow of play around Chelsea’s centrebacks, but the various permutations of the last few years, the players involved and Lampard’s growth curve as a coach suggests there may be recurring deficiencies for much of this season.

Like Antonio Conte, Lampard may find his answer in a three-man defence, and Reece James could be the player who allows everything to come together.

Reece James would be the clear choice for starting right wing-back, which would free up Cesar Azpilicueta to re-enter the pool of centrebacks. This would give Chelsea five centrebacks competing for and rotating through three slots. Marcos Alonso and Emerson would compete on the left, with Alonso likely to win that battle.

This arrangement, complemented as always by N’Golo Kante in midfield, would plug up the channels between the centrebacks and the full-backs that opponents exploited throughout last season and on Sunday in Manchester. It would also give Chelsea an added man to close off and close down runs in behind; and prevent a ball-far player coming around the outside of the ball-watching Chelsea defence to pop in a cross or rebound on the blind side.

The Blues would be able to play two centrebacks further forward in support of attacking possession while still having one defend deep. The wing-backs would obviously play higher as well, giving Chelsea what they currently want out of the full-backs without the defensive exposure and the absurdity of the “defensive full-back” constantly chasing back to interdict 1v0 or 1v1 counter-attacks, as Azpilicueta repeatedly had to do at Old Trafford and last season.

Among the many interesting possibilities would be how Chelsea would look combining a shape identified so strongly with Antonio Conte’s circuit-based methodologies with Frank Lampard’s decision-model approach. Chelsea have only known a very particular application of the 3-4-3 and 3-5-2. After three years of two coaches with very similar methodologies, Lampard would be injecting a new element into how the shape comes to life.

With the current crop of players, many of whom learned a three-centreback system from Jody Morris at Chelsea’s academy, the Blues could push the envelope for this structure in the Premier League.

Breaking down the goals against. Azpilicueta stranded and scapegoated. light

One of the surprises of Chelsea’s preseason was Frank Lampard’s decision not to try a three-man defence. Especially as the David Luiz situation started to boil behind the scenes, a three-man back-line could have mollified the discontented Brazilian while addressing his and the side’s defensive short-comings.

Perhaps Lampard chose not to worry himself about a three-man defence when his best – perhaps only – option for right wing-back was still months away from the XI. Better to focus on what he would use with the players he would have for the first part oft he season.

Reece James’ return will be a major lift for Chelsea’s defence, Lampard’s options and squad depth. However, in no way is his return zero-sum viz. Cesar Azpilicueta.

dark. Next. Talking tactics: Chelsea look to complete their set with UEFA Super Cup

Chelsea have enough defensive issues without entertaining a false choice between two top right-backs. The answer may be in the “and,” and not the “or.”