Chelsea’s defence against Ajax looked like a group of players who had not lined up in a competitive game together, because they weren’t.
Chelsea know a thing or two about misfiring strikers. For once, it went Chelsea’s way. Maxi Gomez and Rodrigo Moreno missed several unmissable chances to spare Kepa Arrizabalaga, and Arrizabalaga returned the favour by saving a penalty by Daniel Parejo. Without the home side helping out the defence, the Blues would be in serious Champions League peril.
Kepa Arrizabalaga, Goalkeeper: 5
Perhaps Kepa Arrizbalaga is not the heir to Petr Cech but to Willy Caballero: plenty of nervy moments, bizarre decision-making and occasionally disastrous execution all made just about almost whole through penalty kick heroics. Of course, that implies that Arrizabalaga would be the backup keeper after being vanquished by whoever Chelsea bring in to challenge him.
Arrizabalaga’s penalty save was even more remarkable because the goal he allowed to Cesar Soler in the 40′ flopped his hands back like a swinging door, yet on the save his hands were as strong and resolute as, well, they should be. He let in the one he’s expected to save and saved the one he’d be expected to concede, yet they both required about the same technical and mechanical skill.
Those moments aside, Arrizabalaga’s decision-making suggests that he is feeling the pressure around him, even if Willy Caballero, Jamie Cumming and Jamal Blackman are not inching their way towards the XI.
In the 56′, he and Andreas Christensen had a complete failure of communication. Christensen intercepted a pass over the top but the ball fell to an onrushing Valencia player. Either Arrizabalaga didn’t expect Christensen to make that interception or he didn’t see the second Valencia player or some other reason altogether, but Arrizabalaga once again stranded himself near the top of his box and, once again, luck intervened.
Some of his distribution was equally tentative and disconnected, but then he was also capable of a precise 60-yard bullet pass up the middle to start an attack. Very confusing. Very Kepa.
Andreas Christensen, Centre back: 6
Andreas Christensen played in his first game since September 28, and that, too, showed in his and the defences’ performances. At times Christensen looked fresh and attentive, other times he was not entirely sure where he was supposed to be and what he was supposed to as part of this defensive unit. His interaction with Kepa Arrizabalaga in the 56′ highlighted a lot of this: he was a step behind in covering the forward’s run, managed to recover for a weak header but that fell to another player, and neither he nor his goalkeeper really knew what to expect from each other.
Christensen did not get much help from his vice captain, either. In one of Jorginho’s more stunning moments, the regista par absurdum directed Christensen to run off his line to go one-on-one with a Valencia forward coming down Chelsea’s right flank. Jorginho did this while within 15 yards of the Valencia defender, but still called for Christensen to charge 25-30 yards out. Had Christensen done this and been beaten, the Valencia player would have had no Chelsea player between him and the goal, as Jorginho fell behind the play within moments of the point-and-shout.
Christensen may be low on match sharpness, but at least he knows a bad idea when he sees one.
Much like the decision to sit Mason Mount for the first time against Manchester City, the decision to welcome Andreas Christensen back to the XI in such an important game is a rather puzzling one. It did not cost Chelsea on the evening, but it seems an odd invitation to risk. Now that it’s out of the way, though, he did nothing to preclude a sequel and that will be a better test of his match fitness and his fit in this squad.
Kurt Zouma, Centre back: 6.5
Zouma was the only regular member of the back line to start in his usual position. He held the defence together as Valencia built up pressure in Chelsea’s box, but was exposed several times tracking back by the much faster Valencia forwards and midfielders.
Zouma picked up his second assist in the Champions League, nodding down a cross for Christian Pulisic to tap in. Valencia claimed Zouma shoved his marker en route to climbing highest, and given the poor refereeing Chelsea are perhaps fortunate that this was the one call that made sense.