As everyone knows by now, Chelsea’s title defense has not gone according to plan so far this season. The Blues have accumulated only four points from their first four matches, their worst start to a season in the Roman Abramovic era. After winning all of their first four games to start last season, the reigning title holders look a shadow of the team that won the league just a few months ago.
Chelsea are yet to keep a clean sheet this season and are yet to hold an opponent to fewer than two goals in a game this season. Due to that, the defence is getting much of the blame for the slow start. Many criticisms that have been issued to the defence have been valid, with John Terry looking a shadow of himself from last season and Branislav Ivanovic looking like he’s never played right back before. Yet, the root of the problem for Chelsea may be a bit further up the pitch. Many of the players in Chelsea’s engine room are performing well below par and exposing that defense in a way it was not exposed last season.
The axis of Nemanja Matic and Cesc Fabregas was a vital part of Chelsea’s title win last season. We saw what Fabregas can do when on form in the first half of last season. The Spaniard was able to dictate games, create chances, and create goals at will with the freedom he was given due to the solidity of Matic next to him. The Serbian was the best defensive midfielder in the league last season. While his Spanish partner was racking up assists left right and centre, Matic held the team together with his defensive solidity. For all the praise the defence, Eden Hazard, and Diego Costa got there is definitely an argument to be made that this pair in midfield was the reason Chelsea won the title.
We saw what can happen when both of the two are off form in the 5-3 loss against Tottenham on New Year’s, and we are seeing it again now. The two have both played well below the high standards they established last season.
Statistically, Fabregas is down across the board. He’s been unable to get on the ball as often as he did last year and when he has had the ball he’s been less creative. When he isn’t being creative or controlling games, the 28 year old becomes a bit of a passenger because, as Jamie Carragher said in his scathing criticism of the Spaniard after the Manchester City game, “He can’t defend,” and “He lacks tactical intelligence, especially defensively.” His inability to control games or create chances has left the Blues short going forward and his lack of defensive nous has left them exposed at the back.
Matic hasn’t dropped off as much as his partner, but his importance means his struggles are felt even more. The 27 year old is not defending at as high a level as he did last year, and with the struggles of Fabregas, he has had more defending to do. As strong as Chelsea’s defence is, they benefited hugely from the protection of their defensive midfielder last season. John Terry benefited from the cover and it helped mask his lack of pace, something that has been exposed this season. Branislav Ivanovic benefited from his countrymen’s protection as it allowed him to bomb up and down the flanks without too much worry. Now that Matic isn’t performing at such a high level, Ivanovic has been exposed time and time again as a weak link in the Chelsea defence.
As far as solutions go, it is likely that Jose Mourinho tries to play them back into form. If he does decide to drop one of the pair, Fabregas is the most likely to make way. With a trip to Goodison Park next on the schedule, the Portuguese manager will want the defensive presence of Matic in the team. Anyone of Ramires, John Obi Mikel, or Ruben Loftus Cheek could come in to replace the Spaniard, but none of those three are long term fixes. Ultimately, Chelsea need the two to regain their form. If that doesn’t happen soon, it could be too late for Chelsea’s title defence.