The past weekend marked Chelsea’s fifth clean sheet of the season in their 15th game in all competitions, which means they have kept one in 33% of their matches this season. During the last campaign, they were praised for their defensive organisation and consistency under Antonio Conte. The Italian changed to a 3-4-2-1 formation and it immediately reaped rewards, as the Blues became difficult to break down. There was always going to be a stage when the team became less reliable as opposition teams developed a method of playing against them. If the Premier League champions want to seriously challenge to retain their championship, they will have to once again find the right combination at the back.
The one improvement since last season has been the increase of defensive options in the squad. Long-serving captain John Terry left the club after a decorated career at Stamford Bridge, but the arrival of Antonio Rudiger and the return of Andreas Christensen means that there is depth at centre-back. For reasons of injury and suspension, those two have been given opportunities in the first-team, but Conte has yet to find his best combination at the back. Last season, Cesar Azpilicueta, David Luiz and Gary Cahill were regular starters. However, it remains to be seen whether they will be the first-choice trio for the rest of this campaign.
In terms of minutes played in the Premier League, it has been Azpilicueta (900 minutes), Rudiger (720 minutes) and Luiz (716 minutes) that have been the most common partnership. Christensen (354 minutes) and Cahill (405 minutes) have both featured, but they have played less than half of the total minutes on offer. The latter’s absence can be explained by a three-match suspension picked up after the first game, but he was benched for the weekend’s trip to Bournemouth and the resulting clean sheet may mean he struggles to get back into the Premier League team.
For winning the ball back, Luiz is the best, as he averages 4.15 ball recoveries per ninety minutes. The Brazilian is excellent at taking up the right positions at the heart of the defence and is aggressive in his movements to win the ball. He is very good at anticipating the next stage of the play and that is why he is often the preferred option to start in the centre of the back three. Azpilicueta has become one of the most reliable and consistent defenders in the Premier League under Conte, as shown by his average of 3.1 ball recoveries per ninety minutes. The next best of the five defenders is Rudiger, as the German international averages 2.62 ball recoveries per ninety minutes.
Conte will be pleased to have options as the other two defenders at his disposal bring a unique skill and can be used on a horses for courses basis. If Chelsea are coming up against a team that are good in the air, such as West Brom or Burnley, it would be a good selection to opt for Cahill. The club captain wins 66.67% of his aerial duels, which is the best of any defender at the club. He also offers a threat from set pieces and that is another advantage of picking him in the team. Christensen is a huge talent and his distribution is the best of the five centre-back options, as he completes 91% of his passes. There are areas of his game that need to improve, but there will be opportunities for him to play this season.
The champions lack squad depth across the pitch after a mixed summer of recruitment, but their centre-back options are strong and there is an opportunity to rotate based on the opposition. Based on the stats, Azpilicueta, Luiz and Rudiger are the best trio across all areas, but Christensen and Cahill both offer different qualities that could be useful based on the opposition. There has been rotation over the first ten matches, but once Conte settles on an established back three, the defensive record on the team should improve.