Chelsea lost 3-0 to Sheffield United at the weekend, meaning their qualification for next season’s Champions League is no longer in their own hands.
It was an absolute hammering at an empty Bramall Lane. The Blues had plenty of the ball with an impressive 75.9% of possession and even out-shot their hosts 15 to 9, yet they never really looked like they were going to win the game. Sheffield United beat them well and truly.
Chelsea remain in third place for now, but they are just one point ahead of Leicester and two ahead of Manchester United, and both sides have winnable games in-hand to come. This is a huge blow to the ambitions of a club that has already spent £83.7m on two new attacking signings for 2020/21, first securing Hakim Ziyech from Ajax and then beating Liverpool to the signing of Timo Werner. And a club who are linked with a staggering £90m move for Bundesliga wonderkid Kai Havertz.
With signings like that, Chelsea need to be in the Champions League. But the thing is, even with signings like that, could Chelsea compete in the Champions League? On the evidence of recent form, the answer is surely no.
Not because of their lack of goalscoring, you understand. The attack these young studs are coming in to replace has been in fine form this season. Chelsea have scored 13 goals in seven games since the Premier League restart and the Sheffield United match was the first time they had failed to score. The problem is their defence.
You wait 41 shots, 26 games and 11 months for a Premier League goal…
And then you get two. ⚽️⚽️ https://t.co/XCUAxNuvEy
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) July 11, 2020
In the same seven-game stretch where they have scored 13, they have conceded 10. This includes letting a rickety West Ham slap them up, getting pushed all the way by a woeful Crystal Palace and yesterday getting blown to bits by Sheffield United.
Chelsea’s goal difference for the entire season is just +14. For reference, the sides around them have +26 (Manchester United), +32 (Leicester) and +57 (Manchester City). Chelsea are nowhere near any of those and it’s because they have conceded 49 goals this season. That’s more than Arsenal (42). Arsenal.
As a player Frank Lampard always had someone else do his defending for him, and his Chelsea side play in exactly the same way, as though they expect someone else to take care of the defensive duties. How else have previously imperious centre-backs like Andreas Christensen and Antonio Rudiger be reduced to a two-man comedy act to rival Laurel and Hardy? Why does Kurt Zouma get skinned by everyone and have to constantly resort to last-ditch tackles?
Moreover it’s not just the centre-backs. Neither full-back is particularly solid defensively (bet you never thought you could say that about César Azpilicueta) and Kepa Arrizabalaga is a presence as soft and permeable as melted butter in goal. All in all, Chelsea’s defence is absolutely miserable and routinely comes back to haunt them.
Of course when you combine it with their lightning attack it makes Chelsea must-see TV. Since they debuted their new kit sponsored by Three, all four of the matches have seen one of the sides score three goal, but twice that side wasn’t Chelsea.
For the fourth consecutive game while wearing their new 3-sponsored shirt, Chelsea or their opponent has scored 3 goals. pic.twitter.com/X5QwodQDz1
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) July 11, 2020
For a side with that kind of massive, glaring weakness to be about to spend approximately £170m on new attacking talent while completely neglecting the defence is staggeringly negligent. After getting battered by the Blades, Frank Lampard said “I learnt a lot, I won’t forget that,” and you have to hope that one of the things he learned was that he should redirect the Havertz money towards a centre-back.
Or if Havertz is deemed essential, he needs to make sure Chelsea are willing to invest more money, because the Blues absolutely need a centre-back. Obviously they could upgrade on Kepa, and he has had a very poor season in goal, but given he is the world’s most expensive goalkeeper you can’t really give up on him so quickly. They also for sure need a left-back. But a left-back isn’t going to transform their back-line. Only a centre-back can do that.
Liverpool are currently the gold-standard in the Premier League right now. And Chelsea do resemble the Reds, but it’s the Liverpool from 2017/18. That hurricane of a side that made a Champions League final but also shipped so many goals and dropped so many points that they ended up 25 points back from champions Manchester City.
That Liverpool side was transformed by the arrival of Virgil van Dijk. The Dutch defender was an instant hero and stabilised the defence to an incredible degree, to the point where for the vast majority of this season you were amazed that the Reds even conceded a goal. Chelsea need a similar kind of signing, someone who can organise and lead the back-line and make all his team-mates play better. After all their defenders certainly have great talent, but they lack direction and organisation, they need a defensive pillar to give them that.
There’s only one such pillar on the transfer market (well, technically two, but taking a risk on Samuel Umtiti’s knee fully healing seems unwise at this point) and that’s Napoli’s Kalidou Koulibaly. The Senegalese centre-back is an absolute colossus at the back and his organisational powers are so total he’s even been seen pushing team-mates into making tackles.
“In football, you never know what happens. I never spoke to Napoli about leaving. If we have to find a solution, we will find it, but I have never talked about the transfer market,” Koulibaly said of his future recently.
#SquawkaScout: Kalidou Koulibaly
The Napoli defender has turned 29 since we made this video, but the reasons why he is one of the most-wanted centre-backs in Europe are the same. 🤑 pic.twitter.com/zPWUQrxwpG
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) June 26, 2020
Koulibaly seems content in the south of Italy, saying “we will see what the president will decide and if he proposes to extend my contract, that would allow me to end my career here.” But Napoli are a selling club and president Aurelio de Laurentis has a habit of moving stars on for massive transfer fees, and Koulibaly seems next up on that list.
As a result, Koulibaly has been linked to just about every single club around, including Manchester City and Liverpool, but Chelsea proved with Timo Werner that they can move swiftly and decisively to pip bigger clubs to key transfers. They have the cash and the credit to make the move happen, and it is absolutely what they have to do if they want to take their team to the next level.
If it means missing out on Havertz to get the transfer done, then so be it. Chelsea have enough attacking quality in the squad as it is, adding in Ziyech and Werner and they really won’t need anything more in attack. Meanwhile they are crying out for someone like Kalidou Koulibaly at the back. A totemic figure that can inspire and guide their defence to be as imposing as their attack.
Right now Chelsea are intensely reminiscent of Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle United from the mid-90’s. They were fantastic in attack and great to watch, you wanted to watch them every week for the quality of football. But their defence was poor and in the end they were perpetual runners-up, never winning a major honour to go with all their great football. They are fondly remembered, but not for trophies.
Chelsea, meanwhile, are a football club that demand trophies. Roman Abramovich has been ruthless with managers he deems incapable of bringing the biggest honours (which, in the end, has been all of them) back to Stamford Bridge.
So whilst many neutrals would be delighted if Chelsea brought Newcastle’s “great entertainers” spirit into the modern game, Chelsea fans and their trigger-happy owner demand a very different level of success. Chelsea are a side that have to win league titles and big cups, and without a world-class centre-back like Kalidou Koulibaly coming into the side, they can forget about doing that.