Defensive solidity deserts Chelsea as Thomas Tuchel's side hunt for missing clean sheets

European champions travel to Wolves on Sunday having dropped seven points from winning positions in their last five games

Sometimes a fixture can assume a symbolic importance. Wolves felt a barometer in Chelsea’s ultimately triumphant 2020-21 season. Frank Lampard’s Blues had been league leaders at the start of December but displayed a self-destructive streak by losing after leading at Molineux. That winter slide finished off Lampard.

Come January, Wolves were Thomas Tuchel’s first opponents. He reimagined Chelsea on the plane from France, designing a 3-4-3 formation, implementing it immediately, securing a shutout on his bow. It was the formation that won Chelsea the Champions League and the first of 31 clean sheets in his opening 50 games.

Now there have been none in the last six. Chelsea entered December as league leaders. Now they are four points behind Manchester City. History may not repeat itself in every respect — Tuchel lacks Lampard’s playing pedigree at Chelsea but his managerial success ought to render his position less perilous — but some parallels with the past are unwelcome.

If only temporarily, Chelsea have lost their reputation as the most frugal and ruthless side around. Instead, Tuchel has been bemoaning their wastefulness. “We're in exactly the place you don't want to be,” he said. “A good performance with no result is the worst place.”

A large squad has felt stretched by Covid cases and injuries. With Romelu Lukaku, Timo Werner and Callum Hudson-Odoi having tested positive, Tuchel will have to be resourceful in attack. The home-grown have provided the inspiration of late: Mason Mount has scored in four consecutive league games, while Reece James has been directly involved in nine goals from right wing-back.

Yet the problems are issues Tuchel has never had to confront in his time at Stamford Bridge: slipshod defending. Chelsea have lost seven points from winning positions in their last five games. Solidity has deserted them.

There is a case for arguing their record was artificially good when they had only let in four goals in 12 games; their underlying numbers were not that good and Edouard Mendy had been outstanding. The goalkeeper’s errors came in a flurry at West Ham. Jorginho’s mistakes led to goals against Manchester United and the Hammers. Until recently, Chelsea were flawless. When Arthur Masuaku’s mis-hit cross sailed in for West Ham’s winner, they felt luckless.

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So they may relish meeting Wolves, who have only scored twice in seven matches. There is still a need to tighten up. Whereas Tuchel had seemed able to bring players in and out of the team without disrupting the defensive record, now there is a greater focus on his decision-making. He could drop Andreas Christensen for opting not to sign a new contract when everything else functioned slickly. Now he may need the Dane.

And since Ben Chilwell was sidelined, Marcos Alonso has failed to recapture his excellent early-season form at left wing-back. Jorginho passed a test of character by converting two penalties against Leeds but his performance levels have dropped, in part because he has not been fully fit. Saul Niguez’s wretched start to life in London has only mattered in the last month amid midfield injuries and when the back three have been afforded less protection.

Tuchel may have to parachute Mateo Kovacic and N’Golo Kante back on Sunday, earlier than would be ideal. The Croatian has missed the last 11 games, first with injury and then Covid, and was Chelsea’s most creative player at the start of the season.

Kante’s ability to snuff out danger has been missed. They have only conceded three goals with the hyperactive Frenchman on the pitch this season. Tuchel, the manager who built from the back from day one, surely sees clean sheets as the key to a revival. Again.

Updated: December 19th 2021, 2:48 AM