Terry injured, Cahill comical, Luiz irresponsible – Antonio Conte has real problems at the back at Chelsea

How Conte must pine for Leonardo Bonucci, Andrea Barzagli and Giorgio Chiellini, Europe’s most orderly and organised defence. Because he has gone from the sublime to the substandard at Stamford Bridge, writes Richard Jolly.
Chelsea's Gary Cahill looks dejected after Arsenal's Alexis Sanchez scored their first goal in a 3-0 win at Emirates Stadium on September 24, 2016. Dylan Martinez / Reuters
Chelsea's Gary Cahill looks dejected after Arsenal's Alexis Sanchez scored their first goal in a 3-0 win at Emirates Stadium on September 24, 2016. Dylan Martinez / Reuters

Few things elevate a reputation quite like absence. Admittedly, sitting a game out is not a fail-safe policy, as Wayne Rooney can testify. He was dropped for Manchester United’s match against Leicester City and saw their problems seemingly solved by that simple step. Yet with every setback the champions suffer, the sold N’Golo Kante’s standing grows still higher in the Midlands?

Leicester let in goals without the Frenchman, Chelsea with him. It leaves the injured John Terry seeming more important than ever. While his ankle trouble has kept him out, Chelsea have conceded twice each to Liverpool and Leicester and three goals to Arsenal.

See also:

• Richard Jolly’s Premier League Team of the Week

• Thomas Woods: Liverpool are so hot they might not even need Daniel Sturridge

• Greg Lea: Worth the wait? Arsenal end nine match barren run against Chelsea in devastating style

In his absence, Antonio Conte, the man who constructed club football’s finest defence during his days at Juventus, seems to have been driven to distraction by an erratic and error-prone rearguard. He reverted to his past at the Emirates Stadium, effecting a mid-match switch to a back three. It could prove the precursor of things to come; it is easy to imagine Conte implementing a policy of safety in numbers.

And Terry, unlike Rooney, can be assured of an immediate return to his team when available again. It may prove an immediate panacea, but while the notion of Terry being the saviour fits the “captain, leader, legend” image he has cultivated, that is to underestimate how deep-rooted Chelsea’s problems are.

Conte has cited the concession of 53 goals last season as a reason why Cesc Fabregas was omitted until Saturday, and he is an attack-minded midfielder. Terry played 24 games in that flawed, failing side. The fact that, pushing 36, he still seems Chelsea’s most reliable defender is an indictment of a club whose short-term thinking is apparent in the high turnover of managers.

Chelsea only merit sympathy in one respect: the knee injury suffered by Kurt Zouma, meaning the 21-year-old Frenchman has not played since February. In other respects, they are complicit in the concessions. There is a distinct shortage of leaders, legendary or not, when Terry is sidelined. The vice-captain Branislav Ivanovic’s form has gone off a cliff since he had the season of his career in 2014/15; for the Serb, it seems a personal peak was followed by an irreversible slide.

Gary Cahill should be the senior centre-back without Terry but plays with ever less conviction. The Englishman has spent recent weeks being robbed, legally or otherwise, for goals and complaining ineffectually, looking a victim of events rather than someone who shapes them.

Then there is David Luiz. Normally judgment should be withheld on a signing who has only played three games for his new clubs. The Brazilian, however, comes with considerable baggage from his first spell at Stamford Bridge. At 29 and costing £34 million (Dh162m), he should be the finished article. Instead, he appears a player who has learnt absolutely nothing, one who is as irresponsible and unreliable as ever.

Chelsea have not merely failed to answer the question of the succession to Terry; they have complicated it. It is easy to envisage an alternative scenario when Conte was preparing to partner Zouma, upon his return to fitness, with either Leonardo Bonucci and Kalidou Koulibaly. But they remain at Juventus and Napoli respectively. Chelsea missed their major targets, panicked and re-signed Luiz instead.

No wonder a demanding disciplinarian like Conte suggested he will have sleepless nights. His warning that they risk a second successive season of mid-table obscurity may have been hyperbolic, or a pre-emptive bid for clemency from an owner who tends to sack managers who do not win the league.

Yet it was an indication of how alarming Saturday’s evisceration by Arsenal was. Chelsea have only played two genuine contenders this season. They have been exposed by both. Had Terry been playing, they may have been less chaotic affairs, but the chances are that Chelsea would still have been breached and beaten.

How Conte must pine for Bonucci, Andrea Barzagli and Giorgio Chiellini, Europe’s most orderly and organised defence. Because he has gone from the sublime to the substandard.

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Published: September 26, 2016 04:00 AM

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