Chelsea Shows Improvement, Promise in Clinching Its UCL Last-16 Berth Already

Chelsea has benefited from a light schedule, but areas of previous concern have become bedrocks for the club in its recent run of form and entering this weekend's massive showdown vs. Tottenham.
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In mid-October, when Chelsea threw away a two-goal lead to draw 3-3 at home to Southampton, it seemed that, despite all the summer signings, all the problems of last season remained. That was nine goals conceded in five Premier League games, and no side can cope with having to score an average of two goals a game just to get a point. 

Then Edouard Mendy took over in goal and, in eight games since in all competitions, Chelsea has conceded only two goals. A 2-1 win at Rennes on Tuesday secured qualification for the last 16 in the Champions League with two games to spare. Everything, suddenly, is looking up. 

There are reasons for encouragement in every area of the pitch. The expensively assembled forward line is beginning to click. Timo Werner may be missing a sitter a game, but he is still a perpetual danger. Hakim Ziyech’s early performances have been devastating. Tammy Abraham is back in the sort of form he showed early last season. Kai Havertz hasn’t quite settled and missed a spell after a positive COVID-19 test, while Christian Pulisic’s season has been hampered by injury, but it’s testament to Chelsea’s strength in depth that it hasn’t really mattered. 

The midfield is more cohesive than last season, particularly when N’Golo Kante rather than Jorginho operates at the back of midfield, as he has in the last three league games. Mason Mount looks like one of the tactically smartest and most inventive players in the England; his pass for Callum Hudson-Odoi to open the scoring could not have been more perfectly weighted, while even to conceptualize the ball took remarkable vision. 

And then there’s the defense. After his dreadful start at West Brom, Thiago Silva has offered a sense of authority that was lacking last season. Ben Chilwell has fit in perfectly at left back and has begun to offer at least some of the goals that Marcos Alonso did at his best. Reece James may even end up being England’s starting right back ahead of Trent Alexander-Arnold. Mendy, meanwhile, has actually been a proper goalkeeper, whereas Kepa Arrizabalaga had become a liability as his confidence dwindled. 

But there must be a note of caution. There has been, in the last two games, a slight tendency to switch off, to allow a position of dominance to slide–which is perhaps natural given the physical strains of this season. Rennes, really, should never have been allowed back into the game, but it’s to Chelsea credit that it found a late winner through Olivier Giroud having slightly sloppily let its lead slip. 

Chelsea is through to the Champions League last 16

The bigger doubt is that those eight games of positivity have been against Rennes twice, Sevilla, Manchester United, Krasnodar, Burnley, Sheffield United and Newcastle. Sevilla is a decent side, but at the time it played Chelsea it was insipid in front of goal, in the midst of a run of four goals in seven games. United was struggling at home, and both Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side and Chelsea seemed content to sit off and play out a 0-0 draw. They were clean sheets that came against sides that lacked cutting edge, and were achieved without offering much in the way of creativity. 

The issue is balance, and the truth is Chelsea should be better than those other five sides. That’s not to diminish how well it has played over the past month–plenty of title challenges have been undermined by a failure to dismiss the lesser lights of a division. But it is to say that the weakness that was so apparent last season has not seriously been tested. Chelsea last season conceded 54 goals in the league, more than any other side in the top half of the table, and a high proportion of them from counterattacks and crossed set plays. That was a particular concern, in part because Lampard’s Derby County exhibited similar weaknesses, and also because those are the two aspects of defending that require detailed and repeated work on the training ground. 

It may be that the problem has been resolved, although Rennes’s equalizer, headed in by Sehrou Guirassy, did come from a corner. The personnel is clearly improved. In his third year in management, Lampard has perhaps been more effective at organizing his side. But the truth is that since Mendy came into the side and gave it that upgrade, Chelsea has not really been tested. 

The first proper examination will come against Jose Mourinho’s Tottenham on Sunday. With Harry Kane and Son Heung-min both in superlative form, that will demonstrate whether this Chelsea can really defend against the counterattack. If it can, then this could be a very exciting season indeed.