It was Callum Robinson’s first goal that really highlighted Chelsea’s biggest problem during their shocking 5-2 defeat to West Bromwich Albion on Saturday.
As the ball was played down the Blues’ left, the 26-year-old strode forward towards the edge of the penalty area completely unimpeded. Chelsea‘s central midfielders, Mateo Kovacic and Jorginho, were nowhere to be seen.
It meant that when Daniel Furlong cut his cross back to the Baggies forward, Robinson had time and space to measure up his shot. Take nothing away from the finish, it was exceptional, but the Blues certainly made it easy.
There is a caveat to this: Chelsea were down to ten men following Thiago Silva’s first-half red card. Naturally, there was more space on the pitch for West Brom to exploit. That they did so ruthlessly is credit to Sam Allardyce and his players.
Chelsea had conceded just two goals in 14 matches under Thomas Tuchel heading into the game. So the fact the defence was breached five times in a little more than 45 minutes was as surprising as it was concerning.
Tuchel was quick to point to mitigating factors as to why such a capitulation had occurred, but even he finished his point with the cold-hard truth.
“Everything was rusty which I was surprised with after two days of training,” he said. “But I could accept it after two weeks, a lot of travelling, a 12.30pm kick-off, I didn’t have the highest expectations.
“I thought, ‘Ok if it takes us a while to come into the match I will accept it and push’. We scored the goal but to have a red card straight after meant maybe we didn’t feel the risk.
“We will talk to the players about it but the attitude and defending was clearly not the same as we had before.”
Tuchel has demanded a lot from his Chelsea players since taking over from Frank Lampard at the end of January, but the German insists on one thing during matches more than any other: control.
It’s why the Blues have dominated possession in every game the German has overseen. Tuchel’s idea is, fundamentally, a rather simple one: if his players have the ball, the other team can’t score. And even though they were a man down for an hour of the game against West Brom, Chelsea still finished with 63% possession on Saturday.
So what went wrong? Well, there were plenty of individual errors and Tuchel even highlighted how often the Blues, even prior to Silva’s dismissal, were giving away the ball.
But it was the lack of protection given to the defence by the midfield of Kovacic and Jorginho that stood out.
Both failed to track opponents and were constantly attracted to the ball rather than holding their positions in the centre of the pitch, as highlighted by that Robinson goal.
Kovacic and Jorginho were both pulled out to the left and Robinson was able to move forward unopposed. Mason Mount did attempt to race back to try to close down the Baggies forward – and he perhaps could’ve reacted quicker to do so – but it was too late and Chelsea fell two goals behind.
Make no mistake, since Tuchel arrived at Stamford Bridge, Jorginho and Kovacic have played some excellent football, some of the best of their respective careers. The problem is that no matter how well they have done, performances that the two produced on Saturday can never be ruled out.
The pair simply do not possess the defensive discipline required to lockdown games on a consistent basis. And if N’Golo Kante is absent, as he was on Saturday, then Chelsea’s squad lacks a top-quality destroyer in midfield.
It’s why Frank Lampard was desperate for the Blues to sign Declan Rice. The former Blues head coach pushed for the West Ham United midfielder last summer and again ahead of the January transfer window. According to The Athletic, his insistence on signing Rice was a factor in the club’s eventual decision to end his tenure.
Yet this summer – unless the knee injury sustained last week is serious – Rice is exactly who Chelsea need to go out and sign no matter the price. Not Erling Haaland.
The Blues have goalscorers within their squad. Tammy Abraham has 12. Olivier Giroud 11. Timo Werner even has ten despite his struggles. Then there is Kai Havertz, who is looking more and more of a threat, and Mason Mount, who has netted seven times in all competitions.
What they don’t have is a Kante alternative. In the Premier League this term, the Frenchman has, per FBRef, won 2.37 tackles per 90 and made 2.65 interceptions per 90.
In comparison, Jorginho and Kovacic have won 1.67 and 1.68 tackles per 90 respectively and averaged 1.90 and 1.06 interceptions per 90.
Rice betters both. He wins 1.69 tackles per 90 and makes 2.10 interceptions per 90. He is also better than the duo – and even Kante – when it comes to halting dribbles, with his 48% success rate far higher than the Chelsea stars.
The England international also has an intangible quality that can’t be measured: leadership. He is West Ham’s captain and a vocal presence on the pitch. For too long Chelsea have not had somebody like Rice in their side.
He will not come cheap, however. “Any club can make offers for players but we’ve not had any big offers,” David Moyes said yesterday. “I hope we don’t get any but if we do, like any other club, we would consider them.
In each football.london Chelsea bulletin, we’ll be bringing you the latest breaking news, transfer features and comment pieces, as well as the key talking points for fans.
You won’t miss a single thing when it comes to Chelsea.
We’ll also send special newsletters when big stories break or there’s a special event happening. And with the January transfer window now open there’s plenty of content to get your teeth into.
How do you sign up?
It’s easy and only takes seconds.
Simply type your email address into the box at the top of this article – or any article on the Chelsea section of football.london in fact – labelled ‘Get the biggest daily stories by email’ and click ‘Subscribe’.
And that’s it, you’re all set.
If you decide later that you no longer wish to receive the emails, simply follow the unsubscribe link in one of the newsletters – but we don’t think you’ll want to.
For more details, click here.
“I don’t know where the Bank of England is for Tomas Soucek but I’ve said with Declan, it would take the Bank of England and the Royal Bank of Scotland to get him.”
Chelsea’s hierarchy may be hesitant to spend big on a player the club released at 14 years old. However, the 22-year-old midfielder ticks so many of the boxes the Blues need that he will be more than worth it.
Signing Haaland may be the club’s ultimate dream but bringing Rice back to Stamford Bridge would the smarter reality.