Frank Lampard has tried every central defender at his disposal, in every combination and in two different formations, without finding a long-term solution to Chelsea’s defensive problems.
Through this season we’ve seen Antonio Rudiger, Andreas Christensen, Kurt Zouma, Fikayo Tomori and even Cesar Azpilicueta playing at the heart of our defence, constantly shuffled in search of a healthy blend of ball-playing ability, defensive intelligence and pace to cover behind a high block.
After some of the worst defensive showings of the whole season in recent months, culminating in five goals conceded in four days against Bayern Munich and Bournemouth; last week Chelsea suddenly kept two clear sheets on the spin.
After picking Antonio Rudiger and Kurt Zouma for the Tuesday FA Cup game against Liverpool, where they shut down Europe’s most potent attack, Lampard clearly decided to roll with the momentum and picked the same back 4 on Sunday too.
Again his side conceded no goals, and very few chances against an admittedly dire Everton team. It seems likely the same 4 will trot out in our next game too.
The reason the manager has had such a hard time picking his preferred combination so far is that each brings different strengths, but there are none that offer everything at once.
What was clear from last week’s games was the presence that Zouma brings in crossing situations. He’s won 4 aerial duels per game, far ahead of the alternatives (Christensen on 3.3, Rudiger on 2.8, Tomori on 2.3).
Those stats just back up what you see every time Chelsea play. Christensen is not the best in the air, Rudiger’s poor positioning undermines his great leap. Tomori has many other qualities but often prefers to drop off rather than challenge in the air for the initial high ball.
As well as that heading ability, he’s also got a good balance of pace and passing to fit into the 433 that we’ve seen Lampard use in recent games.
Zouma may not be as comfortable progressing the ball as some of his colleagues, and he’s also not immune to lapses of concentration (like most of his colleagues, in fairness), but having his ability in the air in the team has proved a huge asset, especially at set pieces where this side was being punished again and again previously.
If Chelsea go out and concede 3 against Aston Villa this week the shuffle will begin again. But for now, it seems clear that Zouma’s strengths are just what the side needs, and for now he’s snatched a starting place back from his rivals.