IF you pick up a newspaper today, you will find very little about how Chelsea will cope in a footballing capacity without John Terry, now that he has decided not to appeal against his four-match ban for an FA misconduct charge. He will now miss four crucial matches in Chelsea’s season. Is there sufficient quality to cover in his absence?The four games that Terry misses are trips to White Hart Lane to face Tottenham, a home league game against Manchester United, a League Cup tie also at home to United, and a tricky game in Wales against Swansea. These are crucial games in the title race, and whilst the League Cup may be low on the list priorities, it’s still a piece of silverware. Chelsea are simply in the trophy-winning business, and Roberto Di Matteo’s team selection against Wolves in the last round shows that he is serious about the competition.
In the corresponding fixtures last season, Terry’s presence at Spurs and unavailability against United and Swansea, proved how important he remains to the cause. He was absolutely magnificent at White Hart Lane in a 1-1 draw, including a heroic clearance off the line in the last minute. He played almost an hour of that game with José Bosingwa as his central defensive partner. Terry’s absence was badly felt as a three-goal lead was let slip at home against United, and the game ended 3-3. He also missed the trip to Swansea as Chelsea dropped more points, only managing a 1-1 draw.
In a week where England looked fragile defensively after drawing 1-1 in Poland, Terry’s absence is already being felt. Despite begrudging praise from the press after his excellent displays at the Euros, many also claimed Terry’s lack of pace forces England to defend very deep and invite pressure. Ever since the World Cup in 2010, there have been calls for a younger centre back pairing with Jagielka and Lescott reguarly mentioned. Ironically, both are 30, whilst Terry is 31. England also came under intense pressure as they defended almost inside their 18-yard box. Clearly, Terry is simply better suited to Hodgson’s tactics than other English Central Defensive options.
It looks like David Luiz and Gary Cahill will line up in central defense in the captain’s absence at club level. They have started in four games together this season so far, with three clean sheets (Newcastle, Stoke and Nordsjælland) plus that horror night in Monaco against Atlético Madrid. They have looked a very good central pairing for the most part, especially excelling against physical strikers with excellent games against Zigic, Ba, Crouch and Mario Gómez coming to mind. However, they have struggled at times against forwards with more subtle, intelligent movement. Think back to conceding 3 goals against Napoli and Édinson Cavani, 3 against Manchester United and Rooney/Welbeck/Hernández, and 4 against Falcao. Both players have been outstanding this season, and Cahill has been a bit unlucky to play so little because of Luiz’s consistency.
Branislav Ivanović is next in line to shift to centre back, but I have been quite vocal in the past about my view that Ivanović is only average in that position. Whilst he has the physicality suited for centre back, he does not have the concentration or positioning. He will stay at right-back in all likelihood, but the club is now in a position where one injury to any of those three defenders, and 23-year-old Spaniard César Azpilicueta will be thrust in to a massive game. Although he is very highly rated, he has played only 100 odd minutes of competitive football in the last 8 weeks and it would be a tough ask for him to face Gareth Bale, or to start against Manchester United. The home league game against Norwich would have been the perfect chance to give him 90 minutes of Premier League football, but instead he only played the final 12 minutes when the game was already won. From a tactical perspective, having two short fullbacks in Cole and Azpilicueta can cause issues when opposition fullbacks aren’t tracked particularly well, and are given time to deliver deep diagonal crosses to the back post. Grant Holt’s goal is evidence of this issue. It also leaves a shorter pool of players at set-pieces, which is not ideal when your best organiser is already missing.
Thankfully for Chelsea, Terry will be able to play on Tuesday night when the side travels to Ukraine for a very tough game against Shakhtar Donetsk. Avoiding defeat is extremely important, or the likelihood of topping the group, and even qualifying becomes a far tougher task. You get the sense that Terry will be relishing the rearguard action that awaits. Whether he will be Chelsea captain remains to be seen. When asked, Di Matteo would not provide confirmation, insisting: “You will have to wait and see”. For now, it’s a measure of Luiz’s new-found consistency, and Gary Cahill’s mostly outstanding form since joining, that Chelsea supporters now feel confident defensively even without their Captain, Leader, Legend.