Simon Phillips argues that the Blues are in need of a left-footed centre back.
This isn’t your typical ‘give the youth a chance’ rant, even though I have been known to produce the odd one of those over recent times, and rightly so.
However, there is something I have noticed this season while using three at the back, and from a tactical perspective, I firmly believe that Chelsea should have kept Nathan Ake to leave Stamford Bridge.
Chelsea’s back three was a revelation when first introduced by Antonio Conte last season after a heavy defeat to Arsenal. It was what changed our season and helped turn the club into Premier League winners. Of late, however, I believe the back three is being found out – I was doubtful of the formation’s functionality, but finally concluded that the strategy is insufficient when an opponent revealed that they were deliberately targeting Gary Cahill.
Yes, I realise that this is mainly due to him being our least comfortable ball playing centre back and can often panic when pressed, but I also believe it is because he is not a natural left footer. Essentially, he is operating as a narrow left-back.
What this does is it naturally forces him to turn inside with the ball when pressed, usually either opting to go back to Thibaut Courtois which has its complications or inside to the centre back who is also being heavily pressed, causing mistakes or rushed passes.
This does not happen on the other side. Cesar Azpilicueta is a better ball player than Cahill, but he also has the option to hit the line with a forward pass getting the possession out of a dangerous area while ensuring that the Blues keep the ball.
Even when the slightly better ball playing defender Antonio Rudiger has played on the left side of the defence, he has encountered similar issues and often makes the same decisions to go home to the keeper or back inside. Although, unlike Cahill, the German is capable of producing stunning cross-field passes that alleviates the pressure that the defence is experiencing.
Teams have figured out that we tend to panic and struggle to play out when playing a back three. A multitude of factors contribute to this, but I genuinely feel that the presence of a left-footed centre-back would be of exceeding benefit to the team.
What it would also do is mirror what Azpilicueta offers in an attacking sense. He is often finding himself with plenty of time and space with the ball in advanced right positions, giving him the opportunity to float deep crosses onto the head of Alvaro Morata. This was the creation of many goals for us in 2017.
We don’t provide that threat coming from the left-hand side. If we had a left-footer in Rudiger/Cahill’s position, it gives us another attacking threat and a plan b when we are under pressure to create chances. Additionally, we would more comfortable playing the ball out the back and being able to hit the line more naturally.
So, this brings me to who could we look at to do this role so effectively? Well, in my opinion, we sold him to Bournemouth in the summer.
Nathan Ake has had a fantastic season at The Cherries under Eddie Howe. He’s been playing as a centre back and has won all but two of their player of the month awards for the whole season, most recently picking up the February award. That’s impressive as Bournemouth have some excellent individual talent on board.
Ake would be a perfect fit for the left-sided centre-back role in a three; he would provide all the required assets to be excellent in that position. Even if we switched to a back four he could still play as a centre back or as a left back, and still play it to a high standard.
Versatility is a treasured attribute in the modern game. He’s played as a left wing back to good effect as well as a defensive midfielder, testifying his ability to fill a number of positions for the club should they need it. And since Conte has often commented on the lack of squad depth, this would surely have been a mega bonus for him?
He’s good on the ball, a great defender; he can block and make critical last-ditch challenges. He passes well and has an intelligent football brain, allowing him to read the game well.
But Ake wanted to leave, he wanted regular first-team football, and Conte wasn’t giving that to him, so you can’t blame him. But at only still 23 years of age, he is just going to get better and better. Probably the type of defender that Chelsea will be linked with for £50 million in a couple of years’ time.
We should have kept him – for me he’d slot in that starting line up right now alongside Azpilicueta and Andreas Christensen with Rudiger and David Luiz rotating with the three. Not only would he do a competent job, but he would also add extra to that team and give us more going forward, as well as being a great outlet playing out from the back. A decision that Chelsea will undoubtedly rue.
Written by Simon Phillips – @SiPhillipsSport