Chelsea news as Mauricio Pochettino faces up to Ben Chilwell injury reality but already has the answer to his problems waiting
Chelsea defender Ben Chilwell
Ben Chilwell is a new injury doubt for Chelsea
And so the questions begin once again for Mauricio Pochettino, even in the face of an undoubted success and probably Chelsea’s biggest domestic victory in near enough 18 months. It was with youth, as always, that the Blues took on Brighton and with three of their oldest five players on the field the average age was still just 22.2.
The most senior of these, and wearing the captain’s armband, was Ben Chilwell. The 26-year-old, in his natural left-back slot, made-up a fundamental part of a patchwork defence. Alongside Axel Disasi and Levi Colwill with Marc Cucurella shifted to the right, Ian Maatsen coming back from an attacking position to double up on Kaoru Mitoma, Chilwell helped limit Brighton’s dangerous play.
The visitors were threatening at times, as you would expect for one of the most well-drilled and in-form teams across the continent, but only truly tested Robert Sanchez twice. In terms of clearcut chances, Chelsea had just as many and could have been in the sunset and away had it not been for two refereeing errors.
Sanchez, who played hot potato with the ball at his own feet throughout the first half, showing Brighton, Roberto De Zerbi, his teammates and perhaps Mauricio Pochettino just why he was eventually relegated to third-choice goalkeeper due to fallibilities in possession, caused his own issues. In the second half the design was more conservative and industrial.
Nicolas Jackson took a lot more high balls down and there weren’t many times that the Spaniard dallied or put his teammates under pressure. It was during the opening period that Chilwell, acting with experience and a sense of desperation to avoid total self-sabotage, continuously gestured to his ‘keeper to calm down.
It was evidence of just why the England star has become a leading senior figure in the squad not just down to his age. Chilwell is naturally charismatic, talks well and is popular with his teammates. He takes control and has experience only rivalled by Thiago Silva and Raheem Sterling in the current set-up.
It is for this reason that he has taken up the vice-captaincy when around and in the early weeks of the season it has been him, in the absence of Reece James, leading the team out. Against Bournemouth he fronted up to the disappointing away fans, a small minority of whom booed the players at full-time.
There are natural parts of online discourse that see Chilwell as some sort of villain here, someone injured too much and not at the standard to elevate the team. Their arguments haven’t been helped Pochettino’s pragmatic decision to shift him into an attacking role for the sake on balance on the left, but the rousing reception and cheers of ‘Ben Chilwell has won the European Cup’ that went around Stamford Bridge on Wednesday show his true popularity.
The issue, as ever with Chelsea and Chilwell, is why he was getting those chants. It was during a walk around the pitch having injured himself sprinting forward for an attack. Not quite in the same pointless way that he was ruled out over Christmas last year following a late sprint against Dinamo Zagreb in a dead rubber, but the feeling was similar.
Chilwell, an undoubted keystone of this side is now doiubt for the upcoming matches against Fulham and Burnley before the international break. “Yes [there was an injury],” Pochettino admitted at full-time. “We need to assess tomorrow but I think it is hamstring.”
How do you replace the irreplaceable? Luckily for Chelsea, they have already found a way of working without Chilwell but it involves stunting the left side. Colwill can easily shift back to the flanks but that negates his biggest strength, Mudryk can continue ahead of him having built up some confidence and a semblence of form.
It is elsewhere, and a more natural, like-for-like change that would be more inspiring though. In order to try and carry on the more positive approach, as well as ensuring that Colwill develops centrally as the club hope, keeping an attack-minded full-back could be key.
“What we’ve seen is that Chelsea have fantastic wing-backs but they’ve both gone off, first game of the season,” Gary Neville said after the first game of the season. “That will destroy Pochettino’s plans. If you’re going to play wing-backs, they have to be outstanding players of high quality, who attack like wingers and defend like full-backs, and they have that.”
If James and Chilwell aren’t fit, which they too often haven’t been, then it leaves a gaping hole. However, Pochettino also gave just a second start of the season to Maatsen on Wednesday. He has been a substitute late on in games that are being chased, sent on to claw matches back in unfamiliar and unnatural attacking roles due to the injury plague, but against Brighton his role was slightly different.
He operated on the right, as he did in pre-season, and that is not orthodox for a left-sided defender, but was tasked with dropping back and covering against Mitoma. He only touched the ball 29 times and his stats hardly jump out from the page but it is his tenacity even when not in an ideal role that makes him so impressive.
Maatsen has consistently taken a step up in his career when asked and having been one of the standouts for Burnley last season was more than ready to do so again into the Chelsea team. It doesn’t take much watching of Maatsen to realise the intelligence that he has.
This is a 21-year-old capable of playing left-back, wing-back, central midfield, attacking midfield or on either wing, relatively seamlessly. For a player that is small in stature, commonly called ‘Little Ian’ by former Charlton manager Lee Bowyer, he is relentless in the tackle – completing four tackles, the joint second most of anyone on the pitch – and has bundles of energy.
He is quick on the turn and a great technician too. If Chelsea do need to rest Chilwell or front up to another spell without him in the side then Maatsen is not only a good match for his output and attacking instinct but he’s also ready. Nicolas Jackson will be out of the side due to suspension, as will right-back Malo Gusto. The time has never been better to turn to Maatsen.