Even if Chelsea manage to end Liverpool’s quadruple ambitions for good in Saturday’s FA Cup final — or maybe, especially if they do —there might be an underlying sense of disappointment over how this season has played put at Stamford Bridge; a yearning for what might have been.
The Blues have all but secured Champions League football for next season, but the fact they headed into the weekend without it mathematically guaranteed underlines how far they have fallen from the Premier League title race.
There are numerous reasons for Manchester City and Liverpool — 19 and 16 points ahead of Thomas Tuchel’s side, respectively —tearing off into the distance. From Romelu Lukaku’s patchy first season back in England to the turbulence of Roman Abramovich’s sale of the club, Chelsea have had plenty to contend with, especially since the turn of the year.
Nevertheless, this was supposed to be the season when the newly emboldened European champions would put together their first legitimate title bid since Antonio Conte masterminded Premier League glory in 2016/17. The prospect of a three-way tussle was mouthwatering, especially given Tuchel’s common ground with compatriot Jurgen Klopp and Chelsea’s success against Pep Guardiola’s City during the first half of 2021 that culminated in Champions League final glory.
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One standout factor as the three heavyweights started to power through the competition was the remarkable attacking capabilities they boasted in the full-back positions. City had Kyle Walker and Joao Cancelo, Liverpool had Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson and Chelsea had Reece James and Ben Chilwell.
Only then, Chelsea didn’t.
What is Ben Chilwell’s injury?
Virgil van Dijk’s knee ligament injury in 2020/21 was prominent in any discussion of why Liverpool failed to defend their Premier League title. Similarly, Aymeric Laporte’s long-term absence from early in the campaign was cited as a reason why City were unable to keep pace with Klopp’s men in 2019/20.
We easily attribute such importance to elite centre-backs, traditionally totemic figures in the best teams. The same status isn’t reserved for wide defenders, but as Tuchel, Guardiola and Klopp all push the boundaries of what is possible from creative full-backs and wing-backs, perhaps it should be.
At the point when Chilwell suffered an ACL injury during Chelsea’s emphatic 4-0 win over Juventus in the Champions League, they were top of the Premier League with 29 points from 12 matches — three ahead of City and four clear of Liverpool. James has missed 10 league games this season through injury, including all of Chelsea’s top-flight fixtures in January and February with a hamstring complaint.
As they patrol the flanks at Wembley on Saturday, imagine Liverpool had been forced to do without Robertson and Alexander-Arnold for similar periods of time. It’s inconceivable they would still be in there swinging with City at this point.
From his first game at the helm, a 0-0 draw at home to Wolves in January 2021, Tuchel has predominantly operated with a back three and wing-backs at Chelsea. When he has been able to deploy James and Chilwell in the latter positions, the results speak for themselves
The England duo have featured in tandem in 27 matches during the Tuchel era, with Chelsea winning 19, drawing four and losing four for a win percentage of 70.4. This drops to 58.5% (W31 D13 L9) when at least one of them doesn’t play.
How many goals and assists has Reece James got in 2021/22?
Following his late return from Euro 2020 and Marcos Alonso’s solid form, Chilwell began this season languishing on the bench. In the six consecutive Premier League starts he made before being struck down by injury, Chelsea won five and drew one, scoring 18 goals and conceding two. The 25-year-old netted in three consecutive matches against Southampton, Brentford and Norwich City.
In a 3-0 win over his former club Leicester City — his last in the league before his injury — Chilwell hit the bar and got the assist for Antonio Rudiger’s opener. Setting up goals remains a speciality for Alexander-Arnold and Robertson, who have a phenomenal 12 and 10 assists apiece in the Premier League this season.
3 – Ben Chilwell has scored in each of his last three Premier League games for Chelsea, as many as he had in his previous 33 appearances in the competition combined. Blast. pic.twitter.com/mpNjn0T5Pn
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) October 16, 2021
However, James has weighed in with seven despite his reduced game time and has scored five goals. The Liverpool pair have two each.
According to Opta, James has created 42 chances this term, placing him fourth among Premier League defenders behind Lucas Digne (45) and Robertson (55), with Alexander-Arnold out in front on a freakish 84. When those numbers are presented in terms of chances created per 90 minutes, Alexander-Arnold (2.74) is still the top dog but James (2.24) outstrips Robertson (2.02).
If you look at only those chances created from open play, James is top in the division among defenders on 1.92 per 90 minutes, comfortably above Matt Doherty (1.54) and Alexander-Arnold (1.53).
James and Liverpool’s duo are likely to stride out at Wembley this weekend, with Alonso continuing to fulfil the left wing-back brief for Tuchel. Tantalisingly in cup final week, Chilwell has returned to training at Cobham with Chelsea’s Under-18 and Under-23 squads. There is no chance of him being involved in the showpiece, with a comeback at the start of next season the target.
The picture painted by the league table suggests there is a chasm between Chelsea and the top two. But if Tuchel is able to get his own star full-backs on the field at the same time for any prolonged period in 2022/23, perhaps with the boost of an FA Cup triumph, the three-horse title race we anticipated last August might come to pass.