Azpilicueta's tears symbolic of Chelsea's defence to weep for

Jacob Steinberg at Wembley on 1 August 2020

When César Azpilicueta walked off with tears in his eyes, struggling to hold back the emotion of his hamstring injury forcing him off after 34 torrid minutes, Frank Lampard could have been forgiven if he was making a mental note to tell Chelsea’s recruitment department to find him some new defenders this summer.

The evidence is impossible to ignore after the disappointment of losing the FA Cup final to Arsenal from a goal up. Slot Timo Werner in up front. Put Hakim Ziyech on the right wing. Give Bayer Leverkusen £70m for Kai Havertz and squeeze the German in alongside Mason Mount and Christian Pulisic, who was Chelsea’s biggest threat at Wembley before going off injured, but all those attacking riches must be accompanied by defensive reinforcements if Lampard wants to challenge for the title next season.

Chelsea need to act, even though they will have to sell one of their four centre-backs before bringing in a replacement. Lampard, who wants Leicester’s Ben Chilwell as his new left-back and West Ham’s Declan Rice to make his team more robust, has to be patient. After all, anyone who saw Chelsea’s defending here might think twice before doing business.

Both of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s goals were shambolic. The first was down to Azpilicueta’s lack of pace, with the Spaniard conceding a penalty with a clumsy foul on Aubameyang, and the second was a collective failure, stemming from Chelsea’s inability to stop opponents breaking through a soft centre.

Chelsea’s vulnerability to counterattacks has been obvious since Manchester United thrashed them on the opening day of the season and when there is a lack of tactical organisation, defenders end up making bad decisions. They dive in and make it easy for strikers. They panic.

Mateo Kovacic was perhaps unlucky to receive a second yellow card.
Mateo Kovacic was perhaps unlucky to receive a second yellow card. Photograph: Marc Atkins/Getty Images

The chaos before Arsenal’s winner was a case in point. Chelsea fell apart as Héctor Bellerín broke. Jorginho and Mateo Kovacic, who was unfortunate to receive a second booking in the dying stages, folded in the centre and the problem was compounded by two international centre-backs, Andreas Christensen and Antonio Rüdiger, charging in, leaving Kurt Zouma isolated as Aubameyang slipped by before beating Willy Caballero.

Perhaps the disorder is an inevitable consequence of hiring a rookie manager. Although Lampard has done well to qualify for the Champions League in his first year as Chelsea’s manager, he is still learning. The defensive flaws remain despite repeated tweaks. Lampard has dropped Kepa Arrizabalaga, the most expensive goalkeeper in the world, for Caballero. He has rotated between a back four and a back three. Yet the weaknesses have not gone away and, for all the criticism of Arrizabalaga, there is an argument that any goalkeeper would struggle behind this defence.

The statistics are grim. Chelsea conceded 54 league goals, their most since the 1996-97 season. They are frail at set pieces and prone to poor decision-making. Perhaps it is down to personnel. Lampard’s options at centre-back – Zouma, Rüdiger, Christensen and Fikayo Tomori – are not inspiring. There is no leader.

Lampard thinks Chelsea are too quiet and too small, while he was frustrated that they lost their way after dominating the early stages of this final. They were without Willian, who is out of contract at the end of the season and a target for Arsenal, but the Brazilian winger’s absence made no difference at first. Arsenal toiled as Mount and Pulisic drifted in from the flanks.

Chelsea led after Pulisic polished off a slick move. Yet Arsenal knew not to give up. They pressed on the frailties in Chelsea’s back three, working on Reece James’s shoddy positioning at right wing-back. There was too much space between the teenager and Azpilicueta, the right-sided centre-back.

The problems were clear when Arsenal almost scored from their first attack, Ainsley Maitland-Niles crossing from the left for Aubameyang to head wide. Mikel Arteta, Arsenal’s manager, knew where to focus. The Spaniard’s side kept going long, exposing Chelsea’s high line, and the equaliser arrived when Aubameyang ran off Azpilicueta, who brought him down.

Aubameyang converted the penalty and Azpilicueta’s hamstring soon gave up on him. Chelsea were swaying and with N’Golo Kanté unable to start, they lacked oomph with Kovacic and Jorginho in central midfield.

Arsenal sat back; then they pounced. Jorginho was nowhere to be seen when Bellerín broke. Rüdiger sold himself. Christensen rashly dived in and the ball ran to Aubameyang, who did the rest.

Chelsea, top-heavy and unbalanced, have to be ruthless. Lampard, who was chasing his first trophy as a manager, can see the issues. They will not go away without decisive action.

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