Should anyone doubt the importance of N’Golo Kante and Mateo Kovacic to Chelsea, we only need look at the failing results since the pair succumbed to injury, writes Stephen Tudor.
If two consecutive home draws hinted that Thomas Tuchel’s blue juggernaut was encountering some mechanical problems, last weekend they conceded the same number of goals in the space of 90 frantic minutes as in their opening 10 games. And now, in the blink of an eye, a team that is both talked up to the rafters and criminally under-valued – because extraordinary teams elicit only extreme judgements – is beginning to look decidedly beatable.
Tuchel would have been relieved therefore that one of his influential duo was back in training ahead of this Saturday’s fascinating visit of Leeds, but with Kovacic expected to be thrown immediately into the fray he then tests positive for Covid. The Croatian has five assists – more than Werner, Ziyech and Havertz put together – and has been consistently brilliant in 2021/22. Presently, Tuchel cannot catch a break.
As for Kante, he will be a huge loss too in a game featuring two sides that seek to dominate possession but at least, as we’ll soon learn, Chelsea don’t have a monopoly on key absences for this one.
In Kovacic’s absence, it is Havertz who offers the best value in the assist market. The 22-year-old carved out Mason Mount’s opener at Watford and has previous for stringing together a few of them in a short burst. He is +325 to add to his slender tally so far at the Bridge.
Extending our scope beyond the centre-circle we find Chelsea in relatively good shape for all that their recent dropped points suggest otherwise. Conceding six goals in five league games is uncharacteristic to put it mildly but poorer protection ahead of their back three explains that to an extent and is surely only a temporary malaise.
On the attacking front meanwhile, stalemates against Burnley and Manchester United saw them rack up a staggering 49 shots so creativity is unquestionably not an issue, only accuracy. “You have the opponent where you want to have them. You create so many chances. We let them believe it was possible to steal a point by pure luck,” was how Tuchel put it after struggling to hurt the Clarets and as uncharitable as this assessment is, he had a point.
The return to full fitness of Romelu Lukaku, arguably the world’s most clinical finisher on his day, will certainly help in that regard, while the continued input from defenders is always welcomed. Chelsea’s backline have contributed 40% of their goals in the Premier League this term.
— Frank Khalid (@FrankKhalidUK) December 7, 2021
Possessing such a wide variety of goalscorers – 16 all told – is perhaps the title-contender’s second greatest strength, behind a defensive fortitude that was astounding one and all until a fortnight ago. It’s resulted in Chelsea only failing to get on the scoresheet twice all season across all competitions and covert two-plus times on 12 occasions. It disproves the oft-quoted accusation that Tuchel’s team overly prioritizes functionality over adventure.
Chelsea’s shared-around goal rate is one Leeds can only dream of. In their opening 15 fixtures of last season, buoyant and buzzing from having finally achieved promotion to the top-flight, Marcelo Bielsa’s men scored 25 goals, a haul that included three at Anfield and a further trio at Villa Park.
This time out, that has been slashed to 15, a shortfall that can partly be attributed to a wealth of injuries across a squad that is uneven in quality, and the same excuse is applicable to a small number of their performances this term. As for distributing the goal-load, 40% of theirs have come from the Brazilian winger Raphinha, while in total their number of different scorers adds up to exactly half of Chelsea’s tally.
Still, that is where the negativity ends, or more accurately it finishes on an away defeat to Southampton mid-October. On that chilly, bright afternoon, the BBC reported post-game that Leeds ‘were not the bold, brave side Marcelo Bielsa brought into the Premier League’ but instead ‘a pale imitation in dire need of regularly fit players and a spark to ignite their campaign’.
Ever since that nadir however, they have indeed been bolder, with the results to prove it. In their last six contests, Leeds have lost only once, an upturn in fortunes significantly aided by three last-gasp strikes, two of them equalisers, one a winner. All have come in added-on time. Furthermore, mirroring Lukaku’s return for the Blues, Leeds have Patrick Bamford back and firing, and though sharpness will come from greater game-time, his instincts in front of goal are a valuable asset and were really missed.
The England international is +400 to score anytime in the capital. Acting as a counterbalance to Bamford’s recovery from an ankle problem, there is the possible absences of Liam Cooper and Kalvin Phillips for Leeds to contend with, both having hobbled off against Brentford last week. Cooper has been a model of consistency this season, as he is every season, and more so, he is precisely the kind of leader a team leans on in testing games such as this. Phillips meanwhile is the hub of every good thing Leeds do; as important to them as Kante is to Chelsea, and their availability – or otherwise – will go a long way to determining the outcome of this eagerly awaited clash.
Yet let’s not end on a potential sour note. Leeds are improving week-on-week, relying on their spirit and a bit of luck for now but there’s nothing wrong with that, not when their performances are getting honed and more dynamic as they go. It’s just that Chelsea’s supposed ‘demise’ has been greatly exaggerated and even minus Kante, the hosts offer up too many varied threats to be backed against in what should be an enthralling tie.