The opening act of Frank Lampard’s tenure at Stamford Bridge has so far been a tempestuous affair, with the budding optimism brought upon by the ebullience of youth being countered by a pervasive defensive fragility and lack of experience.
Antonio Conte’s Chelsea have been unstoppable for most of this season. After a stuttering start, culminating in a 3-0 defeat to Arsenal, the Blues have not looked back, winning 12 games in a row.
What is most staggering about that run is that the West London club have conceded just two goals in that time. With back-to-the-future signing David Luiz having found his role in the middle of a back three, and Victor Moses and Marcos Alonso proving revelations as wing-backs, there seem to be few weaknesses in this Chelsea side.
Conte’s men sit six points clear after 17 games, with a goal difference of +24, and just 11 goals conceded. More importantly, they haven’t hit top gear in some games, yet have still come away victorious, most notably in the 1-0 wins over Crystal Palace and Middlesborough, away from home.
The question at Christmas is simple: Can anyone stop Chelsea? Below is an analysis of the most likely teams to do so.
Liverpool (2nd – 37 points – +21 Goal Difference)
Jurgen Klopp’s men have fallen off the pace somewhat, having been within a game of top spot for most of the season. However, a last-gasp Sadio Mane goal gave them all three points at rivals Everton, and seems to have injected confidence into the men from Anfield.
Liverpool have scored the most goals this season, with 41 from just 17 games. The goals are being shared, importantly, with Mane, James Milner, Roberto Firmino, Daniel Sturridge, Phillipe Coutinho, Divock Origi and Adam Lallana all in the goals this season.
Given Liverpool regains Coutinho – who is by far their most important player – in mid-January, it is not far-fetched to say they have a genuine shot at the title.
However, defending remains a problem. Klopp’s attack-minded football has left gaps at the back, and the quality of player in the Anfield defence is simply not good enough to compensate. With 20 goals conceded in 17 games, the Reds simply have to stop leaking goals, or the wait for the first Premier League title will go on. Investing in a world class defensive midfielder, in the mould of Sven Bender – Klopp’s option at Dortmund – would go a long way to closing some of the defensive gaps.
Manchester City (3rd – 34 points – +16 Goal Difference)
City have been a tale of two halves this season. After setting the pace with a fantastic start to the season, they have struggled since.
Like Liverpool, defending is a huge problem for the Sky Blues. The inconsistent Nicholas Otamendi, paired with the inexperienced John Stones, has allowed teams to score far more than Pep Guardiola would be happy with, particularly at home.
There was more evidence of that against Arsenal. Despite being victorious, 2-1, City allowed Arsenal to score in what was perhaps the Gunners’ worst attacking performance of the season. The goal came from the defence not picking up the run of Theo Walcott, and allowing Arsenal to proceed straight through the middle of the park.
However, City can take solace from their victory in that game, and the fact that they remain just 7 points behind the Blues, despite having never played anywhere near their best football. Sergio Aguero returning from his ban will help ease the attacking burden on Kevin De Bruyne, but City do seem to be a striker short.
Given City’s obvious defensive weakness, to buy in January might make sense in the short term, but the noise out of the Eithad is saying that this is a transition season, and Guardiola does not want to upset the balance of the squad by changing it.
Although this strategy makes sense in the long run, it might mean we don’t see the best of the blue half of Manchester this season.
Arsenal (4th – 34 points – +19 Goal Difference)
The Gunners looked like Chelsea’s main challengers just a week ago, but two horrendous second halves – against Everton and Manchester City – have seen them lose for the first time since the opening day of the season.
Arsenal’s weakness is much more subtle than the other title challengers. Their squad is deep, they have probably the best attacker in the Premier League, in Alexis Sanchez. Theo Walcott is scoring regularly for the first time in his career, while Mesut Ozil nearly broke the Premier League assist record last season.
At the back, Laurent Koscielny is as solid as ever, Hector Bellerin is on track to become the best right-back in the world in the next few years, and Shkodran Mustafi has been a dependable centre-half.
It is over the left side of the pitch that Arsenal have struggled. Alex Iwobi is young and without an end product as yet and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain prefers the right, and still flatters to decieve. At left-back Nacho Monreal has given away some calamotous penalties, while Kieran Gibbs is a great back-up, but simply not good enough to be a first team regular.
Arsenal also miss the influence of Santi Cazorla, who is the most important player to their build-up, and takes the pressure of Ozil, who can influence the game in more fleeting moments.
While this last week has been bad, Arsenal on their day are probably the best side in the Premier League. Finding that gear has proved a problem, but if they can string together a run against the sides around them in the second half of the season, they are the most likely to knock off Conte’s Chelsea.