Chelsea takes on Sheffield United on Saturday, here are questions that need answering as the Blues continue their Champions League push.
Chelsea has just four fixtures remaining in this peculiar Premier League saga. Sheffield United is the first of a ruthless run in for Frank Lampard and his hopes of achieving Champions League football with the Blues. Will these questions be answered when the Blues take on the Blades on the weekend?
1. Has Jorginho justified a start?
Jorginho had not featured at all post-lock until his cameo at Crystal Palace during the dying embers of the match. This was partly due to serving the second of his two-match suspension (which ironically ended up lasting 100+ days), but also thanks to the re-arrival of N’Golo Kante and Ruben Loftus-Cheek as extra men in the midfield.
A rusty display from the Italian at Selhurst Park would have been totally justified, had he not put on a near faultless performance for ten minutes or so. Instantly, he cruised back into that conducting role, demanding his team mates passed him the ball that he so desperately craves. Having just conceded their second and looking likely to let in another, the Blues needed a calming influence on the field to relieve them of the Palace pressure. Jorginho insured Chelsea could retain possession and ride out the nervy closing stages, all done with such ease and unanticipated confidence for a man who had been frozen out of the side.
That being he said, he has always been a cool costumer when in full flight, with the statistics to back it up: of his 30 attempted passes, 26 were successfully distributed; ending the tie with a passing accuracy of 86.7 percent. Despite only managing a matter of minutes, Jorginho’s tally was the ninth highest by the final whistle. That, combined with two tackles, topped off a decent little reminder to the quality Lampard still has in his ranks.
There may be no better opportunity to reinstall the midfielder, particularly because Kante continues to miss out through injury. The Frenchman’s original replacement, Billy Gilmour, showed promise against Palace but was not quite the commanding figure in the middle that Jorginho certainly can be. Against a Sheffield United side who suffocate areas with their overloads, the 28-year-old may need to dictate proceedings so the Blues aren’t overrun at Bramall Lane.
2. Who is the midfield trio?
If Jorginho does return to the team as the deep lying playmaker then Lampard has more midfield headaches to overcome when filling the final two spots next to the Italian international. In the six games since lockdown was lifted upon the Premier League, Chelsea have fielded six different midfield combinations in the 4-3-3 formation.
Obviously, Mason Mount usually tops the pecking order as a clear favourite of the manager. His industry in the final third has been key to the Blues build up play, and although he is yet to score or assist since the restart, his position always seems pretty secure.
That leaves Ross Barkley, Loftus-Cheek and Mateo Kovacic. Gilmour is no longer in contention after suffering a knee injury that will rule him out for the rest of the term. Unfortunately, the former three are extremely similar in their ability on the ball and willingness to break the lines with driving runs. Loftus-Cheek gave a positive rendition of himself after coming from the bench against Palace, assisting Tammy Abraham for the winner and increasing the Chelsea intensity levels going forward. Barkley has also been bright since the restart, scoring twice in three games, whereas Kovacic has yet to reignite the form that was so impressive during the earlier stages of the season. The Croation midfielder did miss out mid-week after picking up a knock against Watford and is doubtful to play a major role on Saturday.
Chris Wilder will favour a three of his own in across the midfield, all combative and technically gifted, so it will be necessary for whoever Lampard prefers to be able to get beyond the bodies, but also to work back as to avoid being outnumbered across the pitch. This being said, Barkley seems the more likely to fill this role from the start with Loftus-Cheek prepared for another impact role from the side-lines.
3. Is this the end for Marcos Alonso?
In the damning defeat to West Ham at the beginning of the July, Marcos Alonso was caught half-heartedly jogging towards his own goal as the home side countered and eventually scored the winner.
As Andriy Yarmolenko streaked away into stretches of green grass usually occupied by the Spaniard, his Chelsea career also seemed to gradually fade into the distance. Alonso was dropped to the bench in the subsequent two fixtures, with Cesar Azpilicueta reverting to left back and the introduction of Reece James at right back.
Granted, Alonso has been a fine servant to the club since he signed back in 2016, vital to the title win under Antonio Conte and scorer of some sumptuous goals. However, his defensive duties have been called into concern—not for the first time—and against a high intensity team like the Blades, the kind of lacklustre effort highlighted against the Hammers simply cannot be afforded.
And if he were to miss out once more, how long does his shelf life at Stamford Bridge have left? Chelsea’s policy on those aged +30 is pretty resolute and as Alonso is only 29 for a few more months, his future in London looks less promising. He did, however, sign a contract extension in 2018, keeping him at the Bridge until 2023. Yet, Lampard has already expressed interest in the possibility of signing Ben Chilwell as a replacement as the odds stack up against Alonso.
His possible saving grace is the fact Sheffield United does utilise its wing backs effectively in the 3-5-2 system, a position Alonso himself played fantastically with Conte at the helm. Therefore, his knowledge of the tactics may come in handy. Although with the addition of the Blades overlapping centrebacks, there is a sense Chelsea needed a much more resolute defender to combat the extra pressure.
4. Can Tammy Abraham add to his tally?
The Chelsea faithful will have breathed a huge sigh of relief after Abraham netted not only the vital winner against Palace, but also the goal that lifted the striker’s drought that stretched back to January.
It was a tidy finish for a player who had not netted in ten appearances prior and gone through an injury spell of his own. He has been made to wait patiently by the boss whilst Olivier Giroud has excellently led the line in his absence, the World Cup winner also getting on the scoresheet at Selhurst Park.
This competition can only be healthy for Lampard’s squad, the motivation Abraham needs to rediscover his shooting boots and end his debut campaign for the Blues on a high. In ideal circumstances, the 22-year-old would be rewarded with a starting role against Sheffield. In realistic terms, Giroud’s form is hard to ignore and against the physical presence of the Blades’ central defenders, Lampard will probably opt for the experienced forward.
Abraham will have a part to play, bringing fresh legs and energy from the bench, but even more so, a spark that comes from grabbing his goal No. 14 in 2019/20.