Before kick-off against Stoke, many would have presumed that Antonio Conte would face something of a selection dilemma.
David Luiz, banned for three games as a result of a red card received against Arsenal last weekend, would definitely not start. Would Gary Cahill move to the centre or would promising youngster Andreas Christensen come in to what was potentially a tough match and not one for the feint hearted?
It was something of a surprise that captain Cahill did not make the starting eleven, Conte instead choosing Christensen to replace Luiz and Antonio Rudiger as right centre back.
The army of social media Chelsea fans no doubt felt vindicated by this apparent snub to Cahill. There has been a vitriolic campaign waged against Chelsea’s personable captain for much of this season and in truth long before that.
I personally find this distasteful and rather stupid considering Cahill’s superb service to Chelsea and contribution to winning two Premier League titles; an FA Cup and League Cup; the Europa League and the Champions League.
However, I think Cahill’s omission from the starting line-up may also be indicative of two things that have been missing at Chelsea in recent times.
Form can go up and down for any player and equally any player can make mistakes, something that the social media fan base find unforgivable. It seems clear that in the side that Antonio Conte is building he now has depth and options in the squad and is looking to the future with a number of younger players making their mark.
This is a marked change for Chelsea who in recent times allowed a very good squad to grow old together and failed to find youngsters who could edge the old guard out.
Cahill will be mindful that he is 31 and that time waits for no man. He will also be mindful that Conte is ruthless and will select on form and suitability. Whilst his experience is invaluable, he will remember what happened to ‘captain, leader, legend’ John Terry last season.
Time caught up for JT and a combination of injury and a tactical change brought to an end one of the greatest Chelsea and Premier League careers.
If Cahill wants to keep his place and not find his Chelsea career coming to a premature end then he will need to make sure that he is at the top of his game. I have no doubt that he will be able to do this.
You don’t get to the top in football without having a competitive edge and a desire to fight for selection. After all it is not the first time that Cahill has had to fight for his Chelsea place.
Of course, this is a positive situation for Chelsea. With a manager who prides himself in selecting on form rather than reputation, he may feel that he now has a Chelsea squad with healthy options.
This was not the case last season judging by the limited number of players used. Chelsea now has competition for places.
In addition, Conte is building a side with one eye on the future. Whatever one thinks of Cahill, he is not the future of Chelsea and neither for that matter is 30-year-old Luiz. At 21 and 24 respectively, Christensen and Rudiger could well be the future for Chelsea’s defence.
Christensen in particular has impressed this season and looks to be fulfilling the promise many Chelsea supporters have identified since he was signed for the academy in 2013. He certainly showed his mettle against a decent Stoke side who continually posed a threat to Chelsea that belied the 4-0 score line.
He is also ‘technically’ a product of Chelsea’s academy and as such could turn out to be the first young player to make the step up to regular first team football since Terry. In fact the similarities in some respects are interesting.
Supporters will remember how Terry effectively forced World Cup winning Chelsea captain Marcel Desailly out of Chelsea. He looked assured and at home in the defence at a tender age while time began to run out for Desailly. Perhaps Christensen will do to Cahill what Terry did to Desailly.
The depth of the squad this year was further exemplified by the fact that Conte was able to bring on Eden Hazard and Cesc Fabregas as well as Cahill. While Hazard will no doubt be Conte’s first name on the team sheet when fully fit, it does indicate that Chelsea now has depth and options to go with a mix of experience and youth in the squad.
At 2-0 Stoke were not yet dead and buried. Bringing on Hazard and Fabregas enabled Conte to put the game out of sight for Chelsea and their impact and influence on the game was there for all to see.
There is no doubt that beating Stoke away 4-0 was a very good result for Chelsea, especially considering that Man Utd could only draw there while Arsenal lost. It won’t be the result that helps Chelsea to retain their title, but perhaps the selection of Rudiger and Christensen and the greater squad depth that this shows may well be significant come the end of the season.
David Chidgey @StamfordChidge
David Chidgey presents the award winning Chelsea FanCast podcast which can be heard live every Monday at 19.00 at mixlr.com/chelsea-fancast/ or downloaded from Acast, ITunes, Soundcloud or chelseafancast.com @ChelseaFanCast