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Gary Cahill to Chelsea: Defensive Dilemma?

January 18, 2012

Gary Cahill arrived at Chelsea on Monday as the January transfer window finally saw some noteworthy developments, albeit less of a bursting into life and more of a stumbling into action…

Let’s face it, given Cahill and Bolton’s underwhelming form this season it is not the most inspiring or exciting of purchases (on current appearances at least) for a title-chasing club, nor – given Chelsea’s recent history of lavish expenditure – is it the most eye-catching as far as price tags go. Cahill’s modest £7m fee (admittedly inhibited by the brevity of Cahill’s remaining contract with Bolton) must feel like loose change for Roman Abramovich when compared with the c£100m splashed on Fernando Torres, David Luiz and Juan Mata in 2011.

Regardless, Cahill’s arrival does raise some interesting questions as to the dynamics of André Villas-Boas’ centre-back selection policy at Stamford Bridge. With Alex seemingly on his way to Queens Park Rangers, Blues boss Villas-Boas is essentially left with a ‘three-into-two’ dilemma featuring captain and stalwart John Terry, €25m Brazilian David Luiz, and recent recruit Cahill – and that also assumes Branislav Ivanović is left to fight it out with José Bosingwa for the right-back slot. As we all can recognise, ‘three-into-two’ does not go, meaning one of Terry, Luiz or Cahill will become a disgruntled casualty of the latter’s arrival.

Chelsea is a massive club, it is a club that looks to win trophies season in season out and it is a big opportunity for me to be a part of that. Opportunities like this you can’t turn down.

– Gary Cahill (via chelseafc.com)

Should Cahill draw the short straw it would be of major disappointment to the former Bolton and Aston Villa centre-half. Having finally attained the opportunities (trophy-wise) and remuneration befitting of his status as a current England international (even if the jury is still out as to just how good he is), it would be a big blow to Cahill personally should he discover that the step-up to Champions League class were a bridge too far – especially given how he has perceivably been punching above his weight with the Trotters in recent seasons, and how Arsenal, Tottenham and Liverpool were rumoured to be chasing his signature at various times.

The Sheffield-born defender would be left to question the merits and motivations of his move should his time at Chelsea go the way of Scott Parker or Steve Sidwell, for instance. It would also potentially be a damning indictment of the international side’s level of quality if one of England’s current centre-backs is only good enough for the Stamford Bridge bench.

Were the bushy-haired David Luiz to wind up warming the dugout seats for the Blues then it would represent a major disappointment given the fanfare, promise and price tag with which the young Brazilian arrived last January. Although Luiz would not be the first expensive signing to fail to live up to expectations, given his hefty €25m transfer fee it would represent a fundamental criticism on Villas-Boas’ behalf of the recruitment and transfer policy of Chelsea prior to his arrival. Abramovich is unlikely to take to kindly to another of his hefty cheques essentially being consigned to the status of ‘thanks, but no thanks,’ especially by a manager who is struggling to convince that he can deliver a top four finish, let alone the domestic and continental titles Abramovich not just desires, but demands.

However, given the 24-year-old’s wholly underwhelming form this season – put bluntly, Luiz has forced pundits and punters alike to question whether he has the necessary attributes necessary to succeed as a defender in the Premier League (not least a seemingly intrinsic absence of positional sense) – his omission would probably create the fewest shockwaves outside of the club itself. Furthermore, Chelsea are unlikely to miss Luiz’s offensive instincts too readily given Cahill’s eye for goal – the new arrival scored an impressive 13 goals in 130 league appearances for his former club.

I think he [Luiz] will be one of the best central defenders in the world and in two years’ time he will be nominated for the best football defender in the world. I have that much confidence in [him].

– André Villas-Boas on David Luiz (via goal.com)

Then again, given the high esteem in which Villas-Boas seems to hold Luiz, publically at least (see above), it would be remiss of us to assume the Brazilian is a certainty for bib-wearing, touchline jogs and occasional stretches whilst Cahill and Terry go about the business of keeping clean sheets. After all, Luiz will not become ‘one of the best central defenders in the world’ if he spends his match days on the sidelines. With this reason allied to others mentioned above, it would also be remiss to not consider John Terry’s position in the side.

For many Blues fans the thought of Terry being omitted from their first choice XI borders on sacrilege. Terry has, after all, been the ‘Mr. Chelsea’ of the Abramovich era – near enough ever present (injuries aside) and first name on the team sheet when fit, he has been the club captain since 2004-05 (having deputised as skipper in previous seasons) and has led his team to three league crowns and five domestic cup titles. His undoubted leadership skills and bullish determination in defence have also seen him installed as an England regular, and – discrepancies aside – captain.

However, times change and the 31-year-old centre-half has shown an increasing vulnerability this term, not least to those with a turn of pace – the sight of Terry stumbling to the Stamford Bridge turf as Robin van Persie raced away to score Arsenal’s fourth in October’s 3-5 defeat for the Blues is perhaps an epitomising moment. It is not beyond reason that 26-year-old Cahill – five years Terry’s junior – has been signed with a view to replacing Chelsea’s talismanic centre-half, potentially lining up alongside 24-year-old Luiz for seasons to come. Terry has even admitted as much, noting how Cahill’s arrival will ‘hopefully [be] securing the future for Chelsea.’

Furthermore, an undoubted feature of Villas-Boas’ first six months at the Chelsea helm has been rumblings of mutiny below the decks – talk of established figure heads none-too-pleased with their new, inexperienced manager. There is little doubt in football circles that Terry is likely to be on the opposing side to Villas-Boas, especially in the context of his very public displeasure regarding Fabio Capello and the England captaincy issue. The simple train of thought is that if Villas-Boas wants to reclaim the dressing room which he has supposedly ‘lost’ then a big statement, such as dropping a high-profile name, is needed. At Chelsea, there are no names bigger in stature or significance than Mr Terry’s.

It would undoubtedly be a high-risk strategy for Villas-Boas, risking his relationship with the squad and the fans who have hailed him over the last decade, but it could also be the statement that makes, rather than breaks, his tenure with the Blues. Should on-pitch success follow – admittedly far from guaranteed – then it would go a long way towards calming the internal machinations of the Chelsea dressing room and placating the desires of the club’s owner and fans. What’s more, it is not entirely unthinkable, especially in the context of Terry’s age, his faltering form, and the on-going Anton Ferdinand / racism saga, for which Terry will face a Magistrates’ Court on February 1st.

He’s a really solid defender, he can play left and right foot, he’s great in air and is quick as well. He also scores a lot of important goals, which could be key for us over this campaign.

– John Terry on Gary Cahill (via skysports.com)

It would seem to make most sense that Cahill has arrived as a longer-term replacement for Terry, but in the short-term he might well keep Luiz out of the Chelsea side, especially whilst the Brazilian struggles for form. Terry might well benefit from having a more disciplined defender alongside him at the back – Luiz’s wanderings have not helped Terry, frequently leaving him isolated and vulnerable. Terry has been quick to praise Chelsea’s latest recruit (see above) and has seemingly acknowledged (‘whoever plays[…]’) that his place in the side might well be under threat in the coming months. Whoever André Villas-Boas chooses to bench, be it Terry, Cahill or Luiz, it will be interesting to watch for the ramifications, which are potentially fascinating…

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One Comment leave one →
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