Antonio Conte’s arrival at Chelsea was supposed to shape a new chapter for the club but the early evidence we have seen this season suggests they are struggling to put an end to the last one.
Chelsea conceded more goals in the league last season (53) than in any other single-campaign in the last 18 years. Alarmingly, they shipped 21 more than the season before when they finished as champions. If Chelsea continue at their current rate then they will end with their worst defensive record in Premier League history. It’s no surprise that Conte was desperate to sign defenders in the summer.
It’s a damning indictment of where Chelsea are that John Terry, who was set to leave last season, is still their best defender at the age of 35. Their shambolic defending has been encapsulated by the performances of Branislav Ivanovic and Gary Cahill, who are now fighting to save their careers at the club.
As a result, WhoScored.com have looked at whether Chelsea should step up their interest in reported target Michael Keane – a £25m-rated defender who Leicester failed to sign for a fraction of the price in the summer.
It’s already become clear in the opening six league matches that Conte wants his defenders to play out from the back. It’s proven too much for Cahill, who has committed the most errors that have directly led to a goal in the Premier League this season (2). Failed attempts to sign Alessio Romagnoli and Kalidou Koulibaly before re-signing David Luiz on deadline day only strengthen that philosophy. While the aforementioned trio all operate with a pass success rate nearer the 90% mark, Keane has only completed 80.3% of his passes this season.
However, Keane modelled his game on Rio Ferdinand when progressing through the Manchester United academy and has already been described as “cultured, eager to learn and be coached” by his inspiration. Given Burnley are conceding nearly 60% possession per game in the league this season – the second most – it’s perhaps unsurprising that Keane’s pass success rate is not as high. Nevertheless, it’s still the third highest at the club and you’d only imagine it would improve in a team that is used to being on the front foot for the duration of matches, which Burnley are not.
Keane has been a pivotal fixture in the team since joining from United in 2014. An initial season-long loan deal was quickly made a permanent switch just a few months later in a bid to ward off potential interest. In fact, of Burnley players to have featured in each of their last three league campaigns only two have garnered higher WhoScored.com ratings than Keane (7.12).
It’s impressive that despite Burnley’s lack of finances, Dyche’s side have only conceded one more goal than the likes of Arsenal and United so far this season and even though they were relegated from the Premier League in 2014, when they didn’t invest in the squad at all, they conceded the same amount as Tottenham (53), who finished fifth.
Despite being relatively inexperienced at top-flight level, it’s noticeable that Keane has only committed one error that has led to a shot at goal in 27 Premier League appearances, which incidentally came against Chelsea earlier this season. Having been reportedly earmarked by Conte as a possible long-term replacement for John Terry, the comparisons would be unavoidable for the 23-year-old.
In Terry’s absence we have already seen the way in which Chelsea’s defence melt without his leadership, but when the veteran does eventually move on they are also going to miss his presence from set pieces. After all, since August 2009 only Sergio Ramos (26) has scored more goals than Terry (23) of all central defenders in Europe’s big five leagues. Keane’s career may still be in its primitive stages but his header that clinched victory against Watford on Monday night was his sixth league goal since the start of last season – only three Burnley players have scored more in that time.
Keane still has room for improvement, but that is something Conte, a manager renowned for developing defenders, should thrive at. His ability to read the game and his positioning are qualities that have come on immensely since his breakthrough, accentuated by his WhoScored.com statistically calculated strength of ‘concentration’. One of the decisions Conte faces ahead of January is deciding whether Keane is better than what he already has.
With Kurt Zouma edging closer to a return to first-team action after nearly eight months out with a serious knee injury and Andreas Christensen set to return to the club at the end of the season, there may be a temptation to get through this one with what they have rather than panic buy in January, when it would be better to assess his options next summer.
Alternatively, there is an argument to suggest Conte won’t have that much time. Roman Abrahmovich is already believed to be unhappy with what he has seen and that isn’t something that bodes well so early into a season. The Burnley defender may not be the most eye-catching target but sometimes that is exactly what is needed. Getting back to basics may prove the way forward for Chelsea and Keane would certainly offer that and more.