Abundance of quality full-backs a good problem for Chelsea
Although finding the back of the net proved to be Chelsea's Achilles' heel last season, they were the best in the Premier League at keeping the ball out of it by some distance. Only 27 goals were conceded during the 38-game campaign -- 10 fewer than champion Manchester City -- and that was thanks largely to a back five that played together regularly with tinkering kept to a minimum.
With the best defence in the country already at Jose Mourinho's disposal, it would seemingly be folly to make any adjustments, though the manager made a big splash in the summer by bringing La Liga's best goalkeeper back from Spain and acquiring the services of his Atletico Madrid teammate Filipe Luis.
The debate over who should start in goal has occupied much of the close season, with Thibaut Courtois winning the first battle with Petr Cech, but there was always the expectation that Luis would slot straight into the first team. That has yet to happen, as the 16 million pound signing hasn't seen a single minute of action in the two competitive games played this season.
The selection at full-back of Branislav Ivanovic and Cesar Azpilicueta in the opener against Burnley made sense. A Monday night clash at a tight ground against an exuberant, newly promoted side had all the hallmarks of a match that might turn a freshly imported foreign player into a rabbit caught in headlights. Much better to stick to those who are keenly aware of what challenges are presented by English football.
More surprising was Luis' omission in the home match against Leicester City. Although he was successful in all his attempted tackles against Burnley, Azpilicueta didn't enjoy his outing at Turf Moor, with passes going astray and Scott Arfield giving him problems all evening. But he was retained for a match in which Chelsea expected a struggle to make the initial breakthrough.
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For all Azpilicueta's virtues -- of which the dogged defender has several -- his delivery from wide positions is not one of them. Luis, on the other hand, has no reservations about speeding down the flank and is fond of whipping in devilish early crosses for the centre forward to attack. As it turned out, there was a distinct lack of quality emanating from Chelsea's flanks for the first 45 minutes prior to Ivanovic's marauding display in the second period.
Whether Luis would have made a difference during a teamwide malaise in the first half is unknown. What is clear is that Ivanovic has seemingly nailed down his place in the team for the time being.
The arrival of Luis was expected to see Azpilicueta return to his more familiar posting on the right side of defence to have two orthodox, natural full-backs in situ with Ivanovic contesting for a place in the centre, a position more befitting his burly physique. Two excellent performances later and it is the Serb who is one of the first names on the team sheet, leaving his Brazilian and Spanish teammates to scrap it out for the final berth in the back four. A goal-scoring display at Turf Moor followed by a muscular, dominant and dynamic 90 minutes at Stamford Bridge will have cemented his place in Mourinho's thoughts.
What will be interesting to see is how the manager will deploy his back four when faced with a higher calibre of opposition. Burnley and Leicester both acquitted themselves admirably for spells but were unable to sustain a constant threat. That will change in the coming weeks. Ivanovic has learned excellent positional discipline over the years but has never been able to completely compensate for his lack of pace.
Against a quicker attack, Mourinho might opt for Luis and Azpilicueta on the flanks. He will also take notice of the habits of the opposition wingers. If they are inverted -- that is to say a left-footed player deployed on the right -- then Azpilicueta might get the nod over Luis as his direct opponent will naturally choose to cut infield regularly on to the Spaniard's preferred right side.
Competition for places is going to be in evidence at full-back, and that always brings out the best in those willing to knuckle down and fight for their place in the team. Azpilicueta will know more than most that hard work and consistent performances will be rewarded, having forced Mourinho to include him at the expense of the legendary Ashley Cole last season purely due to his own excellence and diligence.
Although there is always going to be at least one of them left disappointed each week -- unless Ivanovic plays at centre-back -- it does mean that Chelsea have an array of options to cover most scenarios. That can only be a good thing.