How Chilwell has emerged as Ashley Cole’s heir apparent

A few months ago I was convinced that the Chelsea hierarchy were making a huge mistake in targeting Ben Chilwell as the club’s next long-term left back. The position has been a major weakness in the squad since Ashley Cole left Stamford Bridge in the summer of 2014 (excluding two scintillating seasons of Marcos Alonso as a left wing-back under Antonio Conte) and I was convinced that there were better, more cost-effective options on the market as I pushed for Alex Telles and Nicolas Tagliafico to be considered. I am happy to admit that I was wrong and, surprisingly, Frank Lampard and the board had a better idea of what was needed than I did! We can’t always be right, and having previously performed a U-turn in my opinion about Declan Rice, I will happily do the same for his compatriot, who looks to have Chelsea’s left back slot for the next decade under lock and key.

Chilwell has hit the ground running as a Chelsea player. After only 10 league starts the England international has racked up 5 goal contributions (2 goals and 3 assists), only one short of his tally  over the entirety of the last campaign. His early form helped Chelsea shoot up the table to third before their recent wobbles against Everton and Wolverhampton Wanderers, and if he continues to exhibit the skills he has shown so far I have no doubt that he will be a key player in helping the club avert their current mini-crisis.

An early sign of Chilwell being the perfect fit for Lampard’s system is his couple of league goals. The former Leicester man got off to a dream start by converting (and assisting) against Crystal Palace on his debut, lashing a loose ball on the left of the area past a helpless Guaita. Lampard wants his full backs to be offensive, especially against defensive low blocks, and to get in and around the area, something Chilwell is clearly willing to do. Even his scruffy – potentially inadvertent – finish against Sheffield United was an example of Lampard’s ideal goal. Chilwell stealthily floated in between wing-back Max Lowe and goalkeeper Aaron Ramsdale at the back post to convert a beautiful deep cross from Hakim Ziyech. Only a slightly cynical looking shove in the back against Burnley prevented him converting another back post cross from Reece James. Chilwell is consistently making darting runs off the shoulder of the last defender towards the back post to gamble on a deep delivery from one of the formidable duo of James and Ziyech. This is something we saw Pulisic excel at last campaign but given his injury-hit start to the season, Lampard has clearly asked his new left back to take up the responsibility, and if he continues to make runs in this vein then the goals will continue to come.

It is not only his goal scoring which has been promising so far. One of my main gripes with Chilwell before his arrival was his lack of apparent crossing ability, as he managed only 0.7 completed crosses per 90 minutes in each of his previous 3 seasons at Leicester. With the aerial threat provided by Olivier Giroud, Tammy Abraham and Kai Havertz, having excellent crossers is essential to Lampard’s system as proved by Reece James. However, not only has Chilwell massively improved in this department, he has also overtaken his compatriot’s numbers, managing 1.6 completed crosses per league game so far in 2020/21 compared to James’s 1.5. This is clearly an area that the 23-year-old has worked on extensively in training, and it has proved crucial on the pitch. His near-post delivery was gratefully accepted by the left boot of Giroud to put us ahead at Wolves, and his delightful, floated delivery into the Palace box was converted by the clinical head of Kurt Zouma in October. The variety of crosses in his repertoire make him a danger to any defence and this will continue to prove crucial to Chelsea throughout the season.

When looking at Chilwell’s underlying numbers last campaign, I was also concerned by his minimal defensive contributions in comparison to Cesar Azpilicueta, the player Lampard most trusted to fill in at left back last season. Whilst his tackles and interceptions per game are roughly the same this term (2.7 compared to 2.6), he is making fewer fouls and crucially is getting dribbled past less than he was last time out. Last season Chilwell was bypassed 1.1 times per 90 minutes of league play, a number he has reduced to 0.7 so far. As defending against quick counters was one of Chelsea’s Achilles heels last season, having a reliable presence to stop rapid wingers in their tracks before they can launch counter-attacks is vital, and Chilwell is certainly playing his part in doing so thus far.

We can see that Chilwell is excelling so far, but how is he doing compared to another left back Chelsea were linked with in the summer who recently arrived in England? Telles signed for Manchester United on deadline day, and although there was a time that I would have been envious of this deal, Chilwell has so far proved himself to be the superior signing (although this is from a very small sample size). The Portuguese full back has only a solitary assist to show from his 8 league and Champions League starts to date despite being a much more attack-minded player than his English counterpart last season. He is also dribbled past more and makes more fouls per game than Chilwell, although he wins possession of the ball back for his side on average once more every 90 minutes. Additionally, Chilwell is 4 years Telles’ junior and is yet to enter his prime. Although United may have found a solid left back for the next few years, Chelsea have snaffled a supreme one for the decade to come.

The Blue’s signings have largely performed excellently so far this term: with Edouard Mendy a gargantuan presence in goal, Thiago Silva an inspiring leader at the back and Timo Werner terrifying opposition defences with his electric pace, it could be argued that Chilwell has made the greatest impact of the bunch. The Englishman has turned left back from a nightmare position to one which is a genuine asset to the side, and he is only going to get better from here as he meshes with the side’s other new signings. Not only has Chilwell excelled on the pitch, but he is also said to be incredibly popular in the changing room and has certainly bought into the youthful, positive vibe around this Chelsea squad. It has taken 6 years and over fifty million pounds invested in failed left backs, but Chelsea have finally got their man and in Chilwell we have someone who can help drive the side to a new era of glory.

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