Cahill settling in and prepared to bide his time as Chelsea look to improve
PREMIER LEAGUE:Chelsea defender is excited about his team’s attacking options but acknowledges the need for the defence to tighten up
It is in the brief periods of respite, when the ball is a distant blur being pinged between team-mates at the other end of the pitch, that the old school defender in Gary Cahill rears up.
As he catches his breath amid the thrilling frenzy of attacking intent that is Chelsea’s adopted style, thoughts instinctively drift back to when life as a centre half was purely about a stingy defence, two banks of four and strength in the tackle.
These days, when Cahill is often partnered by a ball-playing Brazilian and flanked by full-backs ever eager to tear upfield, it can be a lonely existence in his own half when his side are in possession, an isolated figure surveying the scene and braced to receive opponents on the counter.
“There are times when things aren’t as tight or you feel a bit more exposed than usual,” he says. “The other night, against Shakhtar Donetsk, I was thinking: ‘Wow, this is a bit end-to-end’. But, for the neutral, it was great to watch. And with the players we have, would people be happy if we were just winning 1-0 every week? At least this is entertaining.”
Chelsea are a team in transition, their ambitions suddenly swashbuckling where, only recently, everything they did was built upon a presumed resilience. Roman Abramovich would approve of the sight of Eden Hazard, Oscar and Juan Mata ripping into opposing rearguards as if mimicking Barcelona’s efficient extravagance, or even David Luiz striding forward with the ball with such reckless enthusiasm. But Roberto Di Matteo’s is also a team striving for balance.
The Shakhtar contest may have been won but it was too open for comfort. Manchester United scored twice even while the hosts retained a full complement in Chelsea’s last home league game – a match eventually surrendered 3-2 – and registered four more while losing to Chelsea in the Capital One Cup. Liverpool, with Luis Suarez in form, arrive tomorrow sensing vulnerability.
The overall record may remain relatively impressive but there have been 14 goals shipped in six games, all of which admittedly have been awkward. This is a side confident it can merely out-score all opponents and there has been only one stodgy 1-0 all campaign. Even so, there is an acceptance from management to centre-half that some sense of solidity must be restored if the side are to challenge. “The first thing the attacking players in the team think about is hurting the opposition and getting forward,” says Cahill.
“Our style is more attractive than people thought last year but it’s all about winning games and being disciplined at times. We could have done better in terms of discipline over the last two or three weeks and some of the goals we conceded could have been prevented.
Looking to improve
“But look at the opposition we’ve played: Tottenham away, United twice and Shakhtar, one of the best teams I’ve played against this year. As a defence, we have to strive for that clean sheet while also giving the attacking players the licence to go and create. Juan, Eden, Oscar . . . the list goes on and they’ll make things happen.
“It’s about balance: you don’t want to be too rigid but we just need to tighten up a little bit. It’ll take a while to gel. The team’s young. I was one of the oldest players out there the other day, which was hard to believe.” Cahill is 26, a regular in the England set-up and, despite having joined from Bolton only in January, already feels a key member of this squad.
Chelsea have three international centre halves of real standing – four if Branislav Ivanovic is summoned from right back – who have each been offered opportunities. The most regularly used partnership this season has been that of Cahill and David Luiz, their eight starts together perhaps owing more to the injuries and suspension incurred by John Terry.
Yet the captain watched much of the Shakhtar fixture pedalling on an exercise bike in the mouth of the tunnel, a game the hosts won on Wednesday without Terry, Ashley Cole or Frank Lampard. That was evidence of evolution.
Statistically, it is actually the pairing of Cahill and Terry, once so favoured by Fabio Capello with England, that has proved Chelsea’s stingiest since the start of last season, even if it has been used somewhat sparingly. There is a chance the partnership could be reconvened against Liverpool for a third time this term.
If it is not and Cahill is the man to miss out, the frustration he voiced from the fringes after last month’s defeat in Donetsk could surface again.
“But when I came here I knew they had David, who was captain of Brazil not long ago, and John, who has been captain for Chelsea and England for years, so it’s not as if I was going to walk straight in. I thought on Wednesday that, in a game like that, John would probably come in and play.
“But it’s good to be able to rotate to keep people sharp and fresh. Come Sunday, it could be very different.”
This team is a work in progress but they, like Cahill, are impatient to improve.