There was a little moment at the end of Chelsea’s draw with Sevilla when Edouard Mendy appeared to be considering playing a short pass out from the back. Just as the goalkeeper prepared to take the goal kick, Thiago Silva turned around and gave him a little glance. It was a look that said: “Not now, Edouard,” and Mendy promptly booted the ball upfield instead.
It was hardly a game-changing decision but, in a match short of excitement, it provided a little glimpse into the workings of the Chelsea backline when the experienced, streetwise Silva is stationed at the heart of it. In the two matches Silva and Mendy have started together, Chelsea have kept two clean sheets. This is clearly no coincidence.
Silva’s leadership qualities have been the source of plenty of discussion since he joined the club this summer, not least when his Premier League debut at West Bromwich Albion ended in a chaotic 3-3 draw. But with Mendy behind him, the early signs are encouraging as Frank Lampard attempts to solve the various defensive problems that have plagued Chelsea under his management.
Against strong opponents, Chelsea displayed none of the defensive nervousness that defined their 3-3 draw with Southampton at the weekend. The return of Mendy in place of Kepa Arrizabalaga had a significant impact on this, but there were also assured performances from Kurt Zouma and the excellent Ben Chilwell.
"The important thing is the clean sheet,” Chilwell told BT Sport after the game. “We knew people would be looking at us after conceding three goals at the weekend. We were solid defensively against a good team and didn't give them many chances.”
While there are still questions to be asked about the balance of the team, this performance felt like the first small step towards fixing a few of Chelsea’s faults. Yes, they seemed to sacrifice some attacking freedom in order to be more defensively solid, but all the free-flowing football in the world will not help Chelsea to develop if they cannot tighten up at the back.
“It was a really nice base to build from,” said Lampard, who also praised his side’s “game management”. Chelsea did not try anything silly (as evidenced by Silva’s gesture to Mendy on that late goal-kick) and they waited for their moments to attack.
“The reaction today was a positive one,” said Lampard. “The concentration and focus was big from the team. The decisions we made, the decisions when we defended well, the decisions when we played longer as opposed to keeping possession. There were a lot of good decisions tonight.”
At the age of 36, Silva cannot offer the same physical power and speed he once displayed on a regular basis. He can be a calming influence, though, especially for a defender as erratic as Zouma, and his experience in these games means he provides a know-how which is otherwise lacking among Lampard’s centre-backs.
The great challenge for Lampard is to manage Silva’s fitness, picking and choosing his matches and ensuring he remains physically capable of leading the backline. The pair have already forged a strong connection since Silva arrived from Paris Saint-Germain in August.
“I spoke before the game about quality and experience and he brought both of those,” said Lampard. “I have got a very close relationship with him already, although we need a translator at the minute. I will always work closely with him. I remember myself being in that position towards the back end of my career so I will be very aware of maintenance, training and games.”
If they can keep Silva and Mendy fit, Chelsea will be a far tougher opponent to crack open. The early evidence suggests these two new arrivals can be the pillars of the defence going forward, and that they could lay the foundations that would allow Lampard’s attacking players to truly thrive.