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Chelsea face a ticking timebomb despite stability of veteran defenders

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The man of the match was the old man of the match. Thomas Tuchel was asked if Thiago Silva was the fittest player of his age he had ever managed. The German grinned as he replied he had never coached anyone of the Brazilian’s vintage. No wonder, too. Silva was born in a season when Everton won the league, and not even the most recent one. He is nearer in age to Alan Shearer than Kai Havertz, closer in years to Jacob Rees-Mogg than Armando Broja. He is almost 38. He is the timeless old-timer.

Two decades into his career, Silva seems Chelsea’s rock of ages, or their ageless rock. Victory at Goodison Park came courtesy of a back three with a combined age of 100. Chelsea have spent their summer tying two down for six years. A couple of days after signing a two-season deal that will take him to the brink of his 35th birthday, Cesar Azpilicueta returned to a ground where his error resulted in defeat three months earlier and was reassuringly solid. Kalidou Koulibaly was bought with a four-year contract and made an auspicious debut, capped by the incisive pass that resulted in Ben Chilwell earning the penalty for Jorginho’s decider.

The battle was between contrasting forces, Everton’s three young, quick, nippy wingers in attack against Chelsea’s throwback trio. The veterans prevailed. “It is maybe another of age, it is a lot of experience and they have their quality and they know what they are doing,” reflected Tuchel. “The guys are strong. That is why they are under contract and have our trust.”

Tuchel dropped a hint about Chelsea’s pursuit of Wesley Fofana (Getty Images)

And yet it was not an exercise in triumphalism. Chelsea have prioritised short-termism in some of their defensive dealings this summer, but there was a warning. “We also need to make sure we have a new generation to take over,” Tuchel said. “The game is very physical and demands a lot. Azpi is the legend that he is, Thiago is in the moment still very important to us and when we had the chance to sign Kalidou, we did it because we believe that he has some years ahead of him but in general it is the fact that the goalkeeper and the double sixes are in their thirties.”

This is the 31st season of the Premier League and Edouard Mendy, Jorginho and N’Golo Kante, like the three centre-backs, were all born before its inception. The goalkeeper represents less of an issue. The rest can feel like Chelsea’s ticking timebomb.

Even as the Todd Boehly era started, there can seem something quintessentially Chelsea, something very pragmatic, about building around the grizzled figures who can deliver now. A shift in identity may have come with the £62 million signing of Marc Cucurella, even if the price defies logic and finding a place for him in the side requires either shifting Koulibaly to the right of the back three or benching Ben Chilwell.

Silva and Azpilicueta remain a fixture of Chelsea’s side (Getty Images)

Perhaps Tuchel was dropping a hint about Chelsea’s pursuit of Wesley Fofana for a fee that is still higher than Cucurella’s and a player some 16 years younger than Silva. Certainly, as he reflected on the departure of Antonio Rudiger, he highlighted one of the German’s greatest assets. “He reached the top speed in the last two seasons,” he said. “Pace is an issue and speed is an issue. In all signings this is the demand of the game that you can play one-on-ones, that you can defend space if needed with high-speed runs.”

Silva actually prevailed in a one-on-two on Saturday, cutting out Demarai Gray’s ball when he should have sent Anthony Gordon through on goal. Normally, however, he seeks safety in numbers. Rather than defending one on one, serving as a sprinter in races, the veteran instead is the spare man, necessitating playing three centre-backs when Tuchel may ideally only want two. Rudiger was the youngest of the back three at times last season, which provides an illustration of how they have botched the question of the succession.

Koulibaly made an assured debut at Goodison Park (Getty Images)

Chelsea’s chances of keeping Rudiger and Andreas Christensen disappeared as they lingered in limbo, waiting for a new owner, but perhaps should have agreed new contracts with each earlier. They may rue their decisions to sell Fikayo Tomori and Marc Guehi, the possible centre-back partnership for England in the 2026 World Cup, in 2021, and not merely because they used the fees to help fund the signing of Romelu Lukaku. They have missed out on their younger centre-back targets this summer, whether Jules Kounde or Matthijs de Ligt.

They could have been perfectly positioned for much of the 2020s, with a contingent built around the academy products Guehi, Tomori and Christensen, augmented by high-class signings with longevity. Instead, they may be stuck in the past. But if younger centre-backs have found it hard to displace Silva, opposing strikers find it equally difficult to get the better of him as he repels forwards and the future alike.

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