In a campaign that still involves four competitions, depth in the squad is of course key, and this performance from Davide Zappacosta has set a benchmark now for the type of quality he can produce on the left, as we knew he could on the right.
Chelsea were held to a 1-1 draw by Atletico Madrid last night at Stamford Bridge which left them finishing the Champions League group stage in 2nd place of Group C. Former Blue Fernando Torres set up Saul Niguez for the visitor’s opener, before Eden Hazard forced an own goal out of former Manchester City man Stefan Savic.
In a game that the Spaniards knew they had to win, much of the impetus, especially in the first half, was coming through Conte’s men, who created a whole host of chances throughout the 90.
There were again decent displays from the front two of Hazard and Alvaro Morata, as well as Timoué Bakayoko, who impressed on his return to the side in place of Danny Drinkwater. My analysis from this fixture however goes to our new wing-back, Davide Zappacosta, who I thought looked well at home in a high-profile European tie last night.
Right from the outset yesterday the Italian showed intent to move the ball at pace and get the team surging forward at every opportunity. With the ball at his feet, his first thought always seems to relate to how he can go around his opposite number, whereas other wide members of the squad seem all too happy to turn and play the ball backwards a lot of the time.
This contrast in his mentality compared to others was evident throughout. When he entered Atletico’s defensive third yesterday, Zappacosta was always heading goalwards and even forced a brilliant save out of Jan Oblak in the first half. Staggeringly, Zappacosta completed more dribbles yesterday than anyone in the Atletico side, including “star man” Antoine Griezmann, with only Pedro and of course Eden Hazard carrying the ball more successfully.
That stat, combined with the two key passes Zappacosta made, shows just how offensively focused our new Italian is when he’s on the ball, and it’s great to see. For a few years now, the likes of Victor Moses and Willian have showed just how capable they are of going around defenders, but far too often they seem happy to stand on the ball, kill the side’s momentum, and play the ball backwards.
His direct and dangerous running will only get him so far however. Yes, he’ll have no problem getting to the byline, or cutting in and finding space, but after that comes either a cross or a shot, and that’s where 25-year-old really needs to make sure he delivers. Not every shot will trouble the keeper, as we saw with his first attempt last night which found the second tier, and not every cross will find its target, but if the Italian wants to nail down a regular place in the side, consistency from wide areas needs to become his priority.
He completed more crossed assists than any other defender in Serie A last season, so it’s certainly a strong part of his game that we can hope to see more and more of in Chelsea colours.
The real value of this performance from Zappacosta was almost evident even before a ball was kicked by simply in seeing him line-up on the left-hand side of the midfield five. So far for Chelsea, he’s been used on the right to replace the previously injured Victor Moses, but with the Nigerian now back to full fitness, and Marcos Alonso needing a rest, it was great to see Zappacosta fill in so comfortably on the left.
I’ve always been a strong believer that almost every member of a squad should be able to play in at least two roles. At the Bridge under Conte it hasn’t really been that way, especially with the consistency of our starting line-ups last season, but with Zappacosta being able to play on the left we have effectively signed two players.
My one frustration with the David Luiz and Andreas Christensen saga at the moment is that neither of them seem to be willing or capable in Conte’s eyes of playing on the left-hand side of the defensive three, which I would argue is only holding the team back. In dedicating their lives to football, I would expect at least one of them to be able to learn and adjust to make sure they can both play together. In my eyes, they’re the best two centre-backs at the club, and it’s becoming increasingly infuriating that we can only play one of them at a time.
Back to the Italian though, and in a campaign that still involves four competitions for us, depth in the squad is of course key, and this performance from Zappacosta has set a benchmark now for the type of quality he can produce on the left as we knew he could on the right. A very smart buy from Michael Emenalo and Conte, who picked a reliable player that he knew was capable of playing at this level.
All attention will be now turn to West Ham on Saturday, but shortly after that, the draw for the last-16 on Monday night. Depending on Liverpool’s result tonight, finishing second means we will either be drawn against Barcelona, Paris Saint-Germain, or Turkish side Besiktas. After a very difficult group phase, it looks like it’s not going to get any easier moving through the tournament.