What a difference a left-back makes. This was not just Ben Chilwell’s first start since September, it was the first time he started in his preferred position all season.
And how Chelsea have missed him. Wearing the captain’s armband, Chilwell looked like he had never been away and sent a message to Mauricio Pochettino to give up on playing him as a winger.
Chilwell left the pitch to a standing ovation when he was withdrawn just past the hour mark with his team four goals up against Middlesbrough and having already booked a place in the Carabao Cup final.
In a team that has struggled to capture the hearts and minds of the Chelsea fans, Chilwell is a genuine favourite of the Stamford Bridge faithful and they could not be more delighted to have him back.
Pochettino gave Chilwell licence to roam from full-back, just as he used to let Danny Rose off the leash at Tottenham, and the 27-year-old had the time of his life against Middlesbrough.
It was fitting of his performance and the way in which he was deployed that Chilwell’s best moment on Tuesday night came when he won the ball back in the No 10 position. He rolled a lovely pass through for Raheem Sterling and Chelsea took the lead through an own-goal from Jonny Howson.
The start Chelsea wanted! ✅🟦 pic.twitter.com/GC7qKg5K9w
— Sky Sports Football (@SkyFootball) January 23, 2024
Chilwell often found himself, not by accident, as Chelsea’s free man against Michael Carrick’s Championship side. Mykhailo Mudryk occupied Middlesbrough right-back Rav van den Berg, while Howson’s job was to keep a close eye on Enzo Fernández. That gave Chilwell not just the chance to go outside and try to whip crosses in, but also drift into the middle and he did just that.
All of Chilwell’s previous starts for Chelsea under Pochettino this season had come as a makeshift left-winger. It is a position he can play, but the Carabao Cup semi-final second leg gave supporters a glimpse into the future of how good he could be as a roaming left-back in the Argentine’s system.
Chilwell and Reece James have spent more time on the sidelines than on the pitch, but the return of Chelsea’s best natural left-back will give them a new dimension while they wait for James to return.
Chilwell can stake his claim for Euro spot
This is a big few months for Chilwell, not just for Chelsea but also with the European Championship on the horizon. He missed the World Cup in Qatar through injury and will be desperate to make Gareth Southgate’s England squad that travels to Germany in the summer.
Southgate is not blessed with an abundance of left-backs to choose from and Chilwell now has his chance to book his place on the plane if he can stay fit and keep playing like this.
Trippier has been Southgate’s makeshift left-back when Luke Shaw has been out injured, but the Newcastle United man has suffered a miserable time and there must be an opportunity for Chilwell to take his spot.
He might be built like a tank, but Disasi possesses a nimble touch and was involved in one goal and scored another from Sterling’s low cross.
Of course, the context of all this is that Middlesbrough were horribly outclassed and fell apart after going behind. But Chelsea fans have spent all season looking for reasons to be optimistic and the full-backs certainly provided one in the game Pochettino had billed as his team’s biggest to date.
There is now a much bigger game around the corner, the Carabao Cup final at the end of February, and surely Chilwell will line-up at Wembley as Chelsea’s left-back with licence to roam.