en Chilwell puffs out his cheeks. It briefly seems that the task of identifying the best crosser at Chelsea has stumped him. “There’s a few,” he says, pausing for a moment. “I’d like to say I’m a good crosser but then you’ve got Hakim Ziyech and Reece James. I don’t want to miss anyone out but they’re the two who jump out. Hakim’s left foot is brilliant.”
Despite some gentle nudging, Chilwell resists putting himself top. Modesty comes first, even though the left-back has given Chelsea a new attacking dimension with his pinpoint deliveries since his £45m move from Leicester last summer. Comfortable in his surroundings, Chilwell is following Frank Lampard’s instructions impeccably, combining defensive duties with supporting the attack with energy and quality.
“The fact he likes our full-backs to be high and wide suits me,” Chilwell says. “I had to make sure defending was my priority. But the fact as full-backs we go forward was part of why I wanted to come. You’ve just got to make sure your deliveries are good and the strikers will do the rest. We work a lot on it in training, wide players getting crosses in.”
It is an insight into Chelsea’s approach under Lampard. After struggling to break down negative sides last season, they have been crushing opponents in recent weeks and are two points off the Premier League summit before visiting Everton on Saturday evening. Although Kai Havertz, Timo Werner and Ziyech are eye-catching additions in attack, the freedom Lampard’s full-backs enjoy has played a big part in Chelsea’s improvement in the final third.
Chilwell has been in flying form. After missing the start of the season with a heel injury, he dazzled on his first start, scoring the opener in Chelsea’s 4-0 win against Crystal Palace in October and creating a goal for Kurt Zouma with a lovely cross. He keeps arriving in dangerous positions and scored again last month in the win against Sheffield United after meeting a Ziyech cross.
Opposition wingers are forced back. The threat also comes from right-back, with James crossing for Olivier Giroud to equalise in the win against Leeds last week. “I knew how good Reece was before I came here but I just wanted to say how much he’s surprised me,” Chilwell says. “He’s unbelievable, especially for 20 years old. He’s a brilliant player. He’s powerful but quick with it. He’s very difficult to play against because of how physical he likes to be against his opponents.”
Full-backs have grown in importance in recent years. With Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold crucial to Liverpool’s success, it is no wonder Lampard has given responsibility to Chilwell and James. “Fifteen years ago it was more about the full-back staying back,” Chilwell says. “Over the last five or 10 years full-backs have become a massive part of a team, getting forward and creating chances.”
Some doubted that Chilwell, who names Ashley Cole and Real Madrid’s Marcelo as inspirations, was right for Chelsea. Yet it is obvious why Lampard, who needed to strengthen a leaky defence, did not hesitate to sign the England international. Sharp in the tackle and not easily outpaced, Chilwell has been influential in Chelsea stiffening up at the back.
He could have gone down a different path, though. “I was a central midfielder until I was about 12 and I went on trial at Leicester against Chelsea,” he says. “The left-back got injured on the day so I started off in centre-mid and then filled in for him. After that I stayed there.”
The Champions League last 16 is set and a tribute to Paolo Rossi
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Chilwell thinks about talk of his England colleague, Alexander-Arnold revolutionising the role of full-back. “It’s been redefined loads over the last 10 years,” he says. “It’s probably going to keep progressing. Trent, myself and other younger players will hopefully be in the game for the next 10 years and if we model the game for the next generation then that’s a positive.”
Chilwell knows he is in a position of responsibility. The tone changes when we discuss Chelsea’s Say No To Antisemitism campaign. In the latest initiative the club have teamed up with Solomon Souza, a British Israeli street artist, to launch 49 Flames, an exhibition about Jewish athletes who died during the Holocaust.
“I didn’t ever think that there would have been athletes and world champions in their individual sports, talented, famous people, who were also killed,” Chilwell says. “That was the eye-opening bit. What happened to everyone was horrible but I never really thought that there were people in a similar position to me who were also involved.”
Chilwell has also tackled mental health issues. He struggled with confidence when his form for Leicester dipped during the middle of last season. “It’s important that people talk,” he says. “With coronavirus it’s pretty difficult for a lot of people. I knew using my voice could help other people.”
Speaking to a sports psychologist at Leicester helped Chilwell’s performances improve. But there have been other challenges. He missed England’s September internationals because of injury, then sat out games against Belgium and Wales in October after breaching Covid-19 regulations by attending a party with Tammy Abraham and Jadon Sancho.
Short of alternatives to Chilwell at left-back, Gareth Southgate switched to a back three. Yet Chilwell, who started at left wing-back in England’s defeat by Belgium last month, believes he can flourish in a 3-4-3 formation. “Wing-back, full-back, they both suit me. They bring out different parts of my game but I’ve played both for Chelsea.”
Chilwell feels good. He buzzes about his first conversation with Lampard, saying they hit it off straight away. Team spirit is strong. Chilwell knew Mason Mount and Abraham from England duty and has built a strong relationship with Werner. “We play on the same side of the pitch and it’s important we get on,” Chilwell says. “He’s a funny, laid-back guy. He doesn’t really seem fazed. You never see him get angry away from football.”
Although Chilwell and Werner have been pranking each other off the pitch, the focus in training has been absolute. Unbeaten in 17 games in all competitions, Chelsea are emerging as title contenders. “We’re not looking that far ahead,” Chilwell says. “What I’m finding quite interesting is the confidence of the group. There doesn’t seem to be any drop off at any stage and hopefully that will continue for the rest of the season because we have a great squad. The positive thing is we don’t get carried away.
“When we won the league with Leicester in 2016, when I was fortunate enough to be in the squad at 18 or 19 years old, what I found was that the boys were going into every game confident they were going to win. At the moment with Chelsea that’s what the group feels like.
“When we go into matches we feel like we can’t really lose at the moment, which is a great thing to have as long as you work hard with it. I knew the expectations are to win titles and trophies. That’s the reason I wanted to come. I’m 23 years old and it was important to come to a club where hopefully I can win stuff. The manager makes sure the standards don’t slip. We all see how hard he works and it rubs off on us.”