Ben Chilwell on how the Chelsea talent influx is bonding and bouncing back from World Cup injury
There was a happy scene at their Cobham HQ on Thursday which, to Ben Chilwell, provided a perfect window into the Chelsea camp and confirmed bonds are being forged after their unprecedented upheaval.
‘If you would have come into the changing room or the gym today and seen, we were all playing head tennis together, which wasn’t part of the training session,’ Chilwell said.
‘Everyone was just down there playing. It was competitive. It was fun and I think that just shows we are all together and starting to really gel.
‘The guys that have come in are all top guys. Brilliant footballers, everyone can see that, but around the training ground they all have a good attitude and want to get involved, which is so important.
‘We had it at Leicester the year we won the league where everyone was so together. It was such a good group, which is the same as what we’ve got now.’
Ben Chilwell, 26, is fitter than ever and is enthused by Chelsea’s recent resurgence this season
The England defender is becoming an increasingly influential figure at Stamford Bridge
Chilwell, 26, is becoming an increasingly influential figure within it, sensing a growing responsibility and seniority for the first time as he walked out for his comeback start against Borussia Dortmund last month after Chelsea’s influx of new talent since last summer left him feeling like one of their longest serving players.
In-form again, mentally and physically better than ever, England defender Chilwell is back in a good place.
But it is a point he has reached only after digging deep into his wells of resolve once more to overcome cruelly-timed injury.
An ACL knee injury brought Chilwell’s campaign to an abrupt halt last season, ruling him out for six months after he had bounced back to his best following a disappointing Euro 2020 when he did not play a single minute of England’s run to the final.
Then last November, in the final moments of Chelsea’s Champions League win against Dinamo Zagreb, Chilwell tore his hamstring, a shattering setback that cost him his World Cup place and meant another three months out.
‘When it happened, I thought “okay, that doesn’t feel right”,’ Chilwell began.
‘I’d not done a muscle before so I don’t really know the severity of it but the fact that I couldn’t really walk off the pitch.
‘The only thing that was going through my head of course was the World Cup. I knew it was just around the corner.
‘It was a mixture of so many different emotions – confused, angry, disappointed, upset.
However, an ACL knee injury brought Chilwell’s campaign to an abrupt halt last season
Then last November, Chilwell tore his hamstring, a setback that cost him his World Cup place
‘To be honest, in that moment, that night, there wasn’t a lot of hope because the World Cup is something you work towards, for 26 years in my case. To have it taken away from you in literally just a moment, in the 93rd minute of a match you’ve already won, it’s pretty difficult to take.
‘Then you say, “Why did I do that run? It was the 93rd minute. Why don’t I just clear the ball? Why did I try and dribble out?”
‘You can’t help but overthink. Everyone would in that situation. You don’t sleep for a few weeks. It’s the only thing that’s really playing on your mind. Then eventually you get over that initial thought process and think about how you can move on.’
While some Qatar-bound players may have contemplated it, playing in a way to protect himself from injury as the World Cup loomed never entered Chilwell’s mind.
Inevitably afterwards, though, there were thoughts of ‘why me again?’ but Chilwell continued: ‘The ACL was difficult but when I came back I felt mentally stronger for it.
‘With the hamstring and missing the World Cup after I got over that initial “what’s the point?”, after that week or so, I thought pretty positively and remembered how I felt after my ACL.
‘It’s obviously an injury that sucks and I’m missing a World Cup but if I do the right things I’ll come out in the same headspace again and have gone up another level where I’m mentally stronger again, physically even more fit than I was.
‘I know for a fact I worked even harder in this rehab than I did in my ACL rehab which I didn’t think was possible because I was giving everything to get back from it.
‘After doing my hamstring it was ‘touch wood, no more injuries now. You’re going to have to go up another level again. Make sure your body is A1, the best condition it’s ever been in.’
Experience has taught Chilwell it is not just training ground graft that is key to recovery
Doing things away from football that make him happy can also aid the recovery process
Benoit Badiashile, Wesley Fofana, Raheem Sterling and Chilwell at Chelsea’s training ground
Experience has taught Chilwell it is not just training ground graft that is key to recovery from injury. What he eats, how much he sleeps and doing things away from football that make him happy like seeing his family more can also aid the process.
‘Then when you come here, you’re happier,’ he explained. ‘That then leads on to the pitch.
‘It’s just a knock on effect. When you’re doing things away from football that make you happy and then give you the best chance when you’re here. So especially for my hamstring injury that was a big thing I probably did more than they might have done in my career.’
While Chilwell has sufficient confidence in his ability, words of encouragement along the way helped too.
‘A lot of my friends or people, if I was out for dinner, would come up and say “we miss you so much” or “we need you back on the pitch”,’ he said.
‘They make you feel appreciated. They’re the little things that keep you going, give you that little bit more push to try and get back and quicker and help the team.’
Speaking of quick, what better way to test whether Chilwell was ready to return than a training ground sprint session with the rapid Mykhailo Mudryk.
‘I’d heard of him but I didn’t know much about him, not watched a lot of his games except the Champions League games, and we did a session together after the football on one of the back pitches [at Cobham],’ a smiling Chilwell began.
‘I didn’t know and none of the staff had warned me how quick he was. That was a good test of the hamstring.
‘The confidence boost I needed that my hamstring was ok, trying to keep up with him, seeing how sharp he was and how hard he works in the gym.’
Winger Mudryk was one of a number of new faces to join Chelsea in January while Chilwell was sidelined.
And after being eased back with a couple of substitute appearances Chilwell started again, with Murdyk and co, for the first time post-injury in Dortmund.
‘Walking onto the pitch, starting that first game I felt different in my head,’ Chilwell said. ‘Even though it was only a few months [out], I’d gone from what I felt was still being like one of the newer players to then one of the senior players.
Chilwell was ready to return with a training ground sprint session against Mykhailo Mudryk
Graham Potter has impressed Chilwell with how he has dealt with the growing scrutiny
‘That’s helped me take a lot more responsibility and feel a responsibility to be vocal in the dressing room to help players out, the new players on and off the pitch, help us as a team to get results and helped me a lot to mature as a player.
‘Take on that role as one of the people that has been here the longest.’
Because those results took a while to come Chelsea reached a make-or-break point in their season after losing three in a row against Dortmund, Southampton and Tottenham.
Chilwell said: ‘Going into the Tottenham game, we were so confident we would win. The way everyone was in the dressing room before the game.
‘It felt like that was the turn, before the game, if that makes sense. That was the moment. There was such a good energy in the dressing room. Everyone was so pumped for the game, so confident. Even in the hotel the night before everyone was laughing and joking. It felt like the first time that was like “OK, we’ve gelled now. We’re ready. Tottenham away. Big derby. Let’s go.” So to lose was like another sucker punch.’
Leeds the following week then became huge, not least for head coach Graham Potter.
Chilwell said: ‘We went into that game knowing we’ve got Dortmund in a few days and we need to win today to give us momentum for that because Dortmund in our eyes was for sure the biggest game of the season – the definition of a must-win match.
‘We could have played better [against Leeds] but the main thing was that we won. That takes you into the Dortmund match, which we played really well in.
‘Then you win again [at Leicester]. Football does change very quickly and that one win against Leeds could potentially have turned our season round.’
Potter has impressed Chilwell with how he has dealt with the growing scrutiny to inspire Chelsea’s upturn.
‘He’s dealt with it all brilliantly the past few months. It’s not been easy for any of us,’ Chilwell said. ‘What no one from the outside has seen is the work that we’re doing here, how together we actually are as players with the manager.
Chelsea’s improvement has coincided with manager Potter’s return to a back three
‘I’ve been in dressing rooms before where you know in your head that there’s a bit of a divide between staff and players and for sure this isn’t one of them.
‘We can see the process we see every day, the training, the direction he wants to go in, and it’s a direction that we all believe in.
‘We’re completely behind him and he lets us know on a daily basis he is completely behind us. We respect him for that.’
Chelsea’s improvement has coincided with Potter’s return to a back three.
It is a system Chilwell excels in, increasing his chances of impacting games with goals and assists, something ‘ingrained in my brain a bit more’ after a challenge to increase his attacking contribution from former manager Thomas Tuchel, the first to deploy him as a wingback.
There was satisfaction then when Chilwell was back on the scoresheet at former club Leicester last week with another sweet left-footed strike, reminding him of his childhood in the Bedfordshire village of Ridgmont and practicing with friends for hours every day after school trying to smash balls as hard as they could into the top corner of a goal painted onto a wooden wall in one of the concrete cages.
‘That’s where from an early age, without knowing it would have this effect, I’ve maybe got the ball-striking technique from,’ he said.
Chelsea’s resurgence, meanwhile, has brought other memories back – of against-the-odds Champions League triumphs in seasons when their Premier League form did not suggest they would end the campaign conquering Europe.
It is a system he excels in, increasing his chances of impacting games with goals and assists
‘For sure, 100% we can do it again,’ insisted Chilwell, part of Chelsea’s 2021 success in similar circumstances.
‘Of course I’m thinking about every game, one at a time, but I’d be lying if I said it hasn’t crossed my mind that I want to win it again this year.
‘We’ve obviously got brilliant players in that team so we knew as soon as it started to gel that we could be one of the best teams in Europe and that’s no exaggeration.
‘And I’m confident that if we keep working hard we can win it with the team we’ve got and the way that is now starting to come together for us at the right time.’