This is an opinion analysis of the current Chelsea situation, which will try to focus as much as possible on the field and field-related matters. There are certainly enough elements about the football to be discussed, thus this is not meant to be a court case, and there will not be a verdict of who is to blame at the end. This does not mean that the non-football related aspects are to be left aside, such as the relationship between clubs' employees as it stands. However, when a team is not performing at the right standard, it is not necessary to jump at conclusions to feed all sorts of non-football related sophisms and agendas. Picking out culprits when a team loses games with stories going as: players are lazy / tired of the manager / want a better contract etc... often makes no sense. Moreover, consider that it never gets any sort of attention when a team wins games (and rightly so, that's low standard gossip). Feel free to make your own opinion with all this and discuss the points I will raise in the article.
Early on during the first pre-season games Chelsea played in North America, there were signs that Mourinho's team probably was not set to start the season flying. The team played three vastly underwhelming games including a defeat against New York Red Bulls (2-4), an eventful draw against PSG (containing PSG to shots from range, but failing to create proper chances) and a more lively game against Barcelona (conceding 10 shots inside the box and 69% possession), somehow winning both encounters on penalties.
And an all-but-pointless friendly against Fiorentina at Stamford Bridge took place between the Community Shield and the visit of Swansea.
Chelsea went back in action on July the 14th, which is only 25 days prior to the first Premier League game (or 19 days before the Community Shield) then almost immediately flew across the Atlantic Ocean to play in Canada.
Last season Chelsea trained for the first time on July the 9th, which made 38 days available to prepare before the first league game of the season on August the 16th. Although the players involved in the World Cup dropped back at training at different times depending on their country's progress in the tournament last year, it was a different story this time as most players would start collective pre-season training from day one (apart from Cuadrado and Willian).
The decision to organise the pre-season schedule differently was discussed by Mourinho himself in the wake of the game at Manchester City on the official website:
"We made a decision which was to give the players a proper holiday. At that moment we knew the start was not going to be the same kind of start we had last year."
"Last year we started early, we worked in different periods of pre-season, we played a lot of matches before the start of the season, and we had a fantastic start, but I think we paid for that quick start at the end of the season."
There are, naturally, many different ways to set up pre-season training.
Some methods are based on heavy workload early on, in order to try to be as fit as one can be from the first game. That method isn't the one most conditioning experts recommend nowadays for the obvious risks related, including injuries either straight away (when a player just back from holidays is presented a heavier workload than he'll ever encounter during the whole season), or in September. Also, it makes almost certain the mandatory winter slump, which Chelsea obviously encountered in 2015 starting from the 5-3 demolition at Tottenham (we'll get back at 2015 fortunes later on).
That said, and theory left aside, that is the approach most teams, from both ends of the table, choose anyway. Title contenders do it in order to try to create distance from other contenders early on. Teams who know they'll struggle to win points do it to nick points early on against teams who aren't at their best yet in terms of mastering their game plan (see Blackpool, Hull City 08-09).
"The team was tired, but we managed to control our destiny in the Premier League with the advantage we had in our pocket, which was not normal in this league."
This part looks very much a dig at Manchester City and Manuel Pellegrini's terrible defence of the 2013-14 title, as the Citizens kept taking their foot off the gas after strings of good results.
Some other methods of (pre-season) training are based on an increasing intensity of work, being periodised over the whole season in order to make players build up fitness throughout the season but avoiding the early heavy load of work (or mandatory slump later in the season).
We know Mourinho's staff (including the learned Rui Faria) is very much in favour of the second kind of approach, which relies on training with the ball through small sided games and tactical problem-solving, match replicated situations through guided discovery.
Also (and we'll be back at it later), that also emphasises the fact that a team, which ended the season with a versatile defender as a stopgap cover in midfield shouldn't, in a normal world, have been able to hold on to their lead had they been under pressure by a much determined challenger. But the Premier League isn't a normal world and we all know that.
"This season we tried to go in another direction. We went for a slower start, with a short pre-season."
So, as we just described above, Chelsea made the strategic decision to start differently this year. Supposedly, this was the best option set to prevent the mid-season slump, wasn't it? In theory, that's how the plan was supposed to work.
Unless it didn't start properly, as Mourinho points out:
"We know what we are doing, but clearly some didn't react as well as we expected."
I think that's the main aspect which should be discussed right now, the whole squad being unfit which explains the terrible performances.
–Was it a gross underestimation of how the players would respond?
–Perhaps a long break, cutting off from football and maybe slightly (!!?) deviating from the diet program was going to make the task harder for the players when coming back? Especially for the ones who look to have bulked up, not necessarily muscle-wise (thinking of Hazard, Costa, maybe Fàbregas as well).
–Maybe aging engines coming on the other side of thirty needed something different in terms of work in pre-season?
We obviously can't answer this. But if anyone were to review the clubs' employees performances, and his conclusion would be that the staff is to blame, that could fairly reasonably lead to a sacking (which draws similarities with some of the reasons why Scolari or Di Matteo got the boot in the past).
2. Same XI.
Out of time achievement
Chelsea set a record last season, relying on 22 players to clinch the title. This is remarkable in and of itself. As Andi Thomas points out, of those 22, 10 made fewer than ten starts in the league, and 7 of those made five or fewer. He says that was the modern equivalent of Aston Villa's triumph in 1980-81, when they picked just 14 players over 42 games.
Also, Chelsea ended the season at the good end of PhysioRoom's injury table, something which has little to do with luck (or lack thereof), but more to the careful individualization of the workload.
Those two points make something clear as crystal. Chelsea did and could rely on the same XI, which also happened to be the best, for the chosen game plan.
Kevin from Drungen, Juan from Ocon de Villafranca and Willy from Ribeirão Pires
That aspect is what elite football is about. Prepare your team the best way you can — in this case with one of the best training facilities there is — and play the best players you have at your disposal every game. That's a tough competitive world for the individual, which has little to do with parents' complaints that 8 year old Kevin from Drungen or Juan from Ocon de Villafranca has less game time than Willy from Ribeirão Pires despite having signed his football contract for the same amount of money.
If Willy from Ribeirão Pires (now 27 years old) offers more with his all round game, then he has to play and so be it. If Kevin from Drungen wants more minutes, then he needs to catch up to prove his manager he can offer more than Willy from Ribeirão Pires. There's little room for weakening the starting XI by choice, or leave a player who deserves to play out of the starting XI.
Being able to field the same (fit) XI and choosing to do so is the best way to enhance team chemistry on the field, make the players know each other very well, including how they do react in given situations etc. Ultimately you reduce the huge element of uncertainty, which football is about, by a significant percentage by breeding familiarity.
Shadow, spotlight and birds of prey
Over the last two seasons, there have been two trends for the players not in the starting XI on a consistent basis. Drogba, Mikel, Loïc Rémy and most remarkably Petr Čech chose the path to work hard, keep their mouth shut and most importantly, deliver when called upon action.
On the other hand, players like Schürrle, De Bruyne, Salah and Filipe Luis were unable to prove that: 1. they were better than the guy who played at their position, 2. that they could deliver when called into action every once in a while. Ultimately, all of them decided to publicly draw the blame toward other people than themselves (fair play to Filipe Luis for admitting his own duality by saying he moved to London physically but that his mind stayed at Madrid).
Editorial note: it's interesting that when De Bruyne returned to England only one newspaper, a Manchester based one, carried the full quotes from his interview. Namely that De Bruyne, in his own words, was not patient enough and wanted to play every second. A stick to beat Mourinho with, particularly concerning De Bruyne, was that he did not give the Belgian enough chances. However, the Belgians attitude seems to be excused by a large portion of Chelsea fans.
There's no denying that being a pro footballer and not starting games is a tough one to handle (both from managers' and players' point of view), but there's no point doing what Nietzsche despises. Which is blaming the bird of prey for being a bird of prey and pretending that being a bird of prey is bad for the other individuals who don't happen to be birds of prey too (i.e.: have as many minutes out on the playing field).
3. No new faces
Money can't buy you Stones
With two players leaving the club for sporting and not sporting related reasons, in Petr Čech (Arsenal) and Filipe Luis (Atletico Madrid), the club had to sign replacements. Begović signed in mid-July and encountered his crash test during a pre-season friendly. Baba Rahman signed two match-days after the season started and so far, has been unable to move away from his (and Filipe Luis's) status of left back deputy.
According to the always well-informed Duncan Castles, the club had several transfer targets in the summer. Chelsea failed to sign John Stones from Everton, which happens to be a testimony to two current trends in football.
Clubs (especially English clubs, or sugar-daddy funded clubs, or both) can refuse ridiculous amounts of money because they also happen to have ridiculous amounts of money, mostly from the new TV broadcasting deal that is set to start in 2016-17.
Somehow, a Premier League club board settled on the fact that refusing up to £50 million for a 21 year old centre back was a good decision. This was especially surprising, considering that the club in question was left with just two centre backs under contract and needing to sign reinforcement while ending the campaign (although being also in contention in the Europa League) in mid-table with a matching mid-table wage bill and sponsorship deals.
On the other hand, Chelsea probably made a strategic mistake in publicly declaring their intent to sign Stones, although there is little doubt that the negotiation would have been made public somehow regardless. The only effect it has had on the negotiation was to inflate the fee Everton was asking (and was perfectly entitled to).
Faute de grives, on mange des merles
According to Duncan Castles, the interest in Pogba and Marquinhos failed to materialise because both clubs would not open a window to discuss so late in the transfer window. While Chelsea moved quicker than Manchester United for Pedro, Manchester United moved quicker than Chelsea for Anthony Martial as the London club was only thinking about putting dibs on the French ace for next summer's transfer window.
Fail to sign a player the club made his interest in public, fail to sign high profile players. We can also surmise (keeping the previous points in mind) that the club may also have failed to sign good enough squad players because of the binary condition of being a player under the successful Jose Mourinho. Play every game if you're the best in your position; work behind the scenes trying to make your way in if you're not. However, it's hard to believe that many players (or agents) would turn down the opportunity to play for Chelsea and Mourinho.
We can also wonder how much the importance of ticking all the boxes was to Mourinho and the Chelsea board. Can a failure to identify a player to fill certain criteria and/or a failure to open negotiations with the club he's contracted to be a reasonable answer to not being able to sign players at all in areas of need? (Notably central midfield and defence).
In that case, assuming Pogba is a (multi-talented) piece and that Chelsea were in the hunt but failed to catch, Chelsea did not want to settle for Mourinho's famous non-Waitrose eggs.
Ultimately, Chelsea exposed themselves to social media mockery by signing Nantes' Djilobodji at the very end of the transfer window (seemingly on agent's recommendation). Djilobodji is by no means a terrible player but probably not too close to the standards expected for a rotation player for the Champions of England either.
I don't have an opinion on Djilobodji. Cahill also signed from bottom of the table, committed but error prone and not very good to play out.— Sébastien Chapuis (@SeBlueLion_EN) August 31, 2015
#Djilobodji. First touch a bit loose, lot of swerve but intent to start with a quick pass. Prefers a gamble under pressure than a hoof.— Sébastien Chapuis (@SeBlueLion_EN) September 2, 2015
#Djilobodji. Tendency to ball watch and misjudge flight of the ball. Maybe too obvious when diving into challenges as a left footed defender— Sébastien Chapuis (@SeBlueLion_EN) September 2, 2015
Otherwise, Djilobodji pretty much an older version of Zouma. Not as good in the air but better technically. Both athletic and able to turn.— Sébastien Chapuis (@SeBlueLion_EN) September 2, 2015
4. Lethargic play
Fit the players in the system, or shape the set-up based on the players ?
We know that Chelsea's pre-season backfired and that the fitness levels among the squad are probably terrible because of it. We know Mourinho uses his best XI and we know why.
Chelsea relying on these best XI players being played in their best position is the most secure way to get results if things go well (being fit, being happy to play and riding your luck somewhat). That is what happened last season as Oscar and Willian's high energy game and immaculate technique were the ideal platform to keep the ball high up the pitch and get it back as soon as possible. Hazard dehumanising defences and Costa providing the final touch to fine attacking moves (scoring 17 goals in the first 22 games), as well as working equally hard off the ball were the catalysts of Chelsea's season.
Fàbregas and Matić were the perfect launch pad for attacking moves, being equally slow as actual runners and as quick thinkers when picking passes forward for fun; Chelsea had everything to master both the fast-paced counter attacking games on transition and the slower approach to move teams sitting deep.
As Chelsea's attacking play was very much defined by Hazard on the left side, with Oscar as his vital counterpart to knit things up in tight spaces and Willian as counterweight inside right. Ivanović's role was crucial on the right as some sort of all-round tank, ending up with 4 goals and 6 assists in the League.
The forwards' activity off the ball was the ideal shell to protect a slow ageing backline in Terry-Cahill who were able to dominate the penalty box, despite the odd occasion. Chelsea conceded a surprisingly high amount of goals out of poorly handled crosses getting by the six yard box in 2014-15. Obviously, it's hard not to mention Courtois' heroics between the sticks.
All of this isn't about tactics and shape, 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 (6-3-1 or whatever). This is about winning battles in defined areas of the pitch relying on individuals abilities.
Priority order: risk-free and secure approach or calculated imbalance?
That set up was probably not the one to get a clean sheet first then ride our luck on the odd set piece and counter off a corner.
The set up was meant to get the best out of every one of the eleven players on the pitch, to score goals and prevent them. That is essentially what football is about, especially in the league. Cups generally require other ingredients such as a resolute dedication to organization and/or benefit from irrational parameters as only featuring talented players is not enough.
Then it is important to remind that for all the talent at disposal attacking wise, Chelsea's attacking play relies a lot on hitting teams on the transition (essentially the mess most Premier League teams find themselves in during the five to ten seconds after possession is turned over). Thus, it requires pressing to be triggered quickly and efficiently to get opportunities to get the ball back to attack depth, leaving to individuals the task to make runs and find one another to set up a chance.
Oscar is good at football
In that regard, Oscar's absence from the starting XI because of a knee niggle has not helped Chelsea's pressing this season. His role was a common feature off the ball, joining Diego Costa to press both centre backs to close down space and time. With Cesc Fàbregas playing as number 10 on a couple of occasions (notably at Manchester City and Everton), the general impression was pretty much that the Spaniard stayed out of the 2x4 shape. In addition, he prefers to face the play, rather than play with his back to goal (which Oscar does brilliantly otherwise).
When teams decided to sit deep, although Chelsea are capable of moving teams with the ball, the basic pattern were well established and didn't leave room for much variety, other than what the players fielded could produce. See: left back's contribution (Azpilicueta rarely overlaps Eden Hazard), right winger's role (Schürrle couldn't gel with the other players with his running in behind and heavy shot contribution nor could Cuadrado with his mazy dribbles to take on players).
Oscar hasn't featured in every Chelsea game the past two seasons, missing games through injury or failing to make the 18 match-squad. Willian has proved to be a fairly good deputy thanks to his outstanding ability to pop up in space for 90 minutes and the purpose of his choices on the ball. But on the other hand, it has been noted that Willian is much more a player who concentrates on the central band of the field (the width of the penalty box), not drifting wide too much. The main consequence of this is that his lack of Oscar-esque ability in tight spaces has prevented Eden Hazard to get proper support to link up before getting in the box.
Hazard has been below par this season; he often starts seasons slowly for a variety of reasons. Also, he has played a lot of games without being rested (or injured or suspended) for a few seasons now. Once he gets back to a good level of physical form (he hasn't been able to bounce on defenders or burst away on a few yards like he used to), he'll probably start delivering more.
But it also depends on his team's ability to carry the ball forward and maintain possession high up the pitch, and that has not been the case so far. Unlike Oscar, Hazard isn't a playmaker. He's a difference maker who has room for improvement to be more clinical in front of goal (better finishes, more runs in behind) and/or assist more goals (*only* 9 assists in the league last season). But he needs players on the same wavelength around him, to create situations where he can take on defenders even against packed defences sitting deep.
Oscar and Fàbregas have a vital relationship when the team sets up attacks. Most Premier League teams are set up as follows:
–Generally defend wide areas man-to-man (i.e. winger man-marking the fullback instead of working as a chain with his closest central midfield)
–Inconsistent central support player to press the deep lying midfielder(s) (although there is Marouane Chamakh, Jon Walters, Moussa Dembélé or Okazaki-Vardy doing this well for their teams)
This generally leaves the two central midfielders on their own to defend against teams like Oscar's Chelsea.
The Brazilian's involvement in build-up creates a 3v2 in midfield. In the second phase of build-up (which generally happens close to the halfway line), Oscar shows for the ball close to the centre circle alongside Matić. This allows Fàbregas to look for space to receive the ball while facing the play. That interchange is the clutch in Chelsea's engine which triggers final third movement, just before Oscar jumps up to Hazard to provide him support while Ivanović pushes to a very advanced position on the other side.
You need to be fit to play football, if you're not, your play looks more like a rusty pinball machine, with aimless rebounds between fixed bumpers rather than proper dynamic positional play. What happens when the ball rolls down the plate? You pray the flippers can redirect the ball up the playfield. Otherwise, you're in deep trouble.
5. Backline exposed
As long as players were fit, Chelsea rolled over the league. Once Chelsea hit the mid-season slump, things were made harder but with cohesiveness on the pitch (and Kurt Zouma as a defensive midfielder!) and some distance to second place in the table in terms of points, the team was able to see it through and clinch the title.
But with an unfit Chelsea team facing well prepared and/or well drilled teams this season, the task is not so easy anymore. It's very hard to judge individual players in isolation, especially in José Mourinho's teams which are generally renowned for being a holistic whole where individuals look even better as part of the XI than they are in isolation (note: judging players without match context is dumb anyway).
Without being able to press properly, thus pretty much deciding where the ball will be won -- as opposed to Chelsea being a team capable of a high press, medium press or bursting forward from a very deep block -- Chelsea has been often cut in two by opposing teams
walking through playing their way out through the centre of the field, exposing the back line heavily and repeatedly. In other words, we are calling defenders into action much more than they would've been had the midfielders and attackers properly screened the defence (pressing as a unit, blocking passing lanes).
Against Southampton, Chelsea was also struggling to deal with Southampton's attack because a lack of compactness (on direct play) and also reactiveness when sitting in a deep block with enough players behind the ball. Which is a worrying sight two months into the season.
First to be scattered all over the park is the central midfield
Cesc Fàbregas is an 80-passes per game player and potentially a decisive assist provider, but has looked sluggish so far, unable to track runners and close down people properly. The former is more worrying than the latter, as it's often a matter of communication and or running an extra few yards to track his counterpart getting in the box.
Although the team's balance looks wrong defensively, Cesc Fàbregas has the capability to impact the attacking play with the amount of time the football passes through him in ninety minutes. Despite Chelsea getting the ball back in a different area (thus: in a different positional structure as well) than expected, Mourinho relies on Fàbregas' talent to bridge the gap. Which is a fair gamble given his ability to play only one pass where some other teams needs three players in the area to move the ball in the same manner.
Unless you know for sure what will happen in the next game, it's hard not to field Chelsea's best player of the first six months. Afterwards, if he seems to fade away (in terms of assists, not necessarily in the defensive side of the game which he improved in 2015 in instance), there's little evidence to point at Fàbregas being down the pan. The thing with him lies in whether his *actual* standard of performance is the one assist per game type of standard, or the more reasonable one. Probably in between, mind.
But maybe it's finally the year he turns this over? (picture from the French TV show Data Room I'm involved as a pundit on Canal+).
Left to right, the match days. Vertically: the successive seasons (Chelsea 14-15 top, Arsenal 09-10 bottom). Yellow (1) and Green (2+) squares indicates assists. Cesc appears to be chattier in Morse code at the beginning of his seasons than he is after Christmas.
His counterpart Nemanja Matić has been left very exposed. It's probably time to settle on the fact that although Matić is a brilliant midfielder on his day, he's not what most people think he is. Let us just remind the 2009-2010 pre-season where he made a good impression in midfield against Palace and Ajax Amsterdam, playing a step ahead of John Obi Mikel, being an elegant and clever midfielder yet at the same time slow and lacking mobility.
Matić has had a great 2014-2015 season, marshalling ahead of the back four tracking the opposition's central attacking player. But such success did rely on two aspects:
–the collective pressing being good enough ahead of him to allow him the task to "collect crumbs" : intercept, get loose balls, or get into tackles he's expected to succeed in (5.9 tackles per 90mn with a 61% success rate last season, 6th ranked midfielder - taking into account respective teams' possession)
–Also, his defensive ability not being tested too much by his direct counterpart. (Which wasn't the case when he was turned over by the likes of Sissoko, Eriksen, Kane or Mané who displayed quicker feet or strength or both)
Matić isn't playing well this season, but he hasn't become terrible over the summer.
The context is different and he's much more exposed and that is something he struggles to cope with. Matić is not what we can call a "defensive midfielder" per se. He is much closer to a deep lying playmaker, who can (5 assists in half a season in 13-14) and wants to play the Hollywood pass (which can also lead to turnovers).
He's also often ball-watching when the play is on the opposite side of the pitch, thus often struggling to recover from an initial bad position due to his general lack of pace. He usually does recover, although it's often by getting in people's way or ending up wrong side (2.6 fouls per 90min, twice his average in 2014-15)
Branislav Ivanović isn't the one to blame
Time to take on the topical debate in a straightforward, no nonsense, Jefferson Montero way.
As we mentioned above, Branislav Ivanović is the all-around wing back on the right side in Chelsea's set up. His aerial dominance makes him a weapon on both attacking and defensive set pieces (for his heading more than his grappling talents though) as well as in open play, when Courtois/Begović knock it long or when the opponents decide to switch play.
With Willian vacating the right flank to play the ball in central areas as a 3rd central midfielder, that also leaves the right side very exposed in transition. In case the opponent has time and space to pick up a pass in Ivanović's wing, Chelsea used to deal with those situations with either Willian doing another superhuman sprint to cut the pass off, or at times Cesc Fàbregas helping Ivanović and Willian to box the opposition's winger (and his overlapping full back).
Defence is about defensive overload before thinking about getting stuck in a challenge. Only when the closing down/cover support shape is set around the holder of the ball can a defender be proactive and try to win the ball back. Mourinho, like many other managers nowadays, doesn't encourage centre backs to vacate space centrally to support full backs. It's the central midfielders' job to help the full back to deal with wingers.
This, is not happening right now at Chelsea. Cesc Fàbregas is nowhere to be seen to cover the inside of the field when Ivanović is isolated against Montero, Bolasie, Naismith or Brahimi.
Let's also settle on something that many people tend not to take into account. Full backs should never defend 1v1 against elite wingers. Elite wingers are elite wingers because they can succeed more often than not at beating their man. A full back losing a "1v1" (the very restricted portion of space and time which can be regarded as a 1v1) happens all the time, but with proper cover support and midfielders properly cutting off passing lanes, the winger is generally doomed to give the ball away shortly after.
The situation that is very wrong with Ivanović right now is that he has to deal with elite wingers on his own and has no support whatsoever around him. He is the last one to blame, for failing to repeatedly accomplish the feat of winning the ball back when backpedalling against a Premier League winger who had space to gather pace to take on him.
This probably explains why a two-time Champions League and 8 times League winning manager has maintained his trust in him despite worldwide Twitter backlash.
Defending the box is hard with runners getting in from everywhere
The last ones to blame are obviously Terry, Cahill and Zouma. Although the first two are renowned for lacking pace, reactiveness (and for Zouma, positioning), that shouldn't be an issue as long as they're protected. John Terry's immaculate positioning can't cover for a whole team's failure to slow down and crush the opposition team's attacks.
With a bigger area to control, more incursions in dangerous areas (i.e.: less time in between to rest), it's unfair to blame the defenders for repeatedly failing to stop a bus at full speed while standing in a middle of a street. They're often left to choose the less worse option given the situation (and do get the blame regardless).
See also: why Roger Johnson and Scott Dann looked rock solid for Birmingham City in 09-10 and looked like clueless dummies for Wolverhampton and Blackburn Rovers one year later. They didn't become terrible overnight. The team they ended up playing in was, for the most part, awful. Hence why Birmingham went 15 games unbeaten whereas the other two went down allowing WBA and Stoke to bag 5-1 and 2-0 wins away in the process.
High line and pace; agenda and gross misconceptions
There's also a gross misconception about defenders, pace and a high block in my opinion.
You can play a high block with slow defenders; Barcelona has played an aggressive high block (although with 8 or 9 players behind the ball and a fair share of tactical fouling in transition) for years with the not so quick Gerard Piqué at the back because the pressing from the front was excellent.
The primary concern is whether the team can stop the opposition from playing passes in behind. Then the secondary concern lies in whether your defenders can read the game. There is little doubt that game intelligence and reading skills beats raw pace and running in straight line.
Having pacey defenders is: 1. in no means mandatory and 2. At the very best a reactionary option (to failing to stop the pass in behind or intercept it before one needs to catch the attacker).
So, when a journalist decides to write the following:
Other than their physical difficulties, Chelsea have conceded 12 goals in their first five games with captain Terry, Gary Cahill and, in particular, Branislav Ivanović incapable of playing a higher defensive line together.
It's either that he doesn't get the point of defending from the front (in that case: why Chelsea's back four is exposed), or that he absolutely needed a sensationalising punch line to fill his article (WOW, the 3 Chelsea defenders who made the PFA TotY four months earlier can't play football together anymore).
Mourinho substituted John Terry at half time at Manchester City with Zouma playing the second half (remembering that Zouma already played well alongside Terry against Man City and Agüero last January). Although Mourinho explained in his post-match interview that he wanted his team to play higher up the pitch in the second half, most of the coverage hit a snag and got struck on the Portuguese subbing his captain for the first time. As if the manager's explanation had, no value compared to journalists' opinion (or not neutral coverage).
Last March being probably a bit too far for some to remember, Southampton's Sadio Mané gave Matić a torrid time at Stamford Bridge, and the Chelsea man was replaced by Ramires after 53 minutes and a booking at 1-1.
In both examples, subbing a slow player for a quicker one allowed the team to play more expansively, while giving the player coming on instructions to track [Agüero or Mané] tighter. The idea is to adjust the shape of the team to the game state. With Chelsea chasing a few goals (trailing at the half against City) or the winning one (tied 1-1 with Saints last season), it was worth gamble to create a situational 1v1 to release more players to attack to try to catch up on the scoreboard.
Matić came on at half time against Southampton this season at 1-1, was replaced for a striker at 1-3 twenty minutes later. It's not very hard to understand why a midfielder who has scored 14 professional league goals in 216 games left his place to be replaced by a striker who scored 7 in 665 minutes last season in the league.
It is, on the contrary, rather odd to moan both at quick decisions from the dugout and late pointless subs in games. This is a good opportunity to have a look at Jonathan Liew's excellent work on the consequences of substitutions.
6. Terrible #numbers
The worrying thing with Chelsea's current situation is the terrible numbers the team produces. In terrible, we mean bottom of the table-like numbers.
Michael Caley's "expected goals" work is about displaying what a team has been able to produce throughout 90 minutes (and not "how the game should have turned out"). What is striking with Chelsea right now is that Chelsea fail to create good chances and fail to prevent chances at the heart of our own penalty box.
The closer the squares are to goal, the better the chances are. Also taken into account are the type of pass, surface used and various other sorts of information on the shots registered. (see the methodology)
11tegen11 displays how Chelsea struggle to get too close to goal although the ball is being moved around the box at a reasonable rate for a team which ended the season before as champions.
Chelsea do find the danger zone, but not the shot zone. Arsenal and City both elite, but the Gunners more incisive. pic.twitter.com/iPOgZqeMmJ— 11tegen11 (@11tegen11) October 9, 2015
Paul Riley's expected goals model (which relies on shots on target) puts Chelsea in 15th place on the table for the chances created with 8.78 expected goals.
As Chelsea scored 12 goals, the gap has partly been bridged thanks to extra efforts in finishing. Notably from Ramires and Matić, with long range shots against Everton and Newcastle, finding the back of the net despite an expected goal value of 0.10. Same goes for Willian who scored three direct free kicks so far with an expected goal value of 0.19 (Willian has done exactly 5.26 times the job he could've been expected to do with those three chances. We knew how good he was, we now know by how much he's good).
Those two types of chances are not penalty box cutbacks from open play, and are not the most repeatable kinds of chances to convert on a regular basis. They will certainly fade away at some point, and in the current state of Chelsea's affairs, probably leave the club pretty much goal-less.
Mourinho more or less pointed at opposing teams having maximum efficiency in front of goal this season after the game at Everton. Although he has a point on the shot table as Chelsea's opponents score 15,5% of their chances (topping Bournemouth in the League) , that doesn't account for the quality of the chances conceded.
Chelsea have indeed conceded the second most dangerous chances to Sunderland with an estimated 14,5 expected goals against. A look at the maps displays how easy the likes of Gomis, Naismith, Wijnaldum, Morrison, Sako, Kompany, Ward have been allowed to have a free go at Courtois or Begović from the heart of the box.
With more than two goals conceded per game, Chelsea is actually doing worse than what the expected goals suggest with 17 shots having found the back of the net. This goes with the failure to prevent the ball from getting into dangerous areas that we mentioned earlier. Chelsea have become a fairly average team in that regard:
WBA (Pulis!), Arsenal and S'hampton hard to pass through. Several teams with minor issues keeping offenses at bay. pic.twitter.com/nGFwDZge5Q— 11tegen11 (@11tegen11) October 9, 2015
Although Courtois and Begović do rank with a slightly lower than average save percentage with 67% in isolation, they can't be expected to make a habit of stopping massive chances from close range.
Blaming the opposition to have maximum efficiency is valid in case of long rangers in the top corner, stupid goalmouth scrambles with lucky bounces, shots hitting the post and going in, and so on. Less so when the types of chances conceded are the ones with an expected goal value of "my missus could've scored that". We can guess that it's another smokescreen sent by Mourinho to a journalist to deflect from the actual cause of concern.
7. What now?
The team needs to get back to proper levels of fitness. It's obviously hard to do so once the season started but it's not impossible; Benitez did so with a dedicated program (and a proper bus parked, with deep zonal block without trying to press from the front once the ball was lost). And obviously, playing games naturally enhances players' fitness. Until then, solutions aren't meant to be found on the tactical board.
Sacking Mourinho probably isn't a good idea right now. With Klopp joining non-Champions League contenders Liverpool, it leaves little options than a stopgap manager (and probably less competent) until the summer.
Two things could kick-start Chelsea's season right now.
–Start a red hot string of games conversion-wise, kill momentum and see games through. (Can be done via set pieces)
–Or rely on players' extra energy available (thinking about Willian, Oscar, Ramires, Loftus-Cheek, Zouma who are remarkable athletes as well as good footballers) until the others catch up. And to be honest, although Chelsea look short in some areas, every player in the squad has either outstanding lungs or brains.
Those players, especially Ramires, are experts in doing many things more than their sole role suggests. Ramires has the pace, volume and lucidity to deliver at both ends (the quality of his final delivery is often overlooked because his body language doesn't look *right* to many people). Although his performance against Southampton was not his best, he is the sort of player who needs a run of games to gain momentum (on the contrary to say, the more positional Mikel, who can deputize once in a while).
Ramires can do a job in a variety of positions. Wide right, central in a 3 in midfield or the deepest of the three midfielders (to recycle and cover for others) just like early on in 2013/14.
Ramires and Loftus-Cheek can offer something different in midfield with their activity and verticality in a box to box role, making runs and getting in the box as long as Chelsea is unable to play a positional play in the opposition half.
Azpilicueta at right back necessarily won't make the situation better than it currently is. Azpilicueta is a committed defender, arguably one of the most consistent performers in the team for three seasons. But he's not better than Ivanović at dealing with 1v2 or 1v3 when isolated (I do think he's worse because he doesn't have the frame to obstruct wingers' path), and he can be easily targeted in the air. There's a reason why he keeps it simple as he's not as good technically as Ivanović to keep the ball under pressure high up the pitch, cross the ball and, moreover, deliver in the opposition box with goals and assists.
So there's no point in rushing Baba Rahman into the team "to put a performing fullback in place of the underperforming Branislav Ivanović". Not taking into account the need to feature a dominant back line aerially speaking in the Premier League is cheap analysis.
Chelsea host Aston Villa after the international break before a string of fixtures which screams "tough away game, be wary not to be rolled over" with Kiev, supra-efficient West Ham (converting 16.8 percent of their chances this season, this bodes well), Stoke City away on a cold (and likely rainy) Tuesday night. Then hosting Liverpool and Kiev before going back to the Britannia Stadium.
With Chelsea publicly backing his manager for the first time, we may have reasons to think Mourinho will be the man in charge when the team will turn around this terrible dynamic (it's not even November, Chelsea, ffs).
Feel free to voice your opinion in the comments or on Twitter (@SeBlueLion_en)