Eight games in, six wins, two draws. Still undefeated. Right in the thick of the early-season title race. All is good then, right?
Last weekend saw yet another great display of tactical nous, and even a bit of attacking flair in the 3-0 win over Southampton. But the dropped point against Liverpool and West Ham which shouldn’t have been dropped. And in other games, like the 3-2 win over Arsenal, Chelsea were lucky to get three points.
In the 1-1 draw against Liverpool, Chelsea actually had less possession than the opposition, but still looked set for all three points until Sturridge scored a goal out of nowhere. That’s what strikers can be capable of. And that’s what Chelsea are missing at the moment.
But how big of a problem could this be? Chelsea, after all, haven’t lost since a gloried friendly against Manchester City in early August.
xG map for Chelsea - Liverpool. What a game.— Caley Graphics (@Caley_graphics) September 29, 2018
Liverpool scored only their lowest expected goals chance of the match. pic.twitter.com/zLOvwmNN4H
Alvaro Morata has scored in two straight matches (Europa and Premier League), but that hasn’t yet completely restored faith in him after struggling for all of 2018 previously. Meanwhile, Olivier Giroud has continued his goalless streak which helped France win the World Cup. But it’s a lot easier to win a knockout competition with such a statistical anomaly (France have done it twice!) than it is to win a 38-match Premier League season with a misfiring corps of strikers. Sure, Giroud contributes in other ways and Morata may have finally located his shooting boots, but in the Premier League era (so, since 1992) most title-winners have had at least one 20-goal forward.
And that trend has become even more prevalent over the past decade. Back in the ‘90s, Manchester United made a habit of winning the league while spreading the goals around. Chelsea did so in 2005 and 2006 as well. But since 2010, only Manchester City have done that, but Sergio Agüero (17 goals) and Edin Džeko (16 goals) still combined to score 33 goals and Yaya Touré chipped in with 20 from midfield to lead the team.
Of course, just having a striker who scores 20 or more goals doesn’t guarantee a title — so sorry, Spurs — but as we learned with Diego Costa, having a striker who can often conjure goals through sheer force of will and determination (and finishing skill), can sometimes make all the difference. When Fernando Torres was the featured center forward, Chelsea had no hope of winning the league. We could win cups and even a Champions League (weird things can happen in the small sample of a single-elimination tournament), but never a title. With Costa, we romped to two league titles in three seasons.
And yet, we’ve made the same mistake again. Even after seeing Morata’s confidence crumble in front of our eyes last year and knowing that Giroud has always been a great choice off the bench, but not as a starter, we decided to go into this season under a new manager, new system and new philosophy without a prolific striker. Here we are, eight games into the Premier League season, 18 goals scored, averaging nearly 18 shots per game and over 60% possession ... and our two strikers have combined to score 2 measly goals (in 7 appearances each).
Against Liverpool, Giroud and Morata had 18 and 11 touches, respectively, with both mustering a measly 2 touches in Liverpool’s box. Meanwhile, against West Ham, even after having quite a few touches in the box, Giroud could only manage 1 shot on target, against a team that had 28.2 % possession. In fact, the entire team combined to create only 6 shots on target, out of which 3 were speculative efforts from long range.
Against Southampton, it was the same. Giroud had 4 touches in the box and 1 shot which was off target. Meanwhile, Morata did score a goal but by then it was already 2-0 and Southampton were barely trying. Would he have enjoyed similar space if the game was 0-0 like it was against West Ham?
Even after acquiring the services of one of the most attacking managers on the planet, Chelsea’s m.o. appears to be the same as it was under pragmatic managers like Antonio Conte and Jose Mourinho: let Hazard create goals and if Hazard doesn’t score, we might as well pack up and leave. Hazard has been directly involved in over half of Chelsea’s 18 goals scored (7 goals, 3 assists) and that’s before we consider the impact he has through his movement, dribbling, and just general attention-taking. And while that’s excellent and fantastic from him personally — we’ve been waiting for this for over six years! — previous experience would suggest it’s not something that he can sustain.
Expected goals (xG), as any statistical measure in football, is fairly limited, but it still paints a concerning picture.
Our strikers’ expected goals based on their chances so far are 2.26 (Morata) and 1.13 (Giroud). The fact that Alonso has an xG of 1.64 and was higher than even Morata until the last game (Morata was around 1.08) says enough about the threat, or lack thereof, posed by the two strikers. Meanwhile, Manchester City have Sergio Aguero (4.75 xG), Raheem Sterling (3.24) and Gabriel Jesus (2.65), while Liverpool have Mohamed Salah (5.91), Sadio Mane (2.87) and Roberto Firmino (2.84).
Eden Hazard is at 3.79 and yet has scored 7 goals. That would suggest that he’s outperforming the average, and while he could probably keep it up (this the New Hazard!), these sorts of things do tend to regress to the mean eventually. And if it does (i.e. Hazard stops scoring at historic rates), we could find ourselves in huge trouble.
Giroud certainly adds a lot to the team outside of scoring goals and Morata is probably still a threat if provided with space and lots of standing off from defenders, but those aren’t all that common in the Premier League and certainly not when games are close, which is often the case. Diego Costa could, and often did decide games with goals out of nothing (West Bromwhich Albion comes to mind). Didier Drogba used to as well. It’s not the only way to win games, but it’s something that most title-winning teams need in their back pocket. Even the most perfect tactical system will have an off day, and will need to grind out a result.
Against Southampton, Hazard scored the all important first goal (from a turnover) and that allowed the game to open up a little. Chelsea still needed a set piece to add a second before Morata added the icing on the cake. Hazard has opened the scoring in 4 of Chelsea’s last 6 Premier League games. He scored in 5 of those 6. In the one game he didn’t, Chelsea didn’t score at all. If Hazard drops off, what will we do then?