Maurizio Sarri’s Chelsea have made a habit of scoring late in games, often decisively to collect all three points or at least eke out a draw. In fact, as analysed by the Guardian with data from WhoScored, Chelsea have the second best goal difference of all Premier League teams in the last 30 minutes of games, +11, which is just one less than Manchester City’s league-best +12.
– Palace haven't scored in the first 30 minutes of their matches— Guardian sport (@guardian_sport) November 22, 2018
– City haven't conceded in the last 30 minutes of their matches
– Arsenal improve most during games https://t.co/5W4VHXKNvM
However, unlike Manchester City, who also have the best goal differential for minutes 0-30 (+10) and 30-60 (+9), Chelsea lag far behind. In fact, Chelsea’s +3 for minutes 30-60 is the worst in the top five, and the +5 during the opening half-hour is only a slight improvement (good for the third best mark in the league, fittingly).
It’s a trend that is not lost on head coach Maurizio Sarri either, who’s been racking his brain trying to find reasons behind it — the assumption is that relying on late goals is not all that sustainable, and Chelsea’s power outage over the last couple games would certainly underline that notion.
“I think it’s a mental problem. In the last three matches, we had problems with the approach to the match. Not only that, because we had some problems also in the beginning of the second half. So we have to be careful. We have to be focused on this problem.
“For sure, it’s not a physical problem because, in the last part of the match, we ran a lot, I think. It’s not a physical problem. It’s a mental problem. We have some difficulties to enter into the match. No, it’s not a tactical problem. Because in the first 15 minutes in the last three matches, the problem was the opponents were more aggressive, more determined than us.
“So it’s not a tactical or physical problem. We have to approach the match in a different way, for application and determination.”
That’s not to say that the other factors can be ignored, especially with England’s famous winter period of fixture congestion coming right up.
“I think it was difficult from September until now, also. Because we played every three days, and then 10 days with 14, 15, 16 players with the national teams. So it wasn’t easy. December and January will be a very difficult period because we have to play every three days. I don’t know. Maybe the rotation of the players will be different, of course.”
Sarri, like several of his predecessors, including Mourinho and Conte, has pointed out repeatedly the unreasonable demands on top level players, with expectations of playing every club and international match. Squad rotation can alleviate some of these issues, but that also tends to lead to criticism from results and playing-time perspectives. It’s basically an impossible situation for coaches that requires a ton of luck, patience, and understanding to navigate with any sort of consistent success.
“I think that we problems with individual training, because it’s very difficult to train in the actual situation. The problem is there are some players, the very important players, that have to play 70-75 matches in a season. So it’s a big problem, especially for teams like us who have about 16 players in the national teams. It’s a big problem. I think we need to reorganise the football.”
”Because, at the moment, it’s very difficult for a player to be in good condition for 75 matches, and very difficult for a team to let rest a player like Messi for Barcelona, or Cristiano Ronaldo for Juventus, or Mbappé and Neymar for PSG. So it’s a big problem for modern football.”
Other top teams face similar problems of course, which is where the tactical and mental aspects can make a difference. With Saturday’s trip to Wembley to take on Spurs looming, Sarri’s looking for those qualities to make a difference and continue the team’s 18-match unbeaten run.
“[Tottenham head coach Mauricio Pochettino] has done a very good job. They play very good football. They are very dangerous, very dangerous in the offensive phase, very dangerous in the short counter-attacks. They are a technical team. In the match, they run a lot, too. From a physical point of view, they are a strong team. They are competitive.
”They will fight for the Champions League positions, for sure, so it’s a very difficult match. We must be careful not to lose the ball in our half, because they are very dangerous in these situations.”
As dangerous as they are, Spurs, like Chelsea are still a level below Manchester City. So the fight is for the top four, first and foremost. Anything beyond that is bonus at this point. Maybe next season we can continue closing the talent gap, but for now, we must keep realistic expectations.
“I think that, at the moment, in the Premier League there is a team above the others. This team is Manchester City. Then there is a very good team, Liverpool. For sure, they will be in the first four positions. Then there are four or five teams who will have to fight for the Champions League places: Chelsea, Arsenal, Tottenham, United, maybe somebody else. Usually in a season there is a surprise.”
“At the moment [we cannot fight for the title]. For me, [Manchester City] are stronger than us at the moment. We have to work, we have to work very hard just to try to recover the gap. But, at the moment, the gap is still there.
“We have to do it [to close the gap]. We have to do it. We can recover, but I don’t think that, in the first season, we will be able to recover 30 points.”
-Maurizio Sarri; source: Football.London
One step at a time then.