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What’s ailing Frank Lampard’s Chelsea?

The numbers behind the slump

Photo by Andy Rain/PA Images via Getty Images

In the space of a month, Frank Lampard has gone from fielding questions about Chelsea’s potential title push to dealing with rumours about a mid-season managerial change. It was not supposed to be this way, especially after spending over £200m in the summer. So what has caused this slump in form?

Attributing the downturn to merely one reason would be reductive. As easy as it is to blame individuals — be it Lampard, Werner or anyone else — football rarely ever works that way. It is not often that a single person brings down the whole team, and it is most certainly not the case here.

Stats have been divided into 4 categories: 2019-20 average, 2020-21 average, pre-slump average and slump average. The term “slump” refers to the wretched 6-game run Chelsea have had since (and including) the Everton loss. Dividing the current season into two (albeit, unequal) parts while also presenting the overall average should give a fair idea about the extent to which recent form has affected the team’s overall metrics.

The numbers behind the slump

Considering the players available last season, Lampard did a great job in devising the third best offence in the league. The defence were fine, without being great, except for one problem position. On paper, adding better players to the team should have catapulted the team into higher levels at both ends of the pitch.

Alas, the improvement has not been as significant as expected. Chelsea were on an incredibly hot streak of finishing in the first few months of the season and some regression to the mean was always to be expected. However, the degree to which the team’s finishing has fallen is shocking. One would think this run of finishing will not last for long and the team will find the proverbial shooting boots soon.

Even before December, Chelsea created fewer chances than last season (excluding penalties). While game state has to be considered — for example, the team might have opted to ease off and not boost stats when 2-0 up thanks to a penalty and a corner — this is not a great look. For a squad of Chelsea’s age-profile, year-on-year improvement must be the first expectation.

Interestingly, Chelsea’s recent open-play defence has remained almost at the same level as before the slump. A couple of really stupid penalties conceded against Everton and Arsenal have increased the total xG conceded tally. In what might come as a surprise, Chelsea’s defence before the slump was largely at the same level as last season as well, with the main difference being the addition of Mendy.

A quick note on Mendy: he has been exactly as advertised. He saves most shots he should save without possessing the game-changing ability of Alisson or Oblak. Excluding penalties, he’s bang in the middle of the pack when it comes to shot-stopping among Premier League goalkeepers. Not exceptional, but also not the worst goalkeeper in the league.

Judging by shots taken, Chelsea have been less of an attacking force compared to last season even during the good run of form — something that was noted in xG metrics too. It is a combination of players not clicking early in the season and energy preservation when leading in games: not great but also nothing to be alarmed about.

More worrying are the numbers from the slump. Shot data gives us a big hint that the confidence of the team has been ... shot ... at both ends of the pitch. Not only are Chelsea taking fewer shots (a decrease of 1.3 shots per game is a big deal), a lower proportion of them are on target (28% during the slump vs. 36% pre-slump). The same trend applies to shots conceded, too. Chelsea are conceding more shots and a greater proportion of them have been on target (31% vs 28%).

There are generally two ways in which most big teams get out of such bad runs: by sticking to their original plan of creating high-quality chances in the hope it eventually pays off (Manchester City, for example) or by pummeling opponents with shots even if they tend to be of low quality (Pochettino’s Spurs). Worryingly for Chelsea, the team seem to be caught in no man’s land between the two schools of thought.

Partly due to the absences of Ziyech and Hudson-Odoi, the team’s ball-progression fell off a cliff in December. Before the slump, Chelsea ramped up passes into the final third when compared to last season thanks to two factors: better personnel and better pressing structures, which allowed the team to recover the ball in midfield and quickly ping it forward. The massive fall in this regard is a major concern because a team of this level cannot be reliant on just two players for ball progression.

One might notice that the “progressive passes” stat has been fairly constant and this might be contradictory to the above paragraph. However, that metric includes passes from defence to midfield as well passes from midfield to attack. Chelsea have done fine with the former but not the latter. If anything, it suggests Chelsea have not been able to move the ball beyond the midfield of late, with a greater percentage of “progressive” passes being just from defence to midfield.

Chelsea have allowed fewer final third passes recently but this has been majorly influenced by game-state. For instance, why would Arsenal try to get the ball into Chelsea’s final third when 2- or 3-0 up? City took their foot off the gas once they grabbed quick goals, too. Similarly, Everton took the lead and then challenged Chelsea to break down their defence, a challenge that we could not meet.

The change in touch profile after the slump — a significant increase in the proportion of touches in the final third but a much smaller increase in the penalty box — is emblematic of a team who desperately huff and puff to get a goal without necessarily getting into dangerous locations. Opponents have penetrated Chelsea’s defence a lot more than usual, too, though this could be down to a lack of confidence among defensive players as much as poor structure.

As a side note, there has to be some sympathy towards the goals the team has conceded. Two stupid penalties, incredible finishes by Neto and Podence, a stunning free-kick from Xhaka and El Ghazi’s goal was scored with a player down (injured?). None of this should justify the poor attacking play, but when it rain, it pours.

Progress! Progress?

Until the Arsenal game, Chelsea and Lampard could have claimed solid progress compared to last season. Being 8 points better off when compared to the same fixtures last season after 14 games is nothing to be scoffed at, and would mark solid growth. However, the results since have poured ice-cold water on the feel-good factor around the club, and have highlighted the highly fickle nature of top-flight football.

A net 0-point growth when compared to last season places serious questions over the development made by the team and worryingly, there is not a lot of short-term scope to improve on last season. From the time of writing to the first leg of the Atletico Madrid tie coming up in February, there are only two games where Chelsea can get a better result than last season: Leicester City (away) and Sheffield United (away).

Even assuming the very best case where we win all games in that span, is a growth of +6 points after 25 games good enough?

The luck factor

While the team’s tactics of late have hardly been anything to write home about, there are certainly reasons for Lampard to feel aggrieved. Chelsea have been in a major, major finishing rut and this has no doubt shifted the narrative around the club. A team of Chelsea’s personnel and resources quite simply cannot finish this poorly in a 8-9 game stretch.

Top teams will, or at least should, outperform xG by a fair margin on the attacking end. That is why attackers at Chelsea get paid a lot more than their counterparts at lower clubs. In simple terms, the attackers at Chelsea have failed to live up to their billing thus far. Conventional logic suggests the team and these players will eventually pick themselves up, regardless of manager.

How much blame should Lampard get?

Chelsea v Aston Villa - Premier League Photo by John Walton - Pool/Getty Images

Lampard is certainly not blameless. As noted before, a team of Chelsea’s quality cannot be dependent on two players for ball progression. And the team have lost some compactness recently, too. While this will require a lot of work to fix, it is still fixable.

A more worrying, and frankly baffling, aspect is how some of the team’s best performers, such as Tammy Abraham and Callum Hudson-Odoi of late, seem to have to work harder for lower rewards. The nature of modern football means £50-million players will almost always be prioritized over homegrown youth, but at this point in time, that is harming Chelsea. There’s a balance to be found between bedding in expensive out-of-form players and playing less glamorous in-form players. Let’s hope Lampard can find it.

The inability of the team to win games where we play poorly is down to both the players and the manager. Chelsea may lack a leader like John Terry or Virgil van Dijk, and there is no one who consistently takes responsibility on the ball when things go wrong the way Bruno Fernandes at Manchester United does. This may not be a statistical measure, but it cannot be fully discounted.

At the same time, it is down to the manager to ensure that young players develop a mental edge, too. The influence of a manager on young, impressionable players cannot be understated. Lampard himself has spoken in depth about how Mourinho’s arrival in 2004 taught him to hate losing. It is no surprise that the introduction of a cut-throat winner turned Chelsea from a team that naively lost to Monaco into the most ruthless outfit on the planet within a year.

The inability to turn around bad games, a roster filled with unathletic players and the sheer lack of pragmatism are highly Arsenal-esque and that is not a compliment at all. It is still not clear if Lampard is trying to reverse this phenomenon or is inadvertently encouraging it.

At most clubs, the above issues will be enough to dominate the headlines for a month. However, Chelsea are not most clubs. Chelsea’s biggest issue is this: The. New. Signings. Are. Not. Playing. Well.

If one attacker does not adapt well, you could attribute it to differences between leagues, a shift in style and a lack of time. If two very different attackers flop, you could blame freakish bad luck. If three of them bomb, it becomes less luck and more of a system issue. Some of these numbers have not just declined, they have absolutely cratered even when accounting for the mitigating factors.

Ziyech, Werner and Havertz are nothing like each other and yet all have underwhelmed compared to previous levels. That is absolutely not a good look.

Where do Chelsea go from here?

When discussions start about replacing a Chelsea manager this early in the campaign, they typically end only in one way. This is not to say this writer is Lampard In or Lampard Out — frankly, the entire “In/Out” culture is childish.

The simple fact of the matter is that Lampard did better with a worse team last season. There is no shame in this either; some managers are just better with worse players. Still, Lampard should be given a chance to turn things around, though the club and the fans have to be mindful of his shortcomings and the ever-increasing gap to (and amount of competition for) the top 4, too. Thankfully, the congested nature of this season means Chelsea will not be totally out of the top 4 race unless we implode spectacularly.

Max Allegri and Thomas Tuchel are the two “best” managers available at the moment, and both have excellent pedigrees. Analyzing them would take a lot more words, but to keep it brief, neither is perfect and both carry massive baggage considering what Chelsea want to achieve.

Regardless of what path is taken, Chelsea have to improve soon, either under Lampard, or someone else.

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