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Chelsea v Sheffield United: Emirates FA Cup Quarter Final

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Thomas Tuchel’s Chelsea is taking shape

Taking stock of the team’s progress under the new head coach

Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images

On 26 January 2021, Chelsea sent shockwaves around the footballing world by deciding to part ways with club legend and promising young coach Frank Lampard in order to hire Thomas Tuchel, one of the sharpest minds in the business.

Chelsea reeling from five defeats in nine games at the time, and wanted nothing more than a degree of solidity at the back and some method to getting the best out of a talented squad. By most standards then, ten wins and four draws from the first fourteen games represents a remarkable return.

Tuchel did not step into a harmonious dressing room (or fanbase for that matter) and he had his work cut out not just in terms of producing results, but restoring a semblance of unity. That he has managed to get our season back on track as well is worthy of heavy praise.

This article will look at the numbers behind Chelsea’s performances under Tuchel so far, comparing them to those before, and try to ascertain the type of team we are, what we are good at and where we have to improve.

More pragmatic and professional

Football is governed by one metric above all else: points. On that front, Tuchel has had a strong effect and Chelsea are playing at a rate of 2.2 points per game (ppg), a 50 per cent improvement on our 1.5 ppg pace before. Extrapolated to a 38-game season, the team’s current level is good enough for 84 points, more than eight of the last ten seasons (the only two exceptions are both title-winning season).

There is probably a reality check incoming, however small, since this form is a bit too good. Even Manchester City are only averaging 2.36 points per game in the Premier League this season. Still, a full season of Tuchel-ball should easily see us better last year’s total of 66 points.

The team’s expected metrics are a lot more interesting. Chelsea have transformed into a lockdown defence under the new manager, putting up some historically good numbers. Even a 30 per cent decrease in current performances would result in just 21 goals conceded over a season, summing up just how good the team’s defensive numbers are.

On the offensive end, there is a lot of room for improvement. Under Lampard, Chelsea had played some of our best attacking football since Ancelotti’s first season, but current numbers fall a fair way short of that mark.

While there is a chance Tuchel will settle for solidity over style for the remaining games, a justified choice in this season, the team will likely have to become more expansive with a sequence of games against lower-level opponents coming up.

It is astounding that Chelsea have not had a single poor defensive outing under Thomas Tuchel.

On days when the team cannot create enough chances, we do a pretty good job of ensuring the opponent cannot either. This, at the very least, gives us a shot of winning games through moments of individual brilliance. Defensive solidity is the base of all good teams and it is safe to say we have got that base covered.

Still giving young players a chance

One of the biggest doubts surrounding Tuchel’s appointment was his tendency to give (or not give) young players a chance. While at Dortmund, he blooded players like Christian Pulisic and Ousmane Dembélé, PSG lost talented academy players in favour of buying a bevy of substandard players to play rotational minutes.

While Tuchel has given fewer starts to under-24 players as compared to those immediately preceding him, there have been several mitigating factors in play, such as Kai Havertz’s unavailability. It should be noted that Chelsea often opted for experience last season as well, especially in periods of bad form, and it would make sense for Tuchel to rely first and foremost on experience in a bid to rescue the season.

That said, there is no reason why Mason Mount, Callum Hudson-Odoi, Reece James, Havertz, Andreas Christensen, Ben Chilwell, Pulisic, Billy Gilmour and Tammy Abraham couldn’t play important roles until the end of the season, and beyond, especially since Tuchel appears to have a good individual relationship with each of them.

Defence exceptionally good

Chelsea have made the six-yard box a no-fly zone, the footballing equivalent of Bermuda triangle in terms of not letting anything in. Tuchel walked in with one clear goal in mind — to make the team more solid without the ball — and has achieved it with aplomb so far.

This defensive scheme revolves around two main principles:

  1. denying opponents the ball
  2. ensuring the team has enough men behind the ball when the ball is lost

Watching opponents regain the ball in midfield only to be welcomed by six Chelsea players is a pretty common sight these days. That Chelsea have conceded only one shot within the six-yard box under Tuchel is utterly ridiculous. Tuchel so far has approached most games like cup semi-finals, minimizing chances at both ends and allowing our individual offensive quality to triumph over the opponent.

It can be argued that this form of passive possession is perfectly suited to the current circumstances. But with the hectic schedule, it is imperative that teams conserve energy to last the entire season.

Chelsea were a reasonably good defence earlier in the season — not world-beaters but also not poor by any means. The team allowed a tally of shots that was slightly higher than average for a top-4 team but the average quality of chances was on the lower side. While the metrics were largely fine, the over-reliance on the 36-year-old Silva was concerning. If he played well, the defence played well too. If he missed out and had a bad day, the defence went for a ride more often than not.

There was a slight improvement over 2019-20 in terms of most deeper metrics (mostly in the range of 5-10%) but the main difference-maker was the presence of a goalkeeper who could be relied upon to keep out saveable shots. In Mendy and Silva, Chelsea brought two players who alone elevated the team’s defence from poor to above-average.

Quantity over quality

Chelsea began the 2020-21 season as a thoroughly good offensive outfit capable of generating good chances from a wide variety of situations. However, there was a noticeable fall in numbers as the season went on and after the win against Leeds United in December, Chelsea went from a good attacking team to a merely above-average one. The decline in attacking output was compounded by other factors and by January, the wheels had fully come off.

The most noticeable aspect of Chelsea’s shot-map earlier in the season is the sheer volume of shots in and around the six-yard box. The closer shots are taken from goal, the likelier they are to be successful. Chelsea lived off that maxim and the results were evident in a high xG/shot of 0.125. However, the team were pretty streaky and had a tendency to boost their stats in blowout wins such as the one against Leeds.

Tuchel has reined in the offense since his arrival, sending fewer players forward and instead focusing on solidity. The team seem happier to take shots from slightly sub-optimal locations, as evidenced by a fall in xG/shot accompanied by an increase in shots per game. There has been a rather steep decrease in chance creation quality outside penalties — a fall of 0.21 xG/game or close to 8 xG over a whole season is significant — and this is an issue that must be addressed.

Having more players behind the ball solidifies the team’s structure, but comes at the expense of attacking play. Even the touches in box enjoyed by Chelsea players seem to be coming from wider locations as opposed to more promising positions down the middle. All this results in a quite a few low-percentage shots being attempted, most of which get blocked/saved or go off-target.

The above points are likely by design in order to ensure Chelsea do not get caught on the counter-attack and though throwing caution to the wind is not a solution, better balance can be found between defence and offence.

To summarize, while the attack is not a major concern yet, improvements are required quickly. Chelsea are currently an average-level attack (for our resources) with plenty of room to improve.

What’s next?

Tuchel’s tactical nous and man-management skills have made a tremendous impact on Chelsea’s season so far. He is perhaps the second best coach of the Abramovich era behind Antonio Conte in terms of pure tactical acumen. It is still too early to say if Tuchel can scale similar heights, but he is off to a better start than most had dreamed of. Chelsea have a manager now who can match anyone tactically on any given day.

Of course, Tuchel has been flawless. The team’s attacking play needs to improve and Chelsea often employ a safety-first strategy in games where such a cautious mentality is not required. The passive possession is suitable to the unique circumstances of this season but cannot be viewed as a long-term strategy.

All that said, Chelsea have proven correct in making yet another mid-season managerial appointment. There are plenty of positive signs for the future. If the team can combine our current defensive solidity with a sharper attacking edge, there is no telling how far we can go.

Sheffield United v Chelsea - Premier League Photo by Lee Smith - Pool/Getty Images

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