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On fatigue

Chelsea are tired but is that an excuse or an explanation for the poor performances?

Brighton & Hove Albion v Chelsea - Premier League Photo by Robin Jones/Getty Images

Chelsea take on Spurs tomorrow or today, depending on your time zone, (Sunday), after which we will get to experience something we haven’t experienced in nearly three months: more than a handful of days off!

“We will do one week off for everybody but not the injured players or the players coming back from injury but everybody else.”

-Thomas Tuchel; source: SI

Since the November international break, Chelsea have played more games than any other team in the world. The 1-1 draw against Brighton was our 18th in 58 days (or one every 3.22 days). Spurs will make it 19 in 63, and not a single one on more than four days’ rest. Not a single one postponed, unique in the league, even when we had 7-8 COVID cases in the squad. One even brought forward from February. Tomorrow’s game will be our 37th of the season in all competitions. No other Premier League team will have played more than 33 during that time, including Manchester City and Liverpool. Four games may not sound like much, but it’s two weeks’ worth of fixtures even at mid-season rate.

Combined with injuries and illnesses, especially in key positions, head coach Thomas Tuchel has been rightly pointing the finger at fatigue, both physical and mental as the root cause for our disappointing run of results, especially in the league.

But is that an excuse, or is that a reasonable explanation? Let us ruminate.

The trouble with trying to quantify fatigue is that there is no specific standard for it. Every player’s threshold is different. Every player will react and recover differently. And it’s not an on-off switch. Players can play while fatigued, usually with a commensurate drop in performance levels (see: Mason Mount, Jorginho). Others can go until the apocalypse strikes and we all vaporize (see: Antonio Rüdiger). It’s unlikely that we can properly account for such factors within the scope of this analysis — or any analysis.

Chelsea 2021-22 minutes played so far

Chelsea have played 36 games so far this season, for a total of 3270 minutes — the extra 30 coming from extra-time in the UEFA Super Cup. Only Rüdiger has played more than 75% of those minutes: 83% to be exact (2730min), which is a patently ridiculous total at barely past the halfway point of the season. Combined with his four appearances for Germany, he has the most minutes of any non-goalkeeper in the Premier League (3090). West Ham’s Tomáš Souček and Leicester City goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel are the only other players in the league with more than 3000 minutes on the clock this season (club and country combined).

That Rüdiger’s performances have not suffered noticeably given that workload is incredibly impressive. So surely if he can do that, others, with far fewer minutes, should be fine, right?

Well, that’s where it gets tricky.

Only three other non-goalkeepers have amassed more than 2000 minutes at this point, Jorginho, Marcos Alonso, and César Azpilicueta. Thiago Silva is next at 1942, which may not be the year of his birth, but it may be close. In fact, they are the four oldest players in the squad. N’Golo Kanté, the only other player over 30, has barely crossed the 1000-minute mark, thanks to injuries and isolation.

Even for younger players, the lower total of minutes may not be a correct reflection of workload. Mason Mount has failed to feature in just 2 of the 32 games he’s been available for. Similarly, Mateo Kovačić has only gotten 2 matchdays off, from the 25 he’s been available for. For Romelu Lukaku, it’s 1 day off from 24. Being injured or ill is not the same as being rested. And the fact that 24 and 25 are nowhere near 36, our total number of games so far, highlights that we’ve had a limited squad to work with for those other 12-13 games — at the very least.

Chelsea do have a large squad, but we cannot expect the backups to perform at the same level as the starters. This concept often seems overlooked or simply ignored in analysis and punditry, but not all injuries are created equal and players are not just interchangeable at will.

Ben Chilwell’s injury is a prime example — especially when now combined with Reece James’s. Given how well the team performed (and set expectations) with those two starting, it’s perhaps shocking to realize that Chilwell has made just 12 appearances (10 starts) all season and only six (6!) in the league (and will finish with just 12 appearances) — only a third of the games played so far. Our record with him playing is 10 wins, 1 draw, 1 defeat. Our record without him is 13 wins, 8 draws, 3 defeats. 83 per cent wins versus 54 per cent.

Without the ability to properly rotate — and rotate when the situation calls for it, rather than when forced into it — be that at wing-back, center back, midfield, or wherever, players who are available get overworked (see: Thiago Silva) or are played out of position and in sub-optimal roles (see: Christian Pulisic, Callum Hudson-Odoi, others). When N’Golo Kanté is replaced by Saúl Ñíguez or Ruben Loftus-Cheek, for example, the team’s performance is unavoidably affected, and probably not in a good way.

None of that is meant as an excuse, and it’s certainly not meant to inspire pity or even commiseration. We all know the expectations and we all know the harsh realities of football. Thomas Tuchel does, too.

But it is at least partly an explanation of why things have gone the way they have.

Harvey MacKay, the syndicated columnist and author, eloquently put into words what Tuchel was essentially trying to say in his post-match press conference after the Brighton draw: “Fatigue makes fools of us all. It robs us of our skills, our judgement, and blinds us to creative solutions”.

Tuchel admitted that he, too, was suffering from the same (mental) fatigue that the players were, potential affecting his own judgement, decisions, confidence to be proactive — case in point, waiting until the last ten minutes to make any changes on Tuesday. Again, not an excuse, but a potential factor.

Brighton & Hove Albion v Chelsea - Premier League
Ziyech’s goal celebration, or lack thereof, against Brighton
Photo by Robin Jones/Getty Images

Tuchel seems to have the full support of the club at the moment, but this is Roman Abramovich’s Chelsea, and things can change very quickly. Staying in the top four is the minimum requirement and that in and of itself does not necessarily secure Tuchel’s future beyond the season.

The question is, in the short term, can we climb out of the current malaise with a win against Spurs and a bit of rest and refocusing afterwards? The fixtures aren’t going to let up anytime soon, and we even face a travel to the Club World Cup in Abu Dhabi, so squad and morale management will remain key.

Should we answer well, the question then, as ever in the long term, becomes whether Tuchel gets a chance and, most importantly, the time to mold the squad in his own image. Or will he be just the latest in a long-line of shooting stars at the managerial position?


Chelsea FC Training Session & Press Conference Photo by Darren Walsh/Chelsea FC via Getty Images

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