Since Reece James’s injury, Chelsea have won just one game, drawn two other games, scored just three goals, and have looked rather anemic in front of goal, even by our own anemic standards of the past couple years. Two of those goals were gifts from an Aston Villa team evidently doing their best to get their coach gone (they would succeed in the subsequent match), and the third came from the penalty spot after a lucky call (grappling in the box on corners is rarely called).
We knew that Reece’s absence would pose a great challenge, but unfortunately so far Graham Potter has not really found an adequate answer. In fairness, it’s not an easy problem. But similarly to his predecessor, he’s persisted with (initial) setups greatly reliant on wing-backs in the absence of a key wing-back, and while he may claim that formations don’t dictate the style of play (but rather that it’s the other way around), the relative successes of his own in-game adjustments in terms of personnel and formation would indicate otherwise.
“We don’t see [the formation] as the end goal, it’s about how the team is playing. The team needs to look consistent regardless of the formation. Then it’s about the personnel, how you want to attack, defend – these are the things we consider. Hopefully there’s things that look the same even though the shape changes.”
Whereas Thomas Tuchel seemingly tried every able-bodied player at left wing-back, it’s now Potter’s turn to do the same at right wing-back. Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Raheem Sterling have both had a go already, but unsurprisingly only a slowly fading César Azpilicueta has had any semblance of success at it.
Sterling especially has struggled, and not just at wing-back. Our community player ratings are not gospel, but Sterling has been seen as performing below the team average in all eight of Potter’s games so far — the only attacker on the team with that dubious honor. It may not be strictly his fault, but as the highest paid player actually on the team, he’s supposed to be leading the way for us. Sure, it’s a team game and a problem this complex requires team solutions, but it also requires your big star(s) to step up and get it done on an individual level.
“It’s something we have to look at not by zooming into one person but as a team. We can do better but if we do better as a team, then individuals will benefit from that so that’s where the work is.
“Raheem has the flexibility, ability and quality to play in a number of positions. It’s not straightforward with us losing the players we have so we’re trying to constantly find the right balance and the right solutions but he can help us in a number of positions.”
-Graham Potter; source: Chelsea FC
Also like Tuchel, Potter has looked to make the team hard to beat first and foremost, before being too worried about our attack, and a six-hour clean sheet streak would certainly attest well to that aim.
However, we’ve needed a near superhuman effort from Kepa Arrizabalaga to maintain that lately, with sixteen (16!) saves in the last three games, almost as many as he had to make in his previous ten starts (17). Not exactly sustainable, as we saw on Saturday with Casemiro’s late equalizer in added-on time.
If the first step is wobbly, the next step isn’t going to be too solid either.
“It was unlucky for us to concede in the last minute. But we’re not losing, we’re winning and we are drawing which is a good sign. We want to be solid as a team first, that’s the foundation going forward. You want to be good defensively and then on top of that have a freedom and a flow to go and score goals and create. That’s the next step.”
-Ruben Loftus-Cheek; source: Chelsea TV via Sport Bible
Sorting this out isn’t going to get any easier in the short-term, with injuries piling up, the fixtures not letting up, and the World Cup coming up. Time to turn up — individually, and as a team.