This new, most chaotically scheduled Premier League season is upon us — huzzah! And although we do have the luxury of a full week break in between our first few matches, a large and versatile squad will become incrementally important as games frantically increase in frequency. Chelsea have done and continue doing a decent job of rounding out a squad riddled with holes, and so both the League’s decision to shift to 5 subs (at any 3 instances, which the broadcasters found difficult to sort out on opening day) and Tuchel’s utilisation of this change, accompanied by a deep bench, will be vital in our success this season.
The other rule changes were designed largely to minimise time wasting during the game...
Where's the ball gone?! ♂️— Sky Sports Premier League (@SkySportsPL) May 1, 2022
This Everton fan was doing everything in his powers to run down the clock in stoppage time ⏱ pic.twitter.com/Cx8QTMilUU
The irony of our opening week opponents cannot be overlooked — a Chelsea legend and former manager at the the Toffees’ helm, Chelsea being winless at Goodison Park since April of 2017, and yet all that easily surmounted by the fact that the club have not been in a state of such transition since ... ever.
To abate those issues and those of our preseason perfunctory performances, all the while continuing to reinforce much of the last season’s roles and responsibilities, Thomas Tuchel fielded mostly familiar players in familiar positions with familiar roles. Tuchel’s tried and trusted 3-4-3 was always going to be the formation for our first outing, and not just because of our familiarity with it, but because Frank Lampard himself had repeatedly insisted that he himself was going to trot out three (which almost played as a 5) at the back to start off this season.
Although Chelsea maintained non-threatening possession, we were surely expecting to be in better control of it considering how we assumed advanced positions, sometimes dangerously, as Everton parked in their own half. The same old Chelsea routine of recycled and coordinated possession commenced, despite last season’s admonitions of our aging back line (now cumulatively years older!) possibly being hit on a counter - and so we were given plenty to be concerned about in the first half.
Our greatest offensive threats came from deep and penetrating midfield runs, but as N’Golo Kanté was making those runs forward, we were equally being exposed both in number and pace in defense. While doing a great job of shifting 10 or more players behind the ball, Everton also advanced quickly when they did recover possession, and therefore quite easily found gaps between our lines - often from where Kanté had just made his run.
In the images below, Kanté does a fantastic job of maneuvering around three Everton midfielders and bursting into the space created by his clever touches. Kai Havertz does well to link up the play and sends Kanté through down the left flank with a decent opportunity to cross as three players wait in the box.
Indecisiveness gets the best of Kanté and not only does he not cross, he fakes a cross, turns towards the corner flag, and immediately loses possession. Havertz has now also charged into the box in anticipation of that cross and so the only potential cover for Kanté has pushed forward, further exposing our midfield. Everton realize this, play it quickly through our lines, and have a viable counter attack from that quick transition and exploitation of open space.
Abdoulaye Doucouré turns upfield with the ball from the corner scuffle and works it up the wing until finding Alex Iwobi in the centre of the park, where he would normally be marked by Kanté or Jorginho. With time to do so, Iwobi shifts play to Vitalii Mykolenko and Everton continue to push forward, realizing they have that numerical and positional advantage. Mykolenko has 3 targets to choose from with 3 defenders marking them. Thankfully, he is pressed quickly by wise defensive play from Azpilicueta and his cross is lofted too high, diminishing the power that Anthony Gordon is able to mustre on his header towards goal.
Our double no. 6’s (or the wider players in our back three) cannot take possession deep and lose it without coordinated cover - the gap created in the middle of the pitch makes a quick counter all too real of a threat and exposes our lack of pace. That was true last season and, only a year older and with more miles in their legs, it is more true now.
Our right-sided patterned play was not overly effective and the recycled possession from last season was becoming as redundant as our ineffective near-post corners. Nothing demonstrates that better than the contrast between the overall player positions and the attacking sides as seen in the graphics below - we repeatedly went down that flank and yet used width minimally - both on that near and indeed on the far side. With dominant possession, there ought to be more of a permanent presence visible on our right side through either the heat or passing maps, but it’s just not there.
The threat of Mount, James, and Sterling all operating at full capacity is tantalising but was not on display against Everton. In fact, with a look into the specific passing aspects of the game, one could argue that Everton might have had even better flow and distribution throughout their attacking game. Bear in mind, too, that the corner kicks weigh into the passes into the opposition penalty area statistic, and so we are truly far behind if those 16 corner kick deliveries are removed.
That brings us to corner kicks, another significant aspect of the first half. We need not trace back farther than the beginning of last season to see how effective Chelsea were both at defending and converting set pieces. We had a clear objective on hand against Everton - specifically to hammer the near post - and while that objective was achieved, it was also easily and repeatedly repelled. Whatever Anthony Barry was plotting here was not working, but also wasn’t changed as the match wore on. The few occasions where a short corner was played to Raheem Sterling created our more threatening chances, but our quantity ought to have produced more.
Most corners won in the first half of a Premier League game since the start of the 2016/17 season:— Squawka (@Squawka) August 6, 2022
◉ 13 - Chelsea (vs Everton)
◎ 11 - Chelsea (vs Saints )
They've broken their own record.
Sterling is deservingly the focal point of most things positive in the first half, a clear spark to our attack when on the ball. If we can highlight something overall positive about this match it is that the new signings were both slotting in well. Kalidou Koulibaly played an admiral role in our clean sheet, especially as a Premier League debutant, up until his unfortunate substitution.
Koulibaly's game by numbers vs. Everton:— Statman Dave (@StatmanDave) August 6, 2022
100% dribbles completed
66% tackles won
60% aerial duels won
50 passes completed
1 long pass completed
1 last man tackle
Solid Premier League Debut. ✅ pic.twitter.com/cqWwrNLtPo
However, Sterling seemed to conflict with Tuchel’s traditional style of play, direct with his movement on and off the ball and placing far less emphasis on retaining possession than carrying progressively and making something constructive happen. In fact, Sterling rightly should have been awarded a penalty from a pull back by Doucouré - even before the eventual one was called for a similar foul on Ben Chilwell.
Sterling notably had 43 progressive carries, 7 of which were into the final third. He completed 4 progressive passes into the final third while receiving twice as many. His mazy runs and tight footwork are the reasons he leads the league in penalties drawn since the it’s inception. The fact that he also nabbed a poacher’s goal in the 43rd minute, only for it to be (rightly) ruled for offsides, shows the versatility and fluidity he brings to our front line.
Thankfully, we would go into the break 1-nil up after Doucouré was finally penalized for his poor decisions inside his own penalty box. Jorginho would make no mistake this time, adding to his fine form from the spot for his club.
Jorginho's first 20 PL goals:— Squawka (@Squawka) August 6, 2022
Spot on. pic.twitter.com/QSHHbNQgtP
Although the scoreline was different to start the second half, the patterns of play were largely similar, which wasn’t great news for Chelsea. After a Rüdiger-esque run, Koulibaly would turn the ball over and gift the best chance in the early stages of the half to Demarai Gray, only for his shot to be blocked. Those same gaps from a quick transition were apparent for a good portion of the half.
The true sparks were created by our substitutions, but not necessarily the first pair of them. At the 65th minute, Christian Pulisic replaced Mason Mount, who, like our other forwards and wingbacks, had a difficult time imposing himself onto the game. Ruben Loftus-Cheek also came on for Chilwell which oddly slid Reece James into a left wingback position, and we looked about as disjointed as that lineup suggests we might.
The second set of substitutions, made at the 75th minute, would see Marc Cucurella replace Koulibaly through injury and Armando Broja replace Havertz. While, rightfully, many eyes were on Broja, the scrutiny was more substantially on Cucurella. That may have worked to both players’ advantage. In such a brief cameo, neither player disappointed.
Cucurella exceled - with his head on a swivel, aware of both threats and both passing and dribbling avenues forward, cognisant of support passes and spaces behind, in constant communication with those around him, and exhibiting wise positional spacing for being thrust into a new back three, he seems a true asset. Those quick counters that Everton had succeeded in playing were suddenly shuttered and our possession became more meaningful. His passing and crossing were precise and he was not afraid to get on the ball, accumulating more touches in his cameo than Loftus-Cheek or Pulisic did despite their additional ten minutes of play.
Reinforcing depth will be important this season, and so it is comforting to know that Conor Gallagher is going to step up and fill a needed role in the midfield, presumably in a deeper lying position. Were he to thrive as one might expect, that leaves us decently covered in all positions except striker.
And so the xG might leave us worrying, but playing without a recognised No.9 must be part of Tuchel’s plans at this point. In doing so we happened to have broken our own Goodison Park curse, become the first team to beat them on opening day since 2011, and have now become one of only two teams to have won 20 opening games, all while giving a debut to four new players.