A common and very true theme of late is that our players have not performed to projected expectations and we suffer draws and defeats as a consequence. However, this loss to Leeds United is different in that it was more influenced by the decisions of Thomas Tuchel, both in our starting formation and even the decisions made mid-game.
Ignore the facts that Édouard Mendy has once again made an absolute wretched mistake on the ball or that Kalidou Koulibaly has gotten himself sent off (as he tends to do) after making two cynical and unnecessary fouls, the blame here falls largely on Tuchel for more than a few reasons.
The formational tweak employed against Tottenham by moving Mason Mount deeper into the midfield to both shore up our defensive structure while adding bodies to the high traffic areas would have been a much wiser way to set up the squad. It was quite clear by the end of this first half that we needed help in the midfield transition while getting the ball forward in cohesive movements. Although Mount himself did not have a poor outing per se, his floating role did not help our progression of the ball. His heat map is sporadic compared to last week and Tuchel’s apparent instruction to play through that crowded midfield despite being under aggressive pressure created a situation begging for Mount to drop deeper. As a result, Mount’s involvement became more reactive than proactive.
We should balk at our possession stats (61%) and notice that not only was the general play in the middle third for half of the game, but this is also for what Leeds had prepared. Tuchel has been rigidly consistent when it has come to our structure, only deploying the 4-2-2-2 a few times last season, and it was clearly more suited for the selection of players available and the strategy of the opposition. The idea that our team can play this possession-oriented, flank overloading, intricate and tight-passing football, while getting massive numbers forward is enthusiastic. We have lacked presence in the opposition box and and of late, our goals for and against tell a bleak story.
60 - Today was Thomas Tuchel's 60th Premier League match; Chelsea conceded just 17 goals in the first 30 of these, but have shipped exactly twice as many in the last 30 (34). Concern. pic.twitter.com/aKLQCHRwbK— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) August 21, 2022
While the first two glorious chances that were missed could have changed the tempo of the game and caused a reaction from Leeds within only the first 5 minutes, let alone two more great chances by the 20 minute mark, our lack of finishing quality was patent...including by those whom we bought to fix said issue. And that’s also not to say that the first 5 or 20 minutes were all Chelsea, because the alarms were whistling even prior to kickoff. This lineup wasn’t suited to our strengths, of which we are still struggling to exploit at the moment, but did play directly into theirs. Our wingbacks and wide play were nullified by attempted progression through our double no. 6’s and a combative midfield was exactly what Leeds needed to control the game. They were dictating the play to their will, regardless of possession stats.
For me, more interesting stats are that Chelsea got caught offsides seven times, meaning our runs are mistimed, the balls to them are inadequate, and our midfield and striking partnership is disjointed. Chelsea lost possession of the ball 26 times, which isn’t worrying until incorporating the fact that 12 of those turnovers were either in the middle third or our defensive third and often after we had committed numbers forward. As should have been expected prior to kickoff through their incessant pressing, Leeds had 39 tackles and 28 blocks. We were smothered everywhere we turned.
In the very early phases of the game, watching Raheem Sterling put the ball wide after maneuvering himself into an ideal shooting position and immediately thereafter seeing Ruben Loftus-Cheek doing precisely what he did critically wrong last week by cutting inside and delaying any incisiveness simply refocused scrutiny on Tuchel. One player he’s chosen to bring to the club to get us goals (yet hasn’t scored) and the other he’s chosen to play repeatedly out of position and effectively eliminated our most productive offensive output, Reece James.
Ruben Loftus-Cheek’s career is not going to be revitalised in the right wing-back position - he had 7 turnovers and only one cross against Leeds. The reason Trevoh Chalobah isn’t sent out at right centre back (or even our club captain, for that matter) is a whole other questionable decision by Tuchel. The simple fact remains that Reece James needs to be given license to get forward in whatever formation fielded.
While James can deputise the right side of a back three when situations require (such as against a quick winger), Leeds’ quick and tricky winger has begrudgingly gone to Barcelona this summer. And while Tuchel may have been exploring a continuation of last week’s endeavours that allows James to get up the pitch as we shift to a asymmetric back two through sustained possession, that was never going to be afforded to us. Leeds don’t give anyone time or space on the ball, and Tuchel had to have known that.
Conor Gallagher was given his starting debut, but could not have been thrown into a less convenient circumstance. Although he got caught on the ball a few times in dangerous locations and seemingly had the touch of a blacksmith on the night, he is not a no. 6 and was paired with the least beneficial partner for that role. The ineffectiveness of even Jorginho, our possession maestro who only attempted 26 passes in over an hour of play, directly limited anything truly productive either midfielder could accomplish, as the centre was overrun by Leeds players.
While previously mentioning that Loftus-Cheek only had one cross into the box, our crossing as a whole was horrendous. Crossing accuracy was only 20%, so only 4 of the 20 crosses we placed into the box had a Chelsea target contesting it, and that includes our 6 corners. Again, the stress here is that if our objective is to achieve wide possession, how do we obtain the end result of a goal?
And as our offensive crosses and corners were not finding their marks, we have again conceded a goal similar to the second against Tottenham from disorganised, zonal marking during a wide free kick. Rather than picking up the runners, spatial marking has come to haunt us, as Rodrigo was able to drift into the zone between Gallagher and James and cushion the ball into the corner of the net. There is no excuse that none of the 5 players marking the back post failed to track the run of Rodrigo, as he started that run amongst all of them.
Tuchel made a switch at halftime that was positive, sliding into a back four (Cucurella, Koulibaly, Silva, James), a double pivot (Loftus Cheek, Jorginho), a duo of attacking midfielders (Mount, Gallagher) and a striking partnership that still hasn’t clicked at all (Sterling, Havertz). Despite some fluid movement and much more structure to the formation due to a better understanding in their natural positions, the change came too late. It would be easy to say that the first 20 minutes of each half contained our best play.
And then comes the 64th minute substitutions and the complete destruction of our midfield through our own desperation. Christian Pulisic and Hakim Ziyech for Gallagher and Jorginho left the midfield disoriented about defensive responsibility. Seeing both Pulisic and Ziyech playing deep roles on their subsequent defensive throw in did not ensure any amount of security in our defense, and a breakdown in marking after our first commitment of numbers forward spoiled any hope of a comeback.
Once again, tracking runs and marking was not coordinated, the gaps of space in the middle image above is simply irresponsible, and the embarrassment that we faced was deserved.
The signs are not great. We have now conceded 5 goals in our first three matches, which happens to be more than we gave up in the first twelve matches last season. Apparently, we are good for one three-goal loss every season (recall the 5-2 v West Brom in 2020-21 or 4-1 v Brentford last season), so let’s just hope we’ve gotten that out of the way. In the meantime, Tuchel needs to focus on restructuring a midfield and Koulibaly-less defense (and likely a manager-less sideline) that can lead us to victory over Leicester, lest something similar to what happened to the last time we lost 3-0 to Leeds happens.