Coming into this match with an expectation of a win would have been supercilious — I had indicated as much in the conclusion of my last article. Nottingham Forest hasn’t been beaten at home since mid-September and the loss of Reece James, as we have unfortunately seen now a few times, completely subdues our attack and softens our defense. But the manner in which this game played out has left most of us frustrated by the lack of both a clear strategy and even questioning the players’ drive, rightly or unrightly so.
Graham Potter went with a very familiar lineup, identical to the previous match with the exception of César Azpilicueta for the injured James. On the opposite flank, Marc Cucurella was deployed and has yet to really blossom in a Chelsea shirt. His slower pace and surprisingly minimal attacking threat are becoming a real concern, especially considering his cost and origin in La Masia. Ideally, if an overdose on a particular side and getting our attackers into a 1v1 individual marking situations is the objective, he was bought with the expectation that the left side would be a viable outlet when James is out. It is not.
Because our attack is predicated by width and possession, there was clear concern with how we might progress the ball up the pitch and into the minimal channels that were afforded by the centrally congested Nottingham Forest defense. We were ambiguous, and the fact that 45% of their attack came down the left is not due to their intent to solely attack that side but that we forced the ball down that right flank as if James were there, turned it over, and then had to then subsequently deal with the aftermath.
Inherently, because James and Azpilicueta are not the same player, we would lose some pace and width on the right side, but that isn’t the only problem. James tends to get deeper and play balls across the box behind the defense whereas Azpilicueta often sends them in diagonally and from a deeper position. Inevitably, that allows defenders to clear the ball more easily with the ball in front of them rather than behind them. We broke past their back back line far too infrequently, and exactly zero of the four times each that Azpilicueta tried to either cross from deep or break past the flank did it link up to a Chelsea player. Again, that threat wasn’t even really an outlet down the left side, but was also far too minimally pursued. I believe that Azpilicueta could hold a right-sided asymmetrical defensive line while Cucurella shifts progressively forward. We have no better option while Reece James and Ben Chilwell remain unavailable.
Steve Cooper had set his team up to frustrate our attack, mark tightly, attack any open threatening spaces, and hit on the counter. The dominant possession in the first half would make it easy to forget that Kepa needed to make a fantastic double save in the tenth minute after a quick transition found our entire team dismantled, something that raised an immediate red flag.
In the tenth minute, four passes from Nottingham Forest sliced too easily through the centre of the park after a Havertz heavy touch - it was enough for me to start biting my nails. Jorginho only had eyes for the offensive ball and the space that he provided for Morgan Gibbs-White to send a threatening ball over the top showed how we were too comfortable with possession and not aware of the conspicuous chance for a potential break.
Their threatening action may have even kick-started our brief offensive push, and you can see the steep incline thereafter on the xG timing chart below. Their deep block was truly set in and they essentially kept us out of their box throughout the game - in fact, the maps showing passes connected, successful dribbles, and shot assists essentially show that we were held entirely to a far out range - and our shots were taken with nigh no chance of scoring. Our threat was minimal, and our highest xG shot came from a lucky deflection that happened to bounce off the crossbar and fall kindly to Raheem Sterling. That luck would soon wear out.
If you were wondering what impact a singular player can have on a squad, look at the 50 minutes of football that we played against Bournemouth contrasted with every minute we have played since. Chelsea looked listless and, although Nottingham Forest were down in the second half, they at least had a clear agenda to leave us with the ball and only press when it was passed or dribbled into their threatening areas. At that point, they would pounce and suffocate the player on the ball and try to break on the counter, notably after we had established more numbers forward, many of whom were far too slow (or old, which pains me to type) to make the recovery runs. The minutes prior to their goal are no more enjoyable to watch than the moment itself; we were completely outclassed, and before conceding, Kepa saved us repeatedly.
Potter did not. His substitutions made very little sense, but the first almost seems as though it doomed us. Denis Zakaria was again putting in a good shift, providing defensive cover much more than Jorginho, and would have been more serviceable to finish the match out with his physical presence rather than Jorginho’s positional one. On the goal, Jorginho is one of two players largely at fault.
Dean Henderson plays a long ball that both Jorginho and Azpilicueta horribly misjudge, leading to the break seen below.
With our three defenders in cover and their singular striking presence, they slow the attack slightly, turn inside, and, because there is oddly, frustratingly, and consequentially no clear communication amongst the back line, the defense starts ball chasing and a minimally threatening shot turns into the corner that sealed our fate.
Our xG ratio (calculated by dividing the number of goals we actually scored by the number of goals we were expected to score) is the worst in the league at the moment, a meagre 0.11. Our xG is massive compared to our converted chances.
Manchester City have just dropped points and we are much better at home than away. So, are you a glass half empty or a glass half full kinda guy? Before you answer, check the chart...