Two quick caveats here for this article, unrelated to anything actually that happened on the pitch. Firstly, this took some time to finalise because my wife was giving birth to our daughter. While it has been an overly-joyous experience, the sleep deprivation is real. Secondly, the site that allowed me to grab screenshots, Play On, has a service failure with Peacock, and so it took me a bit to figure out a workaround to get the screen captures needed. Now that I have found that, I can’t wait to write about the loss against Villa after re-living the misery of this match. Again, please bear in mind that this was written entirely prior to Sunday’s loss. Trying times, these.
The mononymously known American comedian Gallagher was famous for using his sledge-o-matic to smash fruit of all sorts into smithereens, and perhaps Mauricio Pochettino was hoping to have that same effect by arming our own Conor Gallagher with the captaincy against Bournemouth, who still have yet to win in the Premier League this season. Alas, there was no such smashing of the Cherries, although Gallagher himself did put in one of his best performances in recent memory.
While the youthful revolution had many of us eager to see how the season would play out, there has been palpable vicissitude amongst the fanbase resultant of our injuries (12 senior members) and lack of goals, with our 5 in the Premier League our fewest after 5 matches since 1995. In fact, the chants of “attack” were audible even on the television broadcast, but didn’t change the players’ focus nor the outcome. Due to those injuries, the starting XI and bench in particular was filled with fresh faces yet to play a competitive match at the senior level.
There were noticeable adaptations made by Bournemouth manager Andoni Iraola which certainly complicated our game plan - most specifically attempting to man-mark Enzo Fernández out of the game, as he finished with only 53 touches in his 80 minutes. To put that into perspective, he had averaged 106.25 touches in the first four matches this season, and led the league in progressive passes (64), through-balls (8), shot creating actions (26), and passes into the penalty area (17). He was second to only Frenkie de Jong (56) in passes into the final third (51).
Enzo had also just recently returned from a CONMEBOL World Cup qualifier that was played at the Estadio Hernando Siles in La Paz, Bolivia, which is at one of the highest altitudes (12,000 feet or 3637 metres) and, even worse, is an artificial turf pitch. In addition to the international travel, those things would have greatly affected his effectiveness. Lewis Cook literally following his every move further complicated that and Cook finished with some impressive stats (6 ground duals, 5 interceptions, 3 tackles.) This is what partly allowed Gallagher to get on the ball in plenty of space in the middle of the park on numerous occasions that will be shown below, finishing with more touches (82) than all except Thiago Silva (85) and Malo Gusto (96).
And, on that note, Malo Gusto has been an absolute tremendous signing. I pointed out that I sold him short based solely on the size of the shoes that he would need to fill, but he certainly has done so in a commendable fashion (again - this was written before his sending off this past weekend, which puts us in quite the pickle unless Reece James’ instagram story of returning very soon turns out to be true.)
Gusto had the most touches because our slow build attack went largely through the right side (40%), especially in the first half, but his emphasis may be a part of the actual problem. He had more touches in the attacking third than anyone else (35 of our 182) amounting to almost 20% of our total final third touches, but Bournemouth were privy to that, realising that Levi Colwill is not a progressive left back and that Mikhailo Mudryk has been very clearly struggling to adapt to the league. If you look at Gusto’s touch or pass maps, his crosses from those advanced positions in 90 minutes only equals that of Ben Chilwell’s contributions as a substitute in the final 10 minutes. That perpetuates the lack of intensity in the final third we are missing - we are very clearly too predictable and slow.
One only needs to look at two attacks in the 11th and 25th minutes and the contrast between them to see how quicker transitions against teams that sit deeper would be much more effective.
In this sequence, we are on the front foot with equal numbers against their defense. This is immediately after a short corner draws them forward, opening up the pitch. From Thiago Silva on our touchline to Gusto to Gallagher in possession here takes 4 seconds. There should be no reason to slow down the attack in such a scenario, and no reason that Bournemouth should be able to continue to get numbers back.
But Gallagher does just that, advances into the final third only to slow down and pass the ball back to Gusto, who isn’t even in the frame of the shot here. This is surely one of the instances that caused the fans to erupt into the ‘attack’ chants. And yet, the attack wasn’t completely deflated, because there are clearly organised passing channels that have been established, but it begs the question as to what might have happened in a more progressive situation as opposed to what played out on the pitch, seen below.
In no surprise whatsoever, the attack continues down that same right side, only this time against a much more set defense. If Sterling was shooting here, it’s an atrocious shot. If he was looking to play it across the 6, he should be much more aware of the position of his teammates, of which he was the farthest forward. Yes, it is a lack of clinical finishing, but it is equally damning that this is roped into a rote passing routine to break down a defense as opposed to embracing the chaos of a quick transition and relying on attacking players to have a killer instinct.
Compare that to the 25th minute attack where, similarly after a goal kick taken short, once again finds Gallagher in acres of space.
Sterling drops into a central role to receive from Gallagher for the next pass, turns upfield, and runs at goal with both support and numbers once again 5v5.
Eagerly, the play does not slow to a grinding halt but drives forward. That may be due to Sterling’s inclination to attack with the ball at his feet more than Gallagher’s, but a credible threat exists here nonetheless.
Again the ball goes wide, not that it even had to as you can see that Jackson was onside and could well have been played through, but even after going wide the threat of a goal was looming at this point because the transitional pace allowed it. With Jackson behind his defenders, he was doing everything he could to get himself into the best possible scoring position.
Here is the clear communication breakdown and how this was so easily thwarted. In my opinion, there should be a concentration of players expecting one type of cross and crowding that area of the opposition’s box. Sterling is expecting a cutback, Jackson is expecting a ball to the back post, and Mudryk has horribly mistimed his attack and stayed far too wide on the buildup. Enzo is properly positioned for a no. 8, buty not a no. 10, and does not have Frank Lampard’s eye for a goal - but the cross would have never found him. My point is this: in the first instance, we have one possible player in scoring position against a set defense. In the second, we have two, maybe three players in scoring position against an unset defense. Far too often do we pass on the chance to attack relentlessly in favour of a controlled and build up attack, and herein lies the problem.
We have 100 instances this season alone of 10+ passes in open play sequences, but those have only resulted in 16 build up attacks. Compare that to Manchester City, who have 127 10+ passing sequences that have resulted in 43 build up attacks, or to Arsenal, who have 108 and 30 respectively. We are not getting looks at goal despite all our possession and control of the ball, and it becoming ever more glaringly obvious.
According to The Analyst, this season our open play xG is 6.59 with 4 goals from 58 shots while our set piece xG is 2.89 with 1 goal from 22 total shots, totalling 9.48 xG with 5 actual goals to show for it. They’ve done one better by tracing it back to the start of last season (which becomes less relevant with the squad overhaul and new manager), but it does speak to a broader issue of getting the ball into the back of the net.
Only Everton (31 goals from 51.0 xG) have under performed their expected goals total by more than Chelsea in the Premier League since the start of last season. pic.twitter.com/21ZrQ1K0ko— Opta Analyst (@OptaAnalyst) September 18, 2023
There are those out there that think that Nicholas Jackson was not signed as a starting no. 9, and of course would jump on this opportunity to scathe him given his few touches in the opposition box (4 in total, 3 were shots). Considering the approach of the club, there is absolutely zero chance that he was signed for any other reason than to challenge Armando Broja for that position this season, and he had been well earning that spot prior to this match. But Jackson has worked hard, leading the league in off the ball runs. Supposedly Broja will be on the bench this weekend, so Jackson likely has quite literally 60 more minutes or so to establish himself or see his guaranteed starting position in jeopardy. Spoiler alert: at least this prediction became somewhat true.
This short corner approach is something that Pochettino has employed in the past at previous clubs, and given the height differential between the sides (which potentially explains his starting back line excluding Ben Chilwell), seems logical. However, too many times that ruined what might otherwise have been a threatening cross, and Bournemouth again became quite aware of our intent early on, so a well-routined set piece would have likely been the only breakthrough. With the minimal time to rehearse these due to the international break, it is doubtful there was enough time to practise these - and it showed.
My last gripe about this game comes down to our high turnover rate. With the possession we expect and where we expect it (largely across the back line), we cannot turn the ball over nearly as often as we did, and even worse in deeper positions. We turned the ball over 14 times in our own half, and that does not include misplaced passes or interceptions, just dispossessions. There is not as much tidiness as there needs to be against a high press.
Bournemouth 0 : 0 Chelsea— markstats bot (@markstatsbot) September 17, 2023
▪ Penbox shots: 8 - 9
▪ Deep completions: 15 - 20
▪ Buildup completion: 77.6% - 88.4%
▪ PPDA: 8.8 - 5.2
▪ High turnovers: 4 - 1 pic.twitter.com/lf6gllkCft
I suppose what we can say is that the expectations for this season, although initially exuberant, have been tempered. Honestly, we need to realise that it will certainly become better - there are countless central midfielders with massive potential that have been sent on loan. And then there is Kendry Páez, who looks to be a wonderful signing, all foreboding a fruitful future. While that’s all well and good, Pochettino needs results much more immediately, starting
this Sunday next weekend, because who cares about the League Cup anyway.