In the aftermath of the home defeat to Arsenal, the clamoring for a “clinical striker” who can score out of nothing and win games on his own has only gotten louder. Multiple names have been mentioned, including the likes of Lukaku, Haaland and others — all of whom come with lofty reputations and even loftier price tags.
There is no doubt that a world class centre forward would elevate the team. That’s what world class players do. However, Chelsea appear to have an even bigger issue than finishing our chances. We are struggling to progress the ball into the final and when we do, we struggle to convert it into good opportunities.
Our best attacking displays have come in games against teams looking to express themselves on the ball. Teams like Real Madrid and Liverpool have given us space to generate transitions and use the pace of our forward players to wreck havoc.
However, we have consistently struggled to create against deeper blocks, where teams are happy to absorb pressure and walk away with a 0-0 draw. This is particularly true when the scores are level. The only two defensive teams against whom we looked comfortable were Tottenham Hotspur and Crystal Palace — hardly anything to write home about.
In the upcoming sections, we will look at the numbers behind our malaise and take an educated guess as to how to solve it.
Note: Stats (besides big chances created) do not include the Arsenal game. However, one game is unlikely to tilt the scales much and the broader points remain valid.
What’s wrong with Chelsea?
Sandwiched between Fulham and Palace, Chelsea are not exactly among great company when it comes to moving the ball from midfield to final third.
We have all the hallmarks of teams who dominate possession but are restricted to circulating the ball in harmless locations away from goal. Teams like Spurs and Wolves do not look great in this metric because of their counter-attacking focus. They are teams that do not enter the final third unless they have a clear opening to do so.
Once we do get into the final third, we also have problems generating meaningful and dangerous attacking situations close to the box. Struggling to get into the final third and struggling to get into the box is a pretty bad combination.
Most of our rivals in the Premier League or the Champions League are good at least at one thing, if not both. Manchester City did not rank all that high at converting midfield possessions into final third ones but, as seen above, they are razor sharp at progressing into the box once they get close to goal. Manchester United are the opposite, spending sufficiently long in the final third to make up for their penetration struggles.
Two of our rivals look particularly interesting: Leicester and Liverpool. Leicester do not rank particularly high for any metric and they have been a weird statistical team the entire season. Is it sustainable? We can only wait and watch. Liverpool look great on most metrics — even if they continue playing with no improvements, they will likely walk into the top-four next season, if not this season still.
Comparing touches in the penalty area to overall touches instead of just final third touches makes Chelsea look better, in 10th place rather than around 14th. This chart shows us that our defenders do not dwell on the ball much and progress the ball well. The real disconnect is in midfield. While we can move from defence to midfield easily, we are unable to do the same from midfield to attack.
Looking at passes instead of touches, the metric used so far, eliminates the impact of ball-carrying and dribbling. We do not look good in this either, resembling a team hesitant to take risks on the ball.
While our ball-carrying metrics are excellent, our passing is so risk-averse that it brings down our overall ball-progression.
While we rank among the very best teams in the league for big-chances created per game as a raw metric, adjusting for possession once again shows our flaws. A large proportion of our possession is too safe and does not result in the generation of high-quality chances. Teams that spend a lot of time on the ball and create plenty of chances still look great after adjusting for possession, as seen with Manchester City and Liverpool.
This is not to say our finishing is good by any means. We’re merely above-average at converting big chances and we are underperforming xG. Finishing is definitely an area of concern too.
And there is not much in the way of a difference between Frank Lampard’s and Thomas Tuchel’s teams. Chelsea are some way short of the standards set by the “big 7” under both managers.
Timo Werner, Christian Pulisic and Kai Havertz are the biggest losers from our ball-progression issues. When Mason Mount is not playing at Superman levels in terms of passing, receiving or carrying the ball, we have no means of moving the ball to them.
All this means the aforementioned trio have to drop deep just to get a touch, at which point they are often crowded out by multiple defenders. We need to facilitate our attackers to do what they are good at, not try to do the job of others.
Our best offensive displays have come recently with a front-two and midfield-three. Mount playing in midfield rather than close to goal made our attack better simply because of how good he is at moving the ball into the final third and the box.
More than getting someone to finish moves, we need someone to start and continue attacks. We need a player who will share Mount’s creative burden. We will score goals aplenty as long as we create enough openings — Havertz, Werner and Pulisic have all proven that they can finish well; their current finishing issues are far easier to rectify than our build-up problems.
How do we solve this?
I. The in-house solution
This is the cheapest option and would involve us betting on Hakim Ziyech and Callum Hudson-Odoi to come good. This is also, by far, the riskiest option since Ziyech has been massively underwhelming so far creatively and Hudson-Odoi has been infuriatingly inconsistent. The latter could be the final-third conductor of this team but does Tuchel trust him to play weekly?
Ziyech on paper was a godsend for the team. He combines Willian’s ability to move the play with an incredible final ball. He should be one of the best players in the league, doing what Bruno Fernandes does for United. Unfortunately for us, that has not happened yet.
It could yet happen of course. When Tuchel took up the job at Borussia Dortmund, there was another mercurial attacker struggling to make his mark at the club following a move from a weaker league, Henrikh Mkhitaryan. After extensive coaching, he broke out in a way that surprised everyone. We cannot predict the same will happen with Ziyech at Chelsea, but the precedent is there.
II. Buying a midfielder
It wasn’t that long ago that Cesc Fàbregas and his Magic Hat won games with his spell-binding passing. While there is no one as good as him, potential options do exist around Europe.
The graph below is slightly dated but the players highlighted still rank well in terms of such metrics. Only those who are feasible options for Chelsea have been highlighted, such as Florian Neuhaus, Yacine Adli, or Bruno Guimarães.
III. Buying a winger
It is ironic that this team, partly funded by the sale of Eden Hazard in his prime, are desperately in need of a player in the mould of peak Hazard who can both progress play and provide an end-product.
There are two players who resemble his style and quality, Jack Grealish and Jadon Sancho. The former has been declared not for sale by his club and cannot be viewed as a serious option. The latter, however, is reportedly available for transfer.
Sancho is not likely to score 30 goals a season. However, like Hazard, he will score 10-15 and offer the platform for our other goalscorers to score a lot more. He is a passing savant who can progress play like very few attackers on the planet while also providing exceptional final deliveries.
While his lack of explosive 1v1 pace is a worry, Grealish is not lightning-quick and he still rips apart Premier League teams when fit. A fee of around £80 million is vastly underselling Sancho’s qualities and as an investment, it is impossible to go wrong barring injuries.
As a demonstrative (and therefore not factual) example, our rivals create six dangerous situations per game and score from three of them. In most games, we create two such situations and score from one. While our efficiency is the same as theirs, their attacks blow ours out of the water thanks to their sheer volume of creation and relentless pressure in the final third. The reason why every miss seems so frustrating is because we create so few of them against defensive teams.
To win the league next season, Chelsea need to dramatically improve while attacking. Another year of poor ball-progression and lack of consistency in the final third will cap our ceiling as a top-four team and nothing more. Regardless of how it comes, improvement in ball movement in crucial for our development.