It might be a bit of an understatement to say things have not exactly gone well for Chelsea this season. A summer, which started with the sale of the club to the Todd Boehly-led consortium, has seemingly laid the groundwork for a “what can go wrong, will go wrong” type of year at Stamford Bridge. There has been upheaval any which way you turn; the Boardroom, the medical room and most significantly the manager, as Thomas Tuchel received his walking papers, and in stepped Graham Potter.
There’s also been change in the on-pitch personnel. A total of eleven players who were a part of the 2021-22 squad were either sold, loaned or departed via the free transfer route. Seven players were brought in to replace the outgoings, coupled with returning loanees such as Armando Broja and Conor Gallagher. Chelsea spent a reported record-breaking £260m in the summer, and although none of those recruitments have set the world alight in their opening months with the Blues, it might be the form of Raheem Sterling that’s more cause for concern than others.
Sterling was signed for £45m from defending champions Manchester City, and a sum of that magnitude for a player of his ability seemed quite reasonable. Sterling had scored 91 Premier League goals over the course of a seven-year trophy-laden stint at City, and doesn’t yet turn 28 until next month. For a player who was proven in the league, and had been one of City’s key players for their four titles in the last five years, there was much expectation that he could be the key cog to revitalize a stagnant Chelsea attack.
Sterling had received special attention even at the announcement of his arrival, as he was paraded at the stadium of the Los Angeles Dodgers and hailed as the “marquee signing” of Boehly & Co’s first summer as the new Chelsea owners. However, his first three months at the club have been less than spectacular, and we’ll dive into the numbers to show why that is the case, but also provide some hope that he will eventually return to the player Chelsea thought we were acquiring.
If we look at Raheem’s per 90 stats, it does show some concerning trends. For his goals per 90, he’s performing at his worst rate since 2017 with 0.28. The assists per 90 makes for worse reading, where his current numbers are only better than in 2019-20 at City. But that season he was used as more of a false-9, and his goals per 90 for that year are the best he’s ever posted at 0.68, showing that he was at least able to counter his lower creative output by putting the ball in the back of the net at a more constant rate.
This brings us to the combined G+A per90, where his current numbers are worse than every other year of his career excluding his full debut season with Liverpool, when he was only 18 years old.
Another indicator we can look towards are the “expected” metrics. While the actual numbers might not shine a great light on the player, there are times when the underlying figures point to bad luck rather than actual poor play. Unfortunately, that’s not the case here. Sterling’s xG, xAG, xG+xAG per90 are all the lowest that he’s posted since FBRef started tracking these stats in the 2017-18 season.
It might be unfair to compare numbers with a City team, which dominated the Premier League and were experts when it came to carving out high xG chances as well as getting players in position to enhance their creative abilities. We’ll get to this a bit later, but for now we’ll turn to other concerning per90 trends for Sterling.
You don’t need to be a football connoisseur to know that more shots tend to result in more goals, but for Sterling his per90 stats for shots and shots-on-target are nigh-on career lows (for the latter, the previously mentioned 2012-13 season was lower by only 30%). The above stats translate to a player who’s neither getting into key scoring positions nor is creating openings to get shots off. But the question is whether these stats tell us more about Sterling, or the attack overall?
Sterling does top every team-related metric when it comes to attacking involvement. For non-penalty xG, Sterling leads the way with 3, ahead of Kai Havertz’ 2.8 and double third-placed Mason Mount’s 1.5. In terms of xAG, Sterling with 2.1 is again in front as Mount and Reece James share second place with 1.6 and Conor Gallagher is behind them with 1.4. That of course means Sterling leads the combined xG+xAG charts, and is some way clear of both Mount and Havertz (5.1 vs 3.2).
If we switch to a different type of stat, and evaluate ball-carrying effectiveness, Sterling again stands out. According to OptaAnalyst, Sterling’s 14 chance-creating carries are ahead of Mount’s 9, and Havertz’s 8. The same platform also sees Sterling lead the way with chances created, as Mount again trails him.
With these numbers, we’re seeing a player who is the focal point of Chelsea’s attack, but isn’t receiving much help to turn these attacking actions into meaningful output.
This is where we come to the elephant in the room. So far we’ve established that Sterling, by his lofty career standards, has not lived up to expectations. His per90 numbers across the board are not only down, but almost at an all-time low for him. However, his attacking metrics are the best among his teammates, some by quite a distance, and this reinforces the idea that if anyone is capable of breathing life into this lifeless Chelsea attack, it is going to be Sterling. That leads us to the awkward question if this is just a right place, wrong time for Sterling and the club?
When surrounded by top-tier players, at a club ready to compete and win the biggest prizes, Sterling shines. Last season, Sterling led the way for City in terms of xG (14.4). When it came to the sides xAG per 90 mins, Kevin De Bruyne (0.42), Jack Grealish (0.34) & Gabriel Jesus (0.29) topped the charts. In fact, even Phil Foden and Riyad Mahrez (both 0.27) bettered any numbers produced by any Chelsea player this year. What’s even more worrying is that James’ 0.25 team-leading xAG per 90 is identical to Sterling’s 0.25 from last year … when he was City’s sixth best creator! It gets worse as you scroll through the metrics as Rúben Dias (!) with a paltry 0.11 xAG per 90 would count as Chelsea’s sixth best performer this year (Sterling’s 0.20 from this year is excluded from the chart).
There are caveats here including squad ability and team identity. But those numbers very much point to Sterling needing creative players around him to produce the output that he is capable of.
Sterling is also at his best at popping up at the back post, which means he needs to be in a side that is able to play the ball into the opposition box often. PPA is the metric which measures this: for City, João Cancelo had 2.67 PPA per 90. For Chelsea, excluding Sterling who leads the way here because of course he does, Gallagher has 1.78. That would be good enough for sixth on City last year.
For shot-creating actions (SCA) per 90, Chelsea’s best performers are Gallagher and Christian Pulisic, each with 3.84, but barely good enough to crack City’s top 10 from last year. Those numbers are almost half of De Bruyne’s City-leading 6.27, followed by Grealish (5.50), Mahrez (4.40) & Bernardo Silva (4.38).
Another interesting stat to point out is that Sterling is in the 83rd percentile when it comes to attack contribution (measures non-penalty shots + open play chances created, per OptaAnalyst).
We could probably go on with more numbers and trends, but this is just reinforcing the points made above. Chelsea are a team in transition, rebuilding a squad who have faltered when it comes to league aspirations for the past five years and bringing a world-class footballer in his prime on hefty wages was arguably the last thing this team needed … and perhaps the last thing he himself needed. Sterling is in a situation where he’s tasked with being the team’s best attacking player in almost every metric possible, a role that doesn’t suit him. Yet, he is still outperforming everyone else in this category because Chelsea don’t currently have a player who can fill this role.
Having been deployed as a striker, a false-9, a left winger, a left wing-back and an attacking midfielder in his Stamford Bridge tenure already, Sterling has been dealt a harsh hand. He’s one of the best forwards (92nd percentile) at taking players on, he’s capable of a pass-and-move play pattern, he can provide for his teammates (3.55 Shot Creating Actions) and he can score goals at a very high rate. But he cannot be the sum of all parts. And this is where Boehly and the newly-acquired transfer committee have a duty to fill, to surround Sterling with high-quality creators, mobile strikers and overlapping full-backs (which Chelsea thankfully already have) who can open up space for the winger. We should then see those numbers start to trend in the right direction. That may be expensive fix, though it can be argued that this is the sort of commitment that comes with signing one of the best players in the country.
There is also a responsibility on Graham Potter to place Sterling in the best position to succeed, even with the limited pieces around him. This won’t be easy. And as much as the head coach’s last name resonates with a magician, he will need more than an “abracadabra” spell to turn things around in a short space of time. The stints at wing-back, and asking Sterling to spend a major part of his 90 minutes tracking the opposition winger is not the solution though. A deviation from that idea would be a good start when it comes to a tactical fix here.
The good news is that rumoured targets, such as Christopher Nkunku and Rafael Leão show that the hierarchy realise the need for more creative attacking players. Those two certainly could help Sterling flourish here as well. The flip side of this is that a failure to acquire these types of players, those who could get the best out of the former FWA Footballer of the Year, would see this project become a waste of time for Chelsea, and for Sterling himself. £45 million, a 5 year & £350,000-a-week contract later, nobody wants it to come to this dramatic & drastic conclusion. Over to you, Mr. Boehly.