Thanks to a transfer ban for 2019, Chelsea had recently spent an unusually small amount on new players. Owner Roman Abramovich changed that terribly quickly. In the tiny off-season between 2019-20 and 2020-21, he gave more than £ 220 million for striker Timo Werner from RB Leipzig, Bayer Leverkusen, midfielder Kai Havertz, Ajax winger Hakim Ziyech, full-back from Leicester City, Ben Chilwell, and later for striker Leilester City out of the window, Rennes goalkeeper Edouard Mendy. The club brought center-back and former Paris Saint-Germain captain Thiago Silva, also on a free transfer.
For anyone who scores at home, that may be more than half a line-up of new players for a team that’s already good enough to qualify for the Champions League and advance to the FA Cup final. It’s an investment that, of course, will raise expectations.
The curiosity: Werner, Havertz and Ziyech are all attackers. The Blues were third in the Premier League on goals scored, but eleventh in allowed goals. They had a Manchester City-like vulnerability to counter-attacks and quick maneuvers. Could creating a flood of attackers cause problems upfront? Had they done enough to bring up the defense? Was manager and former Chelsea star Frank Lampard ready for the challenge of both expectations and a seemingly unbalanced squad?
All of these questions made Chelsea one of the most intriguing teams of the off-season. So let’s see how they’re doing in front of you LARGE Game against the soaring Tottenham this weekend.
The season so far
Chelsea have played two different seasons so far. In the first round they managed just three wins in their first nine games in all competitions, and one, a bout against Barnsley from the second division in the League Cup, barely counts. Mind you, they have only suffered one loss, a 2-0 loss to Liverpool on September 20th. But they had been embroiled in 3-3 shootouts against West Brom and Southampton, with their defenses showing a known vulnerability.
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In the meantime, they showed no initiative against the best teams on the schedule. They only scored one goal together against Liverpool, Manchester United, Tottenham Hotspur (in the League Cup) and Sevilla (in the Champions League). Even considering that other elite teams also found no traction due to the lack of off-season and an overcrowded schedule list, this was undoubtedly disappointing.
On October 28th, however, the “second season” of Chelsea began. You have played six games since that date, all wins. They beat Krasnodar and Rennes with a combined 7-0 in the Champions League and beat Burnley, Sheffield United and Newcastle United with a combined 9-1 in the Premier League. A second leg against Rennes on Tuesday was less convincing, but a 2-1 win brought promotion to the UCL knockout round anyway.
That’s 18 goals scored and two in six wins. A combination of sketchy competition and further familiarity allowed Chelsea to find their form and score some points. Chelsea are now third in the Premier League, just two points away from the top. William Hill’s Caesars gives you +500 betting odds to win the Premier League, 3rd best and a 17% chance. In the Champions League they are number 8 of the favorites with +2000 (5%).
Is that worthy of the huge transfer bill and payroll? Not exactly, but they are improving.
Chelsea is … fine. Well even!
If we divide the attacks into two qualities – shot volume (measured by shots per possession) and shot quality (xG per shot) – we see that Chelsea have been above average this season overall. Within the Premier League, the Blues are fifth in shots per possession (0.15) and while they’re tenth in xG per shot (0.13), they’re basically a decent look or two off the top 5.
In a lot of the big leagues you can see that Chelsea are solid, if unspectacular.
Werner was as good as advertised. He has combined eight goals with three assists in 14 games across all competitions, and although he suffered the worst mistake of his life against Rennes on Tuesday, we simply call it an xG course correction – he was outperformed compared to his xG numbers bit, and now he’s not that much.
However, production is well distributed. Havertz have added four goals and two assists in 10 games, and Chilwell and Ziyech have added two goals and three assists each. Ziyech has done this in just nine games. Chelsea’s rise almost coincided with its post-injury introduction on the line-up.
Due to injuries to Ziyech and Christian Pulisic, among other things, Lampard was able to distribute the minutes between attackers, and many players did well in smaller samples. Striker Tammy Abraham scored five goals with four assists in just under 700 minutes, winger Callum Hudson-Odoi scored three goals and nine chances in just over 500 minutes and veteran striker Olivier Giroud, who was limited to 178 minutes in all competitions. has scored twice more and created four chances. Both Hudson-Odoi and Giroud scored against Rennes on Tuesday, which confirms both the number of strong attackers on the team and the difficult distribution of minutes when everyone is healthy.
Defensively, it’s almost exactly the same story. The Blues are fifth in the Premier League in shots per possession (0.11) and a solid third in average xG per opponent’s shot (0.11). In the defensive table below, which is the best spot in the lower left, you can see that they do reasonably well across a wide variety of leagues.
Chilwell was as good as advertised, while center-back Kurt Zouma played superb despite a changing cast of characters alongside him (Silva, Andreas Christensen, Antonio Rüdiger). When the 36-year-old Silva is in the line-up, his vocal presence can be felt; It might be worth noting that Chelsea have only allowed four goals in their nine games and three early against West Brom.
Again, midfielders Mason Mount and N’Golo Kante played a clear role. Mount was key to transitioning from defense to attack, and Edge is a one-man counterattack destroyer. That he has been healthy so far this season after injuries compromised his form last season made a big difference.
Meanwhile, Mendy has been a definitive improvement over Kepa Arrizabalaga who continues to battle one of the most visible crises of confidence you will ever see. So far, these track meetings against West Brom and Southampton seem to have been outliers.
On average the offense was okay and the defense was good. Only that doesn’t tell the whole story.
Steve Nicol praises Thiago Silva’s influence on Chelsea’s defense and calls out Timo Werner’s miss against Rennes.
The two Chelsea’s
During his career, Lampard played several seasons under four managers: Harry Redknapp for six seasons (at West Ham United), Jose Mourinho for four, Claudio Ranieri for three and Carlo Ancelotti for two. It’s safe to say that he learned from many others – his father, Frank Sr. (a former West Ham star and assistant); former Chelsea managers such as Luiz Felipe Scolari or Roberto Di Matteo; its last NYCFC chief executive, Arsene Wenger Ast Patrick Vieira; Etc.
However, if you were to try to piece together the traits of a coach largely influenced by Redknapp (his uncle), Mourinho, Ranieri and Ancelotti, you would come up with a somewhat contradicting picture.
– Man management skills: This is a quality that is perhaps best attributed to Redknapp and Ancelotti. Redknapp was never known as a tactical genius, but he had an eye for talent and made talented players play hard. Ancelotti is higher up the tactical chain, but his main skill has usually been managing the ego of extremely talented players. And hell, having played much of his career in one of the most expensive clubs man knows, Lampard has been exposed to all sorts of different approaches to this.
– An attacking ethos … Both Redknapp and Ancelotti are usually linked to it and while Mourinho certainly isn’t, I never tire of pointing out that his Real Madrid hold the record for La Liga in one season. When he has goal scorers, he makes sure that they are capable of scoring goals.
– … and a wild defensive structure. Mourinho’s first two Chelsea squads enabled a total of 37 goals. Most of Ranieri’s most successful stints have involved first defense squads, from Chelsea to Monaco to the Leicester City team, which won the Premier League and scored less than 1 goal per game.
Lampard’s first Chelsea team tried primarily to play a traditional possession game if they could get away with it. They played at home with 23 teams in the Premier League and the Champions League, and had a combined possession rate of over 55% against 15 of them, including Manchester United (58%) and Arsenal (58%). They couldn’t face Manchester City (44%) or Bayern (37%) in that regard, but they still managed a fun 2-1 win over City in late June. This suggested that a young manager didn’t become more flexible until his second season in charge of a club.
This season, Chelsea have been two completely different teams depending on their talent advantages.
– In 11 games against teams outside the top 20 in FiveThirtyEight’s club rankingThey dominated the scoring chances, averaging 0.16 shots per possession and 0.16 xG per shot while allowing only 0.11 and 0.09, respectively. They have an average of 63% possession in these games, with 7.4 passes per possession for the 4.2 of the opponents. They play like a rich, possession-based club and have only lost four points in those eleven games.
– In their other four games – against Liverpool No. 4, Manchester United No. 13, Spurs No. 14 and Sevilla No. 19 – they were so cautious that they were completely unrecognizable. They averaged just 0.06 shots per possession and 0.10 xG per shot, while opponents averaged 0.13 and 0.09. They keep the opposing scoring chances reasonably good, but at the cost of all insults. Their possession rate is only 49% and they average 5.9 passes per possession for the opponent’s 6.1. You only generated three points.
Chelsea dominate the ball and play openly and attack football when they have a talent advantage. They pollute the game and play lowest common denominator soccer against equally or more talented teams. The best of Redknapp with an advantage, the worst of Mourinho without.
Although players like Werner and Havertz are products of top-class, high-pressure German clubs, Lampard isn’t sure enough about his press to use them against good teams. Chelsea have allowed 12.1 passes per defensive action in the Premier League, a total of nine. While that average was 6.3 against Crystal Palace and 6.7 against West Brom, it was 14.8 against Manchester United and 30.6 against Liverpool (23.1 before a red card in midfield changed strategies).
From the point of view of general pressure and field positioning, Chelsea are almost a blast average across a large number of leagues.
You’re pretty typically good on offense, pretty typically good on defense, and almost perfectly average from a pressure point of view. Chelsea are a good team with almost no definitive identity. Flexibility can be a great thing, but when it’s time to win a big game against a great team, you have to know who you are and what you are best at. It’s not clear Lampard and Chelsea are at that point.
Of course, the dates of all these games are important. If Chelsea’s recent rise has more to do with itself than its smaller opponents, then we may see a more confident and less cautious team when the bigger opponents are back on the agenda. As good as Ziyech was, for example, he only played 37 minutes against the four good teams (28 against Sevilla, nine against United).
The good news is that we will learn a lot this weekend as they take on ardent London rivals Tottenham.
What is your best way forward?
Either via betting odds or forecast statistics, the Premier League hierarchy is pretty clear at this point: Liverpool and City are the favorites. In Liverpool’s case, it’s because they’re the defending champions and have mostly played the role despite injuries. When it comes to Man City, their advantage is money and Pep Guardiola, as well as the fact that it wouldn’t surprise anyone if the switch were tossed at any point, as listlessly as before.
Favorite # 3, however, could be the winner of Sunday’s game at Stamford Bridge as Mourinho and Tottenham Hotspur cross London to visit Lampard’s Blues. The two teams played a particularly strange game in the League Cup at the end of September. Chelsea took the lead early after a Werner counterattack, but unlike Tuesday’s game against Rennes, they continued to play the ball possession role with 62% possession and 670 passes against Spurs’ 389. Spurs still produced more shots (11-7) and leveled the game in the 83rd minute with a Sergio Reguilon-supported goal from Erik Lamela.
That was Chelsea’s first season, however. (Season 1 Spurs too. They’ve added a few tracks since then.) Was the blues recent hot stretch a product of the opponents who play it or a sign of real growth?
Additionally, as more players get healthy and become available, and the list of games gets a little trickier – Spurs on Sunday, Seville on Wednesday, Everton, Wolves and Arsenal in December – what makes Lampard’s first choice even look like? What are his best options? And can he possibly please everyone?
Here was Lampard’s preferred line-up during this hot streak of six games:
Goalkeeper: Mendy (540 of 540 minutes)
Left behind: Chilwell (496)
Central defender: Zouma (540), Silva (338)
Be right back: Reece James (361)
Central midfield: Mount (447), Edge (373), Mateo Kovacic (336)
Left winger: Werner (522)
Center Forward: Abraham (399)
Legal judge: Ziyech (420)
The midfield was pretty stable, with Mount, Kante, Kovacic and Jorginho taking turns and Havertz played an offensive midfield role when available (he missed three games due to COVID-19 protocols). But you can see some serious decisions on the horizon.
What happens if (or if) Pulisic is consistently available? The left winger was mostly brilliant when he was healthy … although he was rarely healthy. But when he’s in shape, Lampard mainly uses Werner again from the middle to pick up the US star on the flank and ban Abraham to the bench?
What happens to Hudson-Odoi in this scenario? The 20-year-old averaged a solid 0.42 expected goals and assists per 90 minutes (xG + xA / 90) – for comparison: Pulisic averaged 0.53 goals last season – and looks like a future star . But it takes you minutes to become a star.
What are you doing with Giroud? The 34-year-old showed his worth against Rennes again on Tuesday and came off the bench to score a decisive header. It itches for a few minutes, and for an obvious reason: it’s still very good. You can see why Lampard would want to keep it as a safety blanket, but that may not be an option for long.
What’s the best role for Havertz? The 21-year-old has played 813 minutes for his new club so far – according to Stats Perform data, he played 426 as a central attacking midfielder, 190 as a central midfielder, 152 as a right attacking midfielder and 45 as a center forward. It’s great that he’s so versatile, but what do you need most from him? Gates? Pass? Transition to the attacking third? If you play him further up the course where he is most productive, one of Lampard’s favorite formations – a 4-3-3 that looked really good on the blues – is removed from the equation.
These are first world problems to say the least. Chelsea are both very good and deep with attacking options and a lot of clubs cannot say that. But from Sunday big games are on the horizon. In terms of style and staff, we don’t really know what Lampard prefers, and neither do we really know Lampard knows.