Identifying Chelsea’s biggest problem during this rough period

LONDON, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 29: Mateo Kovacic of Chelsea dejected after Danny Welbeck of Brighton & Hove Albion scores a goal to make it 1-1 during the Premier League match between Chelsea and Brighton & Hove Albion at Stamford Bridge on December 28, 2021 in London, England. (Photo by James Williamson - AMA/Getty Images)
LONDON, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 29: Mateo Kovacic of Chelsea dejected after Danny Welbeck of Brighton & Hove Albion scores a goal to make it 1-1 during the Premier League match between Chelsea and Brighton & Hove Albion at Stamford Bridge on December 28, 2021 in London, England. (Photo by James Williamson - AMA/Getty Images) /

Everybody thinks they know exactly what Chelsea’s problem is right now. Some think it’s the selection headache Thomas Tuchel is suffering from due to injuries and a COVID-19 outbreak in the team. Others believe it’s the fact that the Blues have played an unimaginable 18 games over a span of 59 days. There are also those who simply choose to ignore the diagnosis and pin it on the issues the club is usually met with throughout the winter period. The funny thing is they’re all correct. There is no easy fix for Chelsea’s poor form at the moment and if there was one, Tuchel would have undoubtedly found it by now.

All of these factors have contributed to a downtick in form. The Blues have won just three of their last 10 Premier League games. They have fallen from league leaders to now 12 points behind Manchester City, who has a game in hand. Chelsea is falling fast and if it does not come up with a solution quickly, it could find itself in the heart of the top four race once again, as opposed to being one of the three teams virtually guaranteed a place. While the aforementioned reasons for the recent struggles are valid, the Blues’ biggest problem lately has been the way in which they play.

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Chelsea’s passive play-style has contributed to its poor form in recent months

A lot of talk has focused on Chelsea’s recent struggles up top. Tuchel has yet to really get any of his front three combinations firing, opting to use a trio (Christian Pulisic, Romelu Lukaku and Hakim Ziyech) for the first time together against Manchester City last week. Long-term injuries to Lukaku and Timo Werner made this area of the pitch especially difficult to figure out a few months ago. As has COVID-19, which has seen Kai Havertz, Callum Hudson-Odoi and the aforementioned strikers all miss time. Nevertheless, aside from a stretch earlier in the campaign against relatively poor clubs, the Blues haven’t ever really been an excellent attacking side.

The plethora of different goalscorers statistic was a fun little nugget at the beginning of the year, but it was a worrying one to some, as well. Once the goals dried up from the back or even the penalty spot, could the front three step up? It’s been a question that has plagued the club for years. The answer—at least right now—is a definitive no. The Lukaku purchase was supposed to put a stop to this issue. Chelsea hasn’t always leaned on its attack and that’s why many believed it would be just fine to start the year, despite the worrying signs. One goal was enough to win games consistently in the early days of Tuchel’s reign. Those days are seemingly gone now.

It looked at first as if these struggles came down to poor defensive discipline (a.k.a players like Antonio Rudiger recklessly barreling forward and leaving his centerback partners exposed). Those issues are now fixed, but it’s now been over a month since the Blues’ last clean sheet in the Premier League. This has many wondering what sparked the drastic change between then and now. The answer is the way Chelsea is playing.

The Blues’ issues stem from a less aggressive press. It’s hard to analyze how assertive a press is using anything other than the eye test, but there are a few statistics to help out here. Unfortunately, Tuchel’s team is on pace to win less possession in the final third than any Chelsea side since Antonio Conte’s 2017/18 squad. This has resulted in a three-percent drop of average possession percentage per game. In other words, the Blues aren’t attacking the opposition as aggressively when they lose the ball in the final third, which in turn allows their opponents more time to get the ball up the pitch and create chances for themselves.

Chelsea has an expected goals conceded average of 0.98 per match (22.7 over 23 games thus far). Compare that to last season when it allowed 0.8 per game over an entire season (30.4 over 38 matches) and it’s easy to see the point made in the previous paragraph. The Blues’ downfall early last year—and ultimately what cost Frank Lampard his job—was the fact they were letting in more goals than expected. That eventually leveled out as the season progressed after Tuchel arrived, albeit they still allowed almost six goals more than they were expected to let in.

Now, Chelsea has conceded just 18 goals to its 22.7 expected. Tuchel’s defense began the season outperforming its xG conceded, but the reason xG and its siblings are widely accepted statistics in football is because they almost always catch up to teams. It’s incredibly hard to drastically stump xG. The Blues will therefore have to keep nine clean sheets in their last 15 Premier League matches in order to match their total (18) from last season. For reference, Tuchel’s men have kept that exact amount in 23 games played thus far.

The unfortunate reality is all of these key areas that Chelsea is performing worse in this season than last are a result of the passive press put on by the players. Tuchel built a well-oiled, Champions League-winning machine last year on the basis that his men would suffocate the opposition both with and without the ball. Now, the Blues are just Brighton with more money. Neither the Blues nor the Seagulls can turn their possession into goals either. The lack of efficiency in the final third—both pressing and scoring—ultimately means both are stuck in purgatory where draws are the only results they can manage every week. It’s no coincidence Brighton has the most draws in the league (11) and Chelsea has the most ties in the top six (8).

One of the reasons for this less intense press is the inclusion of Lukaku in the starting XI. Before going any further, it must be said that I am not suggesting in any way, shape or form that Chelsea is better without Lukaku. The Belgian is a 20+ goal per season striker and the Blues desperately needed someone of that caliber in their ranks. Regardless, if he isn’t finding the back of the net, he is a hindrance to the way in which Chelsea plays due to his poor pressing ability.

The Blues are choosing to accept that they have a less aggressive press, concede possession and open up the defense to more chances against if it means getting the front three more looks. Chelsea created 1.63 big chances per game last season for its attackers with a more solid defense. Now they’ve averaging 1.96 through 23 games. The attackers are simply wasting the opportunities being given to them. In other words, Tuchel is taking a calculated risk by putting Lukaku on the pitch. The 28-year-old is having a hard time finding the back of the net though, which means the risk far outweighs the reward at this moment. For now.

If Lukaku—or any of the other forwards for that matter—begin to convert more of their chances then all will presumably be right once again. The universe will be balanced. However, until that moment comes, the Blues will continue to struggle with the way in which they currently play. Chelsea needs to figure out how to get its forwards firing quickly. Either that or Tuchel will be forced to pull the plug on this passive press experiment and return to the aggressive style that helped him win the Champions League last season.

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All team statistics gathered from fotmob.