Debunking easy Chelsea narratives part one: Opponents target the left flank

Chelsea's Spanish defender Marcos Alonso Mendoza (L) and Chelsea's English defender Benjamin Chilwell (Photo by MICHAEL STEELE/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
Chelsea's Spanish defender Marcos Alonso Mendoza (L) and Chelsea's English defender Benjamin Chilwell (Photo by MICHAEL STEELE/POOL/AFP via Getty Images) /

Chelsea fans will often say they’re tired of Marcos Alonso because he’s slow, can’t get back to defend, and opponents target his wing. It’s public knowledge that Alonso is not the quickest player on the pitch, couple that with several wingers getting in behind the the Blues No. 3 and you get this easy and frankly baseless narrative. Alonso has been on the end of several long-standing narratives that have been built around him not being fast with the intention of scapegoating him. Many fans have also not questioned these narratives because they seemed to make sense. You hear something enough times and you believe it to be true.

There are many reasons a team will focus their attacks down a certain flank on the pitch, and the opposition is only just one of those reasons. Often CFC fans don’t take several reasons into consideration when they say Alonso is being targeted. One of the other reasons not put into consideration is the flank of the team’s most influential forward. A team is likely to focus their attacks down a certain flank because of one player: their own, not the opposition.

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Debunking easy narratives part one: Opponents target Chelsea’s left flank

An example is Leeds. Leeds is likely to often attack down whatever flank Raphinha has been deployed in for the day. This would be the case regardless of the opposition defender that players on that flank. This is because teams would often be more interested in utilizing their own strengths, rather than exploiting their opponents’ perceived weaknesses.

Leeds has a better chance of scoring if they create through Raphinha’s wing, which means for much of the game, they’re not even thinking about their opponent’s weaknesses, they’re simply focusing on what’s good for them.

With that in mind, whenever CFC comes up against a team whose most influential forward plays on the right, they’re going to attack down Chelsea’s left flank regardless of who plays left back or left wingback for Chelsea on the day. The West Londoners’ fullbacks don’t need to worry about who’s being targeted, they have to deal with attacks as they get them and defend them to the best of their ability.

Another reason an opponent may want to attack down a certain flank is of course to exploit the opposition. Numbers show that Chelsea’s wide defenders were quite busy last season. Further scrutiny reveals, though, that Chelsea’s right centerbacks were busier than the left centerbacks. However, Chelsea’s main left wingback was busier and more effective defensively than the main right wingback.

Chelsea’s right centerbacks made more interceptions, won more tackles, blocked more shots, and pressed more. Chelsea’s left wingback though won more tackles, made more interceptions, blocked more shots, pressed slightly less but won more possession for Chelsea in the final third per game.

These numbers suggest that Alonso played a big part in defending attacks down his flank while Chelsea’s right centerbacks played the major role in defending attacks down Chelsea’s right side. Alonso played two more games and started three more games than Reece James. He played 305 more minutes than his England teammate, however, their minutes don’t account for the difference in the volume of defensive actions between them.

Alonso made the second most interceptions for Chelsea (43), 26 more than James. Alonso beat James in total volume of interceptions and volume of interceptions per game. This is the first indicator that Alonso showed much better spatial awareness than James. Alonso also won more tackles than Reece James, as well as winning more per game. Alonso won 41 tackles for Chelsea in the Premier League last season, winning 68% of his total tackles while James won 33 tackles (72%). This is not surprising as James is clearly a better tackler than Alonso.

“Not so fast! He’s clearly making all these defensive actions because he’s being attacked more. It proves the point! Ha!”. That may be true, but according to WhoScored, Thomas Tuchel’s conceded 342 shots in the Premier League. 20% of these shots came from CFC‘s right flank and 13% came from Chelsea’s left flank. This is telling and here’s why:

Many assume Alonso runs forward often and cannot get back in time, in reality, Alonso gets back often enough to defend against attacks, and James seems to be the one guilty of neglecting his defensive duties.

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It’s then one of two things: Opponents are targeting Alonso’s wing and he’s doing a good job of handling it while the few attacks that go down Tuchel’s right side often end up in more shots. Or opponents are actively targeting the Blues’ right side. None of these fit the narrative. What’s more likely is that similar volumes of attacks go down both of Chelsea’s flanks, and left side defenders are better at dealing with them.