Is there cause for optimism despite Chelsea's struggles?

By Alex Keble 9 Feb 2024

Alex Keble highlights the stats that show Blues are making progress in key areas under Pochettino

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Alex Keble explains why there can be cause for optimism at Chelsea despite their struggles this season

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“We are all not good enough at the moment, that's the reality,” Mauricio Pochettino said after Chelsea's last league match - the 4-2 home defeat to Wolverhampton Wanderers that leaves the Blues in the bottom half of the Premier League table ahead of Monday's trip to Crystal Palace.

Watching Chelsea collapse as they did against Wolves, conceding four goals in their second successive Premier League match, it was hard to disagree with Pochettino’s conclusion.

In fact, after 23 matches played, Chelsea have 31 points, exactly the same number as they did at this stage under Graham Potter in 2022/23.

But there is more to this Chelsea team than meets the eye, and merit to the argument Pochettino made in the same BBC interview that it is only “a matter of time” before supporters start to see progress on the pitch.

Indeed, there was evidence of that last Wednesday as the Blues won 3-1 at Aston Villa in their FA Cup fourth-round replay.

Ahead of the current round of Premier League fixtures in Matchweek 24, Opta’s Expected Points table - which is calculated by simulating each match 10,000 times using the Expected Goals (xG) value of every shot taken - suggested Chelsea were doing better than their results would indicate. In fact they were fifth, only 0.25 points behind Aston Villa in fourth.

Expected/actual points table ahead of MW24
Team Expected points Actual points
Arsenal 47.80 49
Man City 44.11 49
Liverpool 43.44 51
Aston Villa 38.84 46
Chelsea 38.59 31

The eye test and the underlying data supports a similar conclusion - Chelsea’s performances have been at about the level required to reach the UEFA Champions League, which would surely be the higher end of Pochettino’s target for his first season at the club.

But poor finishing and defensive mistakes have prevented Chelsea from climbing up the table. And while some elements are working, there are of course several areas in which they could improve.

Here’s a look at what’s working and what isn’t for Pochettino at Chelsea.

Vision is coming together between the boxes

Before their recent back-to-back defeats against Liverpool and Wolves, Chelsea were on a three-match winning streak in the Premier League and finally starting to think about pushing for Europe.

That was because Pochettino’s Marcelo Bielsa-inspired tactical principles of vertical possession football and hard pressing from the front were beginning to take effect.

Like the Expected Points table, on many of the metrics that measure Pochettino’s favoured playing style, Chelsea are around the Champions League places.

Going into Matchweek 24, they were top of the charts for through-balls with 73, had a leading 537 attempted take-ons, were second for the number of times caught offside, with 56, and were joint-third for progressive carries, with 525.

Those numbers highlight Chelsea’s directness and suggest that Pochettino’s desire to pierce through the lines at speed is working – to an extent. After all, ahead of the weekend, Chelsea had the league’s fourth-best xG of 43.9.

From a defensive standpoint, things aren’t too bad either.

Ahead of Matchweek 24, Chelsea had the sixth-lowest open-play xG Against (23.6), while they also had the fourth-best total for Passes Per Defensive Action (PPDA), with 10.3, the fifth-most high turnovers (222) and the fourth-most possessions won in the final third, with 144.

Pressing hard, remaining compact in and out of possession, and moving sharply into the final third, more often than not Chelsea look as good as these numbers suggest - outside both penalty areas, that is.

Goalscoring issues remain the big problem

But what happens between the two penalty areas isn’t really what counts.

Chelsea are in the bottom half right now because profligate finishing and defensive errors have undermined the tactical progress seen in their build-up play and out-of-possession structure.

The simpler problem to diagnose – and possibly the easiest to fix – is putting their chances away.

Ahead of the weekend's action, only Everton had a worse record of underperforming their non-penalty xG than Chelsea’s -7.8, and two of the Premier League’s four worst performers in this metric played for Pochettino’s side: Nicolas Jackson (-3.8) and Enzo Fernandez (-2.9).

Chelsea’s xG of 43.9 was higher than Manchester City’s (43.6) and effectively the same as Arsenal’s (44.3), yet poor finishing means they aren’t viewed as being attacking specialists.

Case in point, Chelsea have missed 47 big chances this season, more than any other team.

Christopher Nkunku’s return from injury should help - he’s scored two goals from just eight shots in the Premier League - but Pochettino may need a new No 9 in the summer to improve here.

Nkunku's first Chelsea goal v Wolves
Rotation and injuries creating defensive issues

When players haven’t had much time together and when a young team are assembled very quickly they can be a little naive; vulnerable to the small and big errors that undermine a solid tactical set-up.

Chelsea have used 22 different starting XIs this season, partly because of the size of Pochettino’s squad, and partly because of how many injuries they have suffered.

Chelsea have made 15 errors leading to shots, the second-most in the Premier League, and two of these led to goals in the 4-2 defeat to Wolves.

Moises Caicedo was caught in possession to set Wolves away for their first goal, and then the fourth was scored after a wild lunge from Malo Gusto conceded a late penalty.

Tellingly, ahead of the weekend Chelsea were also top of the league for miscontrols, with 384. Tactical solidity and consistency requires a more stable set-up, something Pochettino simply hasn’t been afforded.

But those mistakes, disconnections and loose touches are likely to diminish with time.

Problems with full-backs

The other two Wolves goals resulted from slight positional errors from Ben Chilwell, who was twice caught too high up the pitch.

Given that Chilwell has been plagued by injuries, and made only six Premier League starts this season, this again speaks to the team being a little too raw.

The full-back positions – so crucial to Pochettino’s attacking width, as we saw in the Danny Rose and Kyle Walker era at Tottenham Hotspur - have been an issue for Chelsea all season.

Reece James has managed only five starts at right-back and 20-year-old Gusto isn’t quite the finished product. On the left side, Marc Cucurella’s injury means centre-back Levi Colwill has had to deputise.

Pochettino’s narrow attacking lines need flying full-backs to provide the width, but throughout 2023/24 he hasn’t had his best players – James and Chilwell – to attack a deep-lying opposition, stretch them from side to side with switches and put the pressure on with crosses into the box.

Chelsea have only managed 26 accurate crosses into the area, the third-fewest ahead of Matchweek 24, and have attempted 345 crosses in total, the fourth-fewest, while their 62 switches of play ranked 12th going into the weekend.

That explains why they so often struggle to break down a low block. Ranking Chelsea’s matches by their possession share, they have lost five of the top six and won just two of the top 10.

Put it all together, and Chelsea aren’t quite in the muddled position they at first appear.

Getting James and Chilwell back together, with a new No 9 and time to allow this young squad to gel is all it will take for Pochettino’s tactical ideas – already taking shape under the surface – to translate into better results.

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