At this point in the season, Chelsea’s top scorer is still Jorginho with nine goals scored. The predicament from last season still stands as even with the arrival of Romelu Lukaku, one of the best strikers in the world last season, nothing has changed with who stands in the top of the scoresheets for the club. Besides goal and assist output, consistency in performances has been nearly impossible to manage for any of our forwards this season, as the goalscoring output of this team has been incredibly up and down since the start of the season. It might be even funnier to add that the goalscoring output from our team has mostly come from the defenders, notably from our full-backs, Ben Chilwell and Reece James. With Chelsea having almost completely dropped out the Premier League title race with a heartbreaking loss at Man City, I wanted to look at what exactly went wrong with our forward line, possible solutions we can implement in the now to possibly salvage other competition, and also look at long term options beyond this season.
What went wrong?
Well, that depends on how far you want to go back. The issue with Chelsea’s attack stems from a long line of poorly scouted transfer decisions that start from 2019, ever since Chelsea signed Christian Pulisic, the first player to be incorporated into this team in this current generation of Chelsea forwards. Over the course of the past few transfer windows, the strategy has been to secure the top talent in the market, without recognizing the fit those targets would play in the Chelsea squad. Essentially, players who could, in theory, perform multiple roles and be efficient in multiple systems, but as it turns out, in order to get the best out of them in the Premier League level, they would need to be played in niche roles and niche positions. Timo Werner and Kai Havertz are great examples of the latter situation as both players were advertised to be players who could excel in any position, any role, any system, but in fact had limited versatility when trying to get the very best out of them. The failure to recognize profiles that fit the squad is a big reason as to why we are stuck in the predicament that we find ourselves in. However, it is futile to cry over spoiled milk at this point and it is not completely fair to put the entire weight of blame on the decisions made by the club.
The team’s formation and system have shown to be a big reason as to why our forwards are misfiring. Too often this team has dropped points from a lack of goal scoring, or lack of chance creation and a big part of that could be attributed to system Thomas Tuchel outfits. In our 3-4-3, the wing-backs often act as the main source of creativity and energy, performing the roles of chance creators, goal scorers, full-backs and midfielders all at once. Although there is no doubt it has gotten a great deal out of this squad and has yielded immense results (refer: Champions League Final 2021), it also almost definitely limits the roles of the forwards to poachers who occasionally link up the play to set up the midfielders or the full-backs to create chances. Limiting our forwards to poachers could probably explain a great deal of the shortcomings of the forward line, but when we were able to outfit our best XI every game, the shortcomings were masked as the rest of the team could fire in all cylinders. However, with the loss of Ben Chilwell and Reece James, we also lost their dynamism and versatility with them, which in a lot of ways made this team a boring, predictable and underwhelming outfit, further highlighting the vast number of issues with all of our forwards.
Individuals also have to be held to blame for their own issues and that is no different to the case of our forwards. As mentioned earlier, bar the exception of Mason Mount, consistency has not been a factor maintained by any of our forwards over the past two and a half years. Callum Hudson-Odoi, who has arguably been the best performing and most creative Chelsea forward this season, still cannot maintain consistency and fails to influence a lot of games significantly, as even after his great showings, struggles to nail down a position in that front three. In Mason Mount’s case, since his debut he has certainly been one of, if not the best player at the club. As it stands however, whether it be to fatigue, burnout or some other reason, Mason Mount has been awfully inconsistent this season and is currently going through a very bad patch of form. Yet, Mount, a natural midfielder made to play in that front line, still poses the highest statistical output of any Chelsea forward! That is the season’s story of one of the best players at the club; the cases of Timo Werner, Hakim Ziyech, Christian Pulisic, Kai Havertz have looked even more bleak when not only compared with the performances of Mason Mount, but also when compared with the forward options posed by other clubs in Europe and the Premier League alike. Every club at every level in the Premier League have had atleast one player that is performing in an extremely high level at the moment and that cannot be said about any of our forward options.
With Timo Werner, the issue is one you cannot seem to ignore no matter how hard you try. With 6 goals in 18 appearances, the extreme lack of clinical chance conversion is an absolute trainwreck to watch when it happens right in front of your eyes every week. However, there is a lot that Werner can add to this team even without goalscoring. His pace allows him to stretch defenses, exploit high lines, and since he’s also extremely hard-working out of possession, he becomes a valuable tool in the team press and winning back the ball. The same statement is a stretch when talking about Kai Havertz. After one year and six months at Chelsea, it is not unreasonable to say that there is not a single trait that stands out with Havertz. He can add a differece to the dynamism of the forward line, like Timo Werner, but otherwise almost never poses a tangible effect on the team. He ranks considerably low in every single progressive action stat (dribbles completed, progressive passes, progressive carries) and ranks in the 14th percentile for Shot-Creating Actions amongst other attacking midfielders and wingers (source: fbref), often leading to the question: what is he good at? Christian Pulisic another forward who has been horribly inconsistent, who I have already analyzed in an earlier piece (link). Too often he has seemed a moments player that heavily relies on momentum and confidence, and when he’s not scoring or creating (which he rarely does anyway), he does not add anything to the team.
With Havertz and Pulisic, a benefit of doubt can be given as they are still both under 24 years of age and if you believe in their potential, that is enough reason to keep holding faith and let them ride out their slumps. In the case of Hakim Ziyech however, it is not quite as simple. Hakim Ziyech was brought in in the start of the 20/21 season and his transfer move was one that was supposed to bring instant impact. It was widely known that Ziyech was a very hit-or-miss player but before every hit in his Chelsea career, we have had to witness atleast 10 misses which has sparked a serious debate among the possibility of his outgoing rather soon. Though I believe it may be both in Chelsea’s and Ziyech’s best interests to let him leave in the summer, I do believe that Ziyech has been the biggest victim of Tuchel’s system. Ziyech’s best quality is receiving the ball from deeper areas and finding creative solutions to defensive set-ups, but with the poaching role assigned to him, he rarely has had the ability to exert himself akin to how he used to at Ajax. Romelu Lukaku is another player who could also reason his shortcomings this season with the Tuchel’s system and it would be completely true. That does not, however, exempt him from criticism as he has played a big part in his own underwhelming season, being a static, non-influening, non-exerting striker in most games he has played so far. Lukaku has displayed glimpses of a 100 million pound striker at certain times though, and since he has only been at Chelsea for only six months, there is still hope that he can become the clinical, consistent forward we need, provided he still wants to stay at Chelsea that is.
How can Chelsea fix this?
The priority for the remainder of this season has to be to get the existing players to start firing again and the solution that seems the most obvious is to switch the formation, even if for only certain games. The loss of Chilwell and James were massive as they made this entire team tick in this formation, and Azpilicueta and Alonso simply cannot fulfill the roles of the wing-backs to remotely the same level. Fortunately, Tuchel has though of this already, fielding a 4-2-2-2 in both legs of the Carabao Cup semi-final against Tottenham, yielding great results and showing great potential for the future. The 4-2-2-2 formation was discussed in more detail in an earlier article written by Tom Driver (link), which I would heavily recommend reading as the article gives a great description of the formation’s potential, along with who it can benefit and hinder.
If the forwards fail to tick in this formation too in either the roles of the dual-strikers or the attacking midfielders, then a conscious decision has to be made by Thomas Tuchel to bring players from the academy into the fold. Harvey Vale and Jude Soonsup-Bell have already had their debuts this season against Chesterfield in the FA Cup and both had a great showing, the former certainly looking like the best player among a team that featured a few senior players in the squad. There is no doubt in my mind that Vale is absolutely ready to be given a real spot in this squad as even in his short glimpses, he has looked like a great spark we could absolutely use to strengthen our attack, and with a few chances, Soonsup-Bell could also be the goalscoring spark we need. With the likes of Joe Gerhaldt and Jarrad Branthwaite scoring against Chelsea in their senior debuts, and the emergence of the likes of Cole Palmer, Jacob Ramsey, Carney Chukwuemeka, and many other young talents in the Premier League, there is no reason we shouldn’t look to Cobham to bring a creative spark in this team.
It seems evident that long term, Thomas Tuchel wants to pivot to a more familiar 4-2-2-2 or 4-1-4-1 formation that he fielded multiple times in Mainz, Dortmund and PSG as one of the main targets Chelsea have put an emphasis on through multiple reports has been the possible signing of Declan Rice or Aurelian Tchouameni in the summer transfer window. This would certainly allow Thomas Tuchel to play another attacker and allow us to open low blocks, or in theory at least. The harsh reality may be however that a fair amount of our forwards have to be let go. With the investments the club has made into the forward line, the output has been drastically subpar and the ambitions of the club do not leave much time for the persistent shortcomings of our forwards. In that case however, it is incredibly important that the club do not fall into the same patterns of terrible decisions again and perform the proper diligence when it comes to scouting and making decision about signings. There is also no reason the club cannot rely on Cobham to bring in players for the future as well, as the best performing and highest ceiling forwards of the past few seasons; Mason Mount, Tammy Abraham, Callum Hudson-Odoi; have all come from Cobham. The likes of Armando Broja and even Connor Gallagher have been remarkable this season with Southampton and Crystal Palace, and with the likes of Harvey Vale and Jude Sunsoop-Bell showing great potential, it is about time Chelsea realize that our very own Cobham lads often have the most upside and the least downside as the future of the club.