Groundhog Season

I don’t need a calendar these days – I can typically take one look at the current situation that Chelsea find themselves in and instantly know what time of year it is. Somehow turning a three team title race into a panicked scramble for top 4? Accusations of squad motivation coinciding with an uptick of individual errors? Calls for the managers head as we hand out points to any team fortunate enough to be paired against us? Despite all this, a cup final on the horizon that seems to hold all the power on whether the previous year is deemed as a success or not? Well, it must be May, right?

I want to be surprised that once again we have dusted off the ol’ trusted script and turned a season which started full of hope and excitement into one of dejection and concern. But, in reality, should we be surprised at all? Has anything really changed over the previous summers that would prevent this seeming inevitability from occurring? In truth, we should have seen this coming. The 21/22 summer represented almost every summer which had proceeded it, the first summer for a new manager to ‘make his mark’ on the squad, following by a marquee signing which divided opinion and a couple of squad signings which left little to be excited about. Yet, despite overwhelming concerns that the majority of issues in the squad hasn’t been addressed, Chelsea started the season like a runaway train and we all hopped on board for the ride, forgetting that we’d travelled this route many times before.

Rudiger showcasing the frustration we all felt as Chelsea fell short against Everton (Source: newsbruit.com)

On the surface, you can easily find explanations as to why what has taken place over the following 6 months was out of our control. Incredibly ill-timed injuries to Chilwell, James, Lukaku, Kante and Kovacic put a grinding halt to our momentum. Competing for 7 trophies had the team regularly playing twice a week and of course, the small issue around Abramovic being sanctioned and forced to sell the club. These are all, to a certain degree, valid justifications for dips in form but to take them purely at face value would be slightly naïve to the real reasons behind Chelsea’s all too frequent drop off.

So who is to blame? For some it’s the manager, for some it’s the misfiring front line, for some it’s the board and for some it’s a sport wide conspiracy against the club (..honestly), but really is it down to one factor? The truth, as it often is, is that it’s down to a little bit of all of the above (with the exception of the conspiracies, of course).

Tuchel looking for answers from his bench (Source: http://www.thechelseachronicle.com)

I don’t want to spend too much time on Tuchel, as I believe the majority of the blame sits above him and took place prior to his arrival which I will delve into throughout this article, but I would be remised to absolve him entirely. Concerns over his in game management have become more prevalent and justified as the season has evolved with substitutions often coming late and failing to make an impact. In addition to this, having been previously heralded for his ability to rotate effectively, certain players, such as Chalobah and Lukaku, are struggling to get a look in despite those ahead of them failing to make a consistent impact. Under normal circumstances you’d look to pin the lack of player motivation and performance on the manager but this is and issue that so many of his predecessors have also been exceptionally vocal about before ultimately seeing the door. Tuchel, like those above him, has room to develop but I think it’s clear to all that what he has showcased so far is that he’s a manager of the highest calibre and is absolutely the right man to take us forward.

The Squad – Depth in quality, quantity or neither?

It is quite easily to look at this Chelsea squad and marvel at the strength in depth that they posses with quality all over the pitch. A quick look at the 25 man squad showcases a mixture of Ballon D’or nominees and experienced internationals with the most sought after young talents from across Europe and Cobham. It’s very easy to see why many deemed Chelsea genuine title contenders and even favourites going into this season. However, the depth only goes as far as names on a sheet of paper, the real issues begin when you start trying to combine those names into a coherent team that can provide you with the consistency and quality that is required to compete across a gruelling Premier League season.

Doing exactly that starts to highlight the underlying issues within the squad, this isn’t a squad of players with a cohesive, consistent approach to how they like to play. This is a squad full of players that represent different styles and approaches of previous Chelsea managers. At a high level you have a defence primarily forged by Antonio Conte’s pragmatic structure with specialist wing-backs and centre backs that are far more comfortable in a 3. In front of them, you have Sarri’s possession oriented and risk averse midfield and leading the team you have Lampard’s front line of high volume forwards with a reliance on quick transitions and balls in behind. It’s fundamentally because of this mismatch of styles that we find ourselves in situations where players appear to be playing out of position or in roles that quite evidently do not play to their strengths.

As highlighted by @OllyCFC on twitter, the squad composition includes input from 6 managers of varying tactical approaches

As Tuchel found at the start of this season, the overall quality of these players, combined with the malleable and adaptive Cobham graduates, means that a fully fit, well rested squad can still compete with the very best, especially in one off cup ties. The problem is that the cracks immediately start to show when player absences kick in, which they always will across a 60 game season. This is primarily down to the fact there are very few, if any, like-for-like replacements within this Chelsea side, especially not for key players.

The Goalkeeper

Arguably the one position that we don’t need to worry about. Mendy offers the composure and technical ability that is required from a modern goalkeeper whilst regularly producing world class saves. It may have taken us around £100m to get to this point, and we’ve still the most expensive back up keeper in world football but for the time being, we seemed to have eventually got this one right.

The Left Wing-backs

The first few months of this season were spent watching Ben Chilwell maraud down our left side, linking play quickly in the middle of the park, moving the ball forward at every opportunity and getting in the box at every opportunity. His energy and persistent threat, combined with Reece James doing the same on the right hand side allowed us to stretch teams and offer a threat down both flanks. His replacement Marcos Alonso, offers something completely different. Whilst still posing a goal threat and another aerial option, Alonso lacks the mobility to stay ever involved in the game and doesn’t possess the on-the-ball ability to link play and keep the ball moving forward. This isn’t to say that Alonso has performed badly this season, but what he provides the team is completely different to Chilwell and we’ve struggled to adapt to the Englishman’s absence.

The Right Wing-backs

You can somewhat copy and paste what I’ve written above when it comes to Azpilicueta replacing Reece James. It is never going to be easy to replace a player of James’ ability but the drop off in both mobility and on the ball threat when Azpilicueta plays is noticeable and has caused Tuchel to experiment with forwards like Hudson-Odoi, Ziyech and Pulisic all dropping into that role. This issue of course is even harder to take given that Chelsea had let Tino Livramento and Tariq Lamptey leave the club in the last 18 months, both of whom would have been perfect replacements. For a system that was so reliant on it’s wing-backs, to not have suitable replacements for either was only going to end one way.

The Centre Backs

Whilst it could be argued that the centre-back selection features players who perhaps require a 3 man system to succeed, this is perhaps the one position where going into this season we had ample, suitable cover. The emergence of Chalobah and Reece James as options on the right in addition to the existing cast of Silva and Christensen in the middle meant that there was never a real drop off in quality or suitability. The issue at centre-back primarily reared it’s head when Antonio Rudiger, arguably our most influential defender, had only Malang Sarr as his understudy. The Frenchman, who was due to go on loan to a relegation fighting Bundesliga side offers neither the tenacity or ability to drive at defences which the charismatic German has in abundance. Again, like at right-wing back, serious questions over long term strategic planning have to be asked as the club enter a position where it’s likely 4 of these options will leave the club this summer, forcing external recruitment whilst Marc Guehi and Fikayo Tomori, opportunistically sold, flourish at the highest level.

Chelsea’s midfield options (Source: icdn.chelsea-news.co)

The Midfield

The midfield is arguably the biggest issue in the squad right now, not so much from a like-for-like replacement perspective but more down to the glaring absence of desperately needed profiles and a lack of compatibility with the current forward line. The absence of a disciplined, defensive minded 6, a role that we’ve lacked since the departure of Nemanja Matic in 2017, has contributed to our reliance on a 3 at-the-back system whilst also welding us to a possession oriented, risk adverse approach which in turn prevents us from making use of the abundance of natural 8s at the club. In addition to the lack of defensive discipline, quick and progressive distribution has been sorely lacking since Cesc Fabregas was replaced by the more metronomic and cautious Jorginho, this has been felt the most by our front line of forwards who thrive on balls in behind. Mateo Kovacic and Ruben Loftus Cheek both offer the ability to progress play through their fantastic driving runs but end product across the entire midfield leaves plenty to be desired with an accumulative 6 goals and 17 assists across all competitions, excluding Jorginho’s penalties (for reference, Mason Mount has 12 goals and 15 assists individually.) It could be justifiably argued that N’golo Kante is irreplaceable and as such, it’s perhaps harsh to pinpoint the lack of an adequate replacement but there is not a single player in the Chelsea squad with a skillset even remotely comparable to the Frenchman which is absurd for such an important, yet injury prone player. All of these factors combined has left Tuchel with a midfield that is defensively suspect in transition and ineffective at linking us with his front line which leads me to..

The Forwards

I genuinely don’t know where to begin with this one. The Chelsea front line almost perfectly represents the chaos and opportunistic approach of Chelsea’s recruitment process over the past 5 years, and that’s before we even begin to look at those who have already left the club. As it currently stands, despite spending in the region of £300m on forwards, Chelsea’s best forward is the aforementioned Mason Mount, a midfielder from the academy. Despite this, Mount has become completely irreplaceable as the connection between our midfield and attack, showcasing the ability to pick up the ball in half-spaces, turn quickly and release others whilst also offering a goalthreat himself. However, like N’golo Kante, despite being such a pivotal part of Chelsea’s success, there is not a single player who can replicate the skillset offered by the energetic England international and certainly not with the same offensive output.

Onto the big recruitments, Romelu Lukaku, the only real signing of the Tuchel era, was purchased for just shy of £100m and has returned 10 goals in a season filled with outspoken discontent, injuries and long spells on the bench. However, the returning Belgian’s troubles were predicted by many due to a complete clash of styles between club and player which Lukaku himself controversially verbalised in his ill-advised interview with Sky Italia. Chelsea had found success the previous season with a high energy, high pressing front line which was a far cry from the system which saw Lukaku thrive in Italy under previous Chelsea boss Antonio Conte. As such, despite promising signs early on with a couple of spectacular goals, Lukaku’s presence tended to destabilise the Chelsea attack and saw the team frequently give up control of games and resort to using the former Inter Milan striker as nothing more than a Target Man doing his best Andy Carroll impression. As for the two Germans, Kai Havertz and Timo Werner, their struggles have been widely evident. As two players who thrived in the quick transitions and space offered up in the Bundesliga, the latter regularly finds himself as a winger who is required to get involved in build up (with varying success…) and the former is often asked to play as a sole striker, spending large portions of the game chasing down defenders and patiently waiting for the often singular chance that is created for him by an exceptionally risk adverse set up behind him (again, with varying success).

Callum Hudson-Odoi has struggled to find consistency this season, although it should be no surprise that one of Chelsea’s most offensively productive spells was when the Cobham graduate got a consistent run of games. The only real winger in the squad, Callum arguably offers the most versatility in offense with his 1v1 ability and ability to progress and create through dribbling, passing and crossing. That versatility cannot be said for the final two recruits in Pulisic and Ziyech, two players who have failed to carve out a consistent role in the team and often look like square pegs in round holes, offering little more than the occasional moment but at a frequency which doesn’t justify continued involvement.

One of many line ups fielded by Thomas Tuchel this season. (Source: @ChelseaFC on Twitter)

When you breakdown that list of players what you are left with is 7 players of wildly different skillsets that require wildly different set ups to thrive. This goes a long way to explain their inconsistencies as individuals but also forces Tuchel into huge tactical changes whenever we look to make any amendments to the front line. This is best evidenced in Chelsea’s 3-2 loss at Madrid where a dominant Chelsea side, set up perfectly to progress through to the Champions League Semi-Finals, were continually made weaker by substitutions, enforced through tiredness, which completely altered the Blues approach and effectiveness in the game.

Whilst I appreciate this looks like a scathing attack on the majority of the front line, the truth is that I’ve a large degree of sympathy with all of these players. There was an understandable excitement when all of these players were purchased due to their performances on the continent and the reputations they had deservedly carved for themselves. However, these players weren’t signed with any real plan of how to replicate and build upon the success they had experienced elsewhere. These aren’t bad players and didn’t become so overnight, we just quite simply do not have the ability to replicate the environment that allows them to thrive. As previously mentioned Timo Werner put up huge numbers in the Bundesliga playing in a quick transitioning, high chance volume Leipzig side alongside a focal point in Yussuf Poulsen but is now playing out wide with ball to feet and back to goal. Lukaku became one of the best strikers in world football playing alongside the dynamic Lautaro Martinez and having the freedom ability to occupy space on the right but is now being used as a back to goal backboard, watching players regularly opt to pass backwards than play him in. Even the best players will fail if you don’t set them up to succeed.

Conclusion and Solution

In summarisation, our recruitment has been heavily driven by opportunistic market signings and short lived managerial “projects”, leaving us with no clear style of play, ill-fitting specialists and a distinct lack of adequate replacements for key players. This essentially means that every single injury requires a complete shift in tactical approach, both offensively and defensively. It’s quite easy to see how a couple of key injuries derailed us to the extent that they did, let alone the amount we suffered heading into Christmas.

But is it all negative and are we doomed to watch this exact scenario play out year on year? Thankfully not. The imminent arrival of new ownership presents the perfect opportunity to right the wrongs that the previous administration were too proud to do. Failed vanity projects and the sunk-cost that has been continually pumped into ill-fitting players can be scrapped and a clear strategy and philosophy can be established and ingrained from the top down. Players such as Jorginho, Alonso, Azpilicueta and Barkley with imminently expiring contacts can be moved on to open up squad roles for more suitable, long term options. Players with more time left on their deals but are unlikely to suit our development, such as, but certainly not limited to, Pulisic (2024), Sarr (2025) and Kenedy (2024) can also be moved on to create both space and funds which can be reinvested back into the team. And finally, there’s some very tough decisions to be made on some expensive acquisitions, that’ll likely have to be sold at a loss, if they do not match the strategic vision on the club.

The positives is that many of the solutions appear to already be at the club. Conor Gallagher represents another high intensity midfielder in the mould of Mount who offers a realistic goalthreat both in goals and assists. Armando Broja presents a high pressing forward on an upwards trajectory with proven Premier League quality. Levi Colwill is a ready made solution to our self imposed void at LCB, offering the composure, distribution and defensive ability that could make him a mainstay in the Chelsea defence over the next decade and go a little way to right the wrongs of the Tomori and Guehi departures. There’s also genuine discussions that could be had over whether the likes of Billy Gilmour, Ethan Ampadu, Dujon Sterling, Ian Maatsen, to name by a few, could offer genuine suitable replacements at a fraction of the cost.

Could Conor Gallagher find a place in the squad next season? (Source: theprideoflondon.com)

Once a strategic vision and philosophy is in place, external recruitment can also become far more targeted and productive. Highlighting missing profiles in the squad and recruiting smartly to fill those gaps will make the squad as a whole far more complete and cohesive, offering Tuchel the tactical flexibility and genuine strength in depth that we sorely lack as it currently stands which in turn will allow us to fairly assess both the manager and the players.

Whilst I’m loathed to credit them too much, we need only look above us in the table at City and Liverpool as examples of how we need to operate. Their philosophies, whilst linked to their managers, is deeply ingrained within the club as a whole. Every bit of recruitment makes logical sense within the overarching framework of their tactical set up, allowing seamless rotation on the pitch but also off of it too. The moment Klopp and Guardiola leave, the manager incoming will almost certainly match that of their predecessor and the vision and progression of the club as a whole remains undisturbed and forward moving. For example, you won’t see Manchester City looking at Antonio Conte as their next manager as it wouldn’t make logical sense and likely set them back years (we still have 5 of his players, for what it’s worth).

There’s plenty to be optimistic about however and this summer, under new ownership, represents our best chance to right the wrongs of previous seasons and hopefully next season I’ll need to buy that calendar after all.

 

One comment

  1. One the most beautiful and educative write ✍ up I have read that actually captures everything about the opinions I have long held about this club.

    Unfortunately, those paid so much at the club doesn’t seem to see these glaring issues which a blind man can see from miles away.

    How can a club set out to close a gap when the fundamentals are weak??? Just impossible.

    Kindly let me have and read whatever you write.

    Such a good work!!!! Bravo 👏 👏 👏

    Like

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