In our latest episode of The Chelsea Spot Podcast, Paree (Owner – @CFCParee), Dan (Admin – @danbarkzr) & Rob (Admin – @CFCRobL) gave their thoughts after our uncomfortable 1-1 draw with Brighton. They also discussed Thomas Tuchel’s faults so far in blue, the front three dilemma involving Mason Mount and Romelu Lukaku, switching formation once again versus Spurs and Marina’s terrible squad planning in the Summer!
In our latest episode of The Chelsea Spot Podcast, Paree (Owner – @CFCParee) and Danny (Writer – @danny_new_) gave their thoughts of our comfortable 5-1 victory against Chesterfield against Spurs. They also look ahead to the game against Spurs on Wednesday, as well as giving their thoughts on a potential formation change and the current wingback situation.
Thomas Tuchel surprised us all on Wednesday evening in the 2-0 victory against Tottenham in the first leg of the Carabao Cup semi-final at Stamford Bridge. Having been previously reluctant to veer too far from his tried and tested back-three system, Tuchel lined up with a back-four for (almost) the first time in his reign as Chelsea boss. A Kai Havertz opener followed by an unfortunate Ben Davies own goal saw Chelsea cruise to victory, in a game that really could have ended four or five goals to nil. Antonio Conte had no answer to Tuchel’s setup, one which may well be a glimpse of the future for Chelsea fans.
Hakim Ziyech was the key man for Chelsea’s system on Wednesday, filling in at right-wing-back as the team maintained its back-three shape off the ball. He pushed high up the field when Chelsea pressed Tottenham’s block and tucked in as the right-sided number 10 once Chelsea regained possession. This is very similar to how Christian Pulisic was used when Chelsea played Leeds at Elland Road last season, an indicator that the setup had been in Tuchel’s mind long before Wednesday’s game. Mason Mount, meanwhile, dropped in to form a midfield-three out of possession, and pushed forward into the left-sided 10 position when Chelsea had the ball, as illustrated below. Essentially; 3-5-2 off the ball, 4-2-2-2 on it. This meant that our defensive solidity was maintained, whilst, in attack, Tottenham’s midfield two was overwhelmed by the combination of Chelsea’s four midfielders and Havertz, who dropped deep to help link play. A masterstroke from Tuchel.
We should, however, consider the fact that Conte and Spurs will not have been prepared for this, setting up to deal with the back-three formation Chelsea had used in every game so far this season rather than the new-look back-four. With time to mount an adequate game plan, teams might use more central midfielders, or target the right-hand-side of Chelsea’s defence with overloads in order to expose Ziyech’s defensive weaknesses, for instance. For this reason, I think Chelsea fans may have to wait until next season to see this setup used more consistently. As links to West Ham’s Declan Rice and AS Monaco’s Aurélien Tchouaméni persist, it is looking ever more likely that Chelsea will sign an athletic defensive midfielder in the coming summer transfer window. This would allow Tuchel to use a similar system, but without the necessity for either of the number 10s to fill in at wing-back, as the defensive cover provided by a physical midfield signing would prevent Chelsea from being exposed on the counter.
Given that the 4-2-2-2 seems a realistic possibility for Chelsea next season, it’s worth considering some potential winners and losers that would come out of this formation change.
Romelu Lukaku – The best spell in Lukaku’s career came at Inter Milan under Antonio Conte, where the Belgian rose from being a ridiculed flop at Manchester United to being widely accepted as one of the world’s best strikers. Paired with Lautaro Martinez, he was extremely influential on the right side of the front two, using his speed and power to dominate the right channel. Much of this season, he has been used as a lone striker, a static reference point, constantly with his back to goal. We didn’t need Romelu to tell us for us to realise this clearly doesn’t suit him, as many began to claim, “we play better without him”. Using him this way is reminiscent of his time at Manchester United, where José Mourinho struggled to maximise his potential. As seen in the first half against Spurs, the 4-2-2-2 allows Lukaku to return to his favoured right channel, where he is more able to impact the game, by both hovering on the last line of defence and finding the runs of his strike partner.
Kai Havertz – Though Havertz also favours this right channel, he is very comfortable playing on the left of the front two, something he proved in Wednesday night’s game. Since Tuchel was appointed, it has become clear that Havertz should be played high up the pitch, and this split striker formation allows Chelsea to make the most of his intelligent movement in the box. The small matter of dealing with Lukaku means that defences leave more space for him to drift into, just as we saw with his early goal against Spurs. Equally, when he’s not the lone striker there is less of a need for him to be a presence on the last line of the defence, meaning he can use his ability to drop deep and link play. This constitutes a new dynamic in Chelsea’s build up, making the most of his understanding with the likes of Mason Mount, amongst others.
Timo Werner – Werner is yet another example of a player who is less comfortable when played as a lone striker. Much like Kai, Timo’s quality movement is most effective when he is joined by a strike-partner, preventing him from being marked out the game. Like Lukaku, his most successful days came playing in a front two overseas, off the left of Yussuf Poulsen at RB Leipzig, scoring 34 goals in all competitions in the 2019-20 season. Having either been played either too wide, deep, or central so far in his Chelsea career, the 4-2-2-2 could be the key to him rediscovering his goal-scoring form.
Christian Pulisic – Despite the recent equaliser against Liverpool, Pulisic’s time under Tuchel so far can only be described as inconsistent, bordering on disappointing. The 3-4-3 used by the Chelsea manager has often seen Pulisic stuck dribbling in between the lines, exposing his lack of creativity, and leaving him too far from goal. Playing in the front two of the 4-2-2-2 would favour his goal-scoring instincts and movement in the box, without leaving him as isolated as he has been when used as a lone striker in recent games.
Mason Mount – Although Mason has had an excellent year, finishing in the top 20 of the 2021 Ballon d’Or and playing a pivotal role in Chelsea’s Champions League success, it’s important to remember he has not been playing in his favoured position. His skillset is perfect for the 8 role and, like Pulisic, playing on either side of the front 3 leaves him with too much responsibility to create between the lines. Playing a 4-2-2-2 wouldn’t have him as an 8, but it does allow him to occupy deeper areas and play a greater role in the build-up, whilst still being able to arrive late in the box and finish off Chelsea attacks. He would not be the primary creator in this system.
Hakim Ziyech – Ziyech is another on Chelsea’s list of forwards who haven’t thrived in Tuchel’s 3-4-3. He is a player who likes to remain wide on the right side of the pitch, finding the runs of those inside the box with in-swinging crosses from his infamous left foot. Reece James’s ability to come infield would facilitate Ziyech remaining wide, their connection something to look out for if Ziyech remains at Stamford Bridge next season. With an extra striker in the box, the chances are Ziyech’s assist count would benefit. The same can be said for Callum Hudson-Odoi, who has displayed a fantastic understanding with both Kai Havertz and Romelu Lukaku so far in his Chelsea career.
Jorginho – Jorginho is a player who divides opinion. Tuchel’s back-three system has seen the holding midfielder’s strengths maximised and his weaknesses masked, so much so that he managed a top 3 finish in the 2021 Ballon d’Or. The combination of the three centre backs and two holding midfielders means that, in the first phase of the build-up, a passing option is always available, allowing him to circulate possession and orchestrate passing moves out from the back. This structure also protects him on the counter, rarely leaving him isolated in transition. Given his inability to cover ground quickly, a move to a more expansive system could leave Jorginho out of sorts, especially with the potential arrival of a new defensive midfielder.
Antonio Rüdiger – Also benefitting from Tuchel’s arrival, Rüdiger’s aggressive style of defending is very well suited to playing in a back-three. The German’s form has earnt him much praise, now seen as one of Europe’s best defenders. His raw speed means he is comfortable defending out wide, knowing the central areas are covered by the other centre backs. Toni’s drives into the opposition half have become a fixture in Tuchel’s Chelsea team, often igniting both the crowd and the team during tough periods of games. Unfortunately, a move to a back-four would restrict his ability to charge out from the back, there being less defensive cover for him in this shape. It’s still yet to be seen whether he could adapt his game to suit the 4-2-2-2, but it’s certainly a formation that plays less to his strengths.
Cesar Azpilicueta – After last year’s Champions League success, Azpilicueta is now regarded amongst many Chelsea fans as a club legend. His loyalty to the club is unquestionable, but so are the signs of his impending decline. He was given a new lease of life by Tuchel, returning to the same RCB position which saw him widely accepted as one of the league’s best defenders during Chelsea’s 2016-17 title-winning campaign under Conte. On the right of a back-four, Reece James would be the clear first-choice option, leaving Dave with a seat on the bench.
Thiago Silva – Thiago Silva has been nothing short of a world class signing for Chelsea. Joining on a free transfer from PSG, he has defied the odds by performing as a top 3 CB in the league at the ripe old age of 37. Despite proving under Frank Lampard that he is perfectly capable in a back-four, the older he gets the less confident you’d feel leaving him with less protection. As his speed declines, his inability to defend the wide areas would be a worry for Tuchel.
Of course, a formation change would impact the whole squad in various ways, but these are the players who stood out to me as the ones who would either benefit or suffer most from a move to the 4-2-2-2.
Notably, every winner is under the age of 30, and every loser, apart from Rudiger, is over the age of 30. Make of that what you will, but it seems that with every day that passes, the squad becomes more suited to a back-four system. To me, the catalyst needed for Tuchel to consider leaving the back-three behind will be the signing of an athletic defensive midfielder. Regardless, Tuchel’s semi-final line up was just one of many examples of his impressive tactical flexibility, having made many in-game tweaks throughout his tenure, most valuably on route to the Champions League final. This adaptability should leave Chelsea fans with no doubts as to the capabilities of the German, as he continues to show he has what it takes to be at Stamford Bridge for years to come.
We’ve won a trophy already, find ourselves top of the Premier League 8 games in and still remain in all competitions. There should be nothing to complain about, right? Wrong. With Chelsea, there’s pretty much always something to complain about, except this time it’s quite an important topic. The big question at the moment is whether our current way of playing is sustainable enough to win the title this season, and I strongly believe there is a link between this question and switching to four at the back, so I will discuss both matters in this piece.
As everyone will know by now, things at Chelsea change very very quickly. Last season on the December 5th we beat Leeds 3-1 at Stamford Bridge to take us to the top of the league, but in less than two months Frank Lampard found himself sacked from the job and Thomas Tuchel came in to replace him who went on to win the Champions League.
We could very much be in a similar position in 2-3 games’ time, with us definitely being the favourites for our next few Premier League fixtures against Norwich, Newcastle and Burnley. I’m not saying Tuchel is going to get sacked in two months and I definitely do not want anything like that to happen either, but we as fans genuinely shouldn’t rule out the possibility of something mad happening because a quick switch in mood around the camp due to a few losses can change everything.
The tiny chance of that happening is certainly based upon the fact that we’re top of the League, except we almost definitely shouldn’t be looking at the stats. Although, as I argued in the latest podcast episode, I don’t think it’s been anywhere near as bad as some people have made out and that the eye test and context is more important in this case.
Without doubt, especially in some games, we are overperforming. The stats quite simply support that. If you watched the game vs Brentford, you could see that we deserved to lose and that Mendy saved us big time, as he has done quite a few times this season – his shot save percentage so far is 96% while no other goalkeeper’s percentage in the League is higher than 83%. Our expected goals conceded is 10.1, and we have only conceded 3. That is truly remarkable and is credit to some incredible goalkeeping and defending at times. However, as you can see with Brighton finally cashing in on their xG and currently finding themselves in the top 4, the stats do normally catch up and it would suggest the method of defending to a high level and relying on individual attacking quality isn’t sustainable in the long run. And if you don’t think that’s the way we play, then you’re just wrong to be honest, and Andreas Christensen would also disagree with you:
“We are by no means a defensive team but we know that if we get that right we have a big chance of winning games with the quality we have up front. Not conceding is where we start and then we must score goals.”
However, this is where I have disagreed with most. I’d say the game against Brentford was a bit of an exception, and personally was the only one where we’ve won and I’ve felt that we’ve completely deserved to lose. If the performance against Brentford was happening on a regular basis, then I would totally agree that there would be no way we would win the League this season, but I simply don’t think that has been the case. Looking at our results: we weren’t amazing against Crystal Palace, but we fully deserved to win; Arsenal was a comfortable victory and we played some great football; Liverpool we played decently in the first half and due to the unfortunate red card we had to defend brilliantly in the second half which led to a fair result; Aston Villa was a game which we maybe could’ve conceded one or two in, but some great defending meant we were fine and our third goal should summarise the football we played that game; Tottenham we won with ease despite the shaky first half; Southampton they really only had one huge chance which was the pen given away and other than that we dominated especially when Mason came on, and Brentford we have talked about.
I think there’s a lot of context to the Brentford game which isn’t being mentioned, and also to why our football hasn’t been the best this season. This game was straight after the international break where players would have been both physically and mentally tired, so important players were left on the bench and the lineup was mostly made up of players who had been at Cobham the previous two weeks. I mean, this could literally be seen by us starting Malang Sarr in a Premier League game, who in general did have a solid game but in the last 20 minutes was the main culprit for a lot of their big chances. We were trying out a new style of play with the 3-5-2 formation, and we as fans in our minds should be treating Brentford as a top 6 team and see the result as a huge positive. I do wonder whether under previous Chelsea managers that result and performance would have been deemed as a sign of a ‘title challenging squad.’ I’d argue that under Sarri, Lampard and even Tuchel last season we would have crumbled very quickly with the heavy pressure they were putting us under (4-0 loss to Bournemouth, 3-0 loss to Sheffield United and 5-2 loss to West Brom all coming to mind…)
And with the rest of the season, one small but very simple reason which I’m sure is a big factor to the way we’re playing is that we haven’t played our best line-up for most of the games. Our most important player in Mason Mount, has missed quite a few games due to injury or controlling his fitness levels due to playing so much last season, and our wingbacks are so important to the system yet we haven’t seen our best ones start together yet. It’s vital with our formation that our wingbacks are able to get forward and offer some threat, so when opposition teams see Marcos Alonso and Azpilicueta out wide they will be much less afraid than if it was Ben Chilwell and Reece James. Hopefully, if all three can start getting into the team regularly, we’ll see a huge improvement in the way we play.
Another thing is that our issues have changed over the last two seasons. Under Lampard, we were creating many chances but not being clinical. Under Tuchel, we have struggled to create chances: 2nd highest in the League last season in ‘Shot Creating Actions per 90’ compared to 6th highest now. Yes, it’s a small sample size, but unless there is a change in tactics or style I can’t see that drastically changing. Even last season was a struggle with this formation with us finding it very difficult to break down the ‘worse’ teams and just off the top of my head I can remember many frustrating games where we dropped points: West Brom, Aston Villa, Leeds, Southampton and I’m sure there are many more. This season, those issues pretty much remain, and it’s arguably got worse. In the last few games, it looks like we have decided to sit a bit deeper and almost try and invite other teams onto us to stop them from sitting too deep, which has meant we are playing a bit more on the counter which could be one of the reasons for Timo Werner’s sudden introduction back into the team. Although one of his best qualities is creating space for other people and he did have a pretty decent game against Brentford, he is creatively nothing compared to the likes of Mason Mount, Hudson-Odoi and even Hakim Ziyech when he’s up for it. And, this is a huge problem because at the moment pretty much none of our attackers are on form (or being given the chance to play in their real position…) which simply means our only creative outlets have completely gone, and it’s the big reason for Romelu Lukaku’s struggles in the last few games.
It is very simple – if you think our current problems lie with Lukaku then you are wrong. Put any other striker in this team, and they are struggling just like he is. Yup, any striker in the whole world. There is literally no service to him – it’s so simple to see. First of all, we’re creating roughly one proper chance for him per game and no striker in the world should be expected to score each of these because that’s pretty much impossible. He needs chances to get into games and test the keeper, except he’s getting barely any of that right now. Secondly, I really don’t think we’re playing to his strengths, as Antonio Conte stated a few weeks ago. We’ve started to use him as a target man when that should only be used once or twice in the game when we’re under pressure, except that’s becoming a common occurrence so we may as well have just bought Akinfenwa. If you watch Belgium and the way he plays for his country: he’s out wide, interchanging with De Bruyne and Hazard, running down the wing, shrugging off defenders – like his debut against Arsenal except that’s the way he plays consistently. We have barely seen that for the Blues.
“He always has to be played, but at Chelsea they don’t quite understand how to use him. If they understand, Chelsea will become the team to beat.”
Obviously, he’s a top striker so give him chances and he’ll score most of them. In the Premier League, he’s only got an xG of 3.68 which is 6th highest in the League, and for one of the best forwards in the world who we’ve signed for 97 million pounds, you’d want and expect some better service for him. We need to find more ways to be creative for him – whether that’s crossing it from Reece James a lot more which we haven’t seen too much, or trying to get other players to link up with him well. As Tuchel has said, most of the players have struggled to do that apart from Mason and Mateo Kovacic so hopefully that can improve as they continue to play many games with each other.
Loftus-Cheek’s introduction into the team completely changes things though. He has replaced Jorginho in midfield and is sitting the deepest out of the three… and has looked entirely comfortable. He’s done the exact same passing, exact same ‘dictating the tempo’, and instead of escaping the pressure via passing backwards or sideways or the occasional in between the lines pass to Mason, he’s simply dribbled past their whole midfield. A bit similar to the kind of things Kovacic does, but from a much deeper role and his height, physicality, defensive abilities and end product if pushed higher up the pitch probably makes him a preferred option to the Croatian too. Personally, I just think the manager would prefer someone of Ruben’s physique who does everything which Jorginho does if not better in the attack. Imagine you’re one of the wingbacks. Would you prefer receiving the ball at a pretty slow pace deep into your own half leaving you with the two options of going backwards or having to go past the opposition team, or would you prefer receiving the ball higher up the pitch at pace when most of the team has been beaten? There’s only one option for me. Hopefully, this means that the wingbacks can create a few more chances and I’m really interested to see how we play when Reece, Chilwell, Mount and RLC all start together.
Into the second part of the article which as writing I’m going to keep very short and sweet due to Tom writing a piece on it the other day: the form of Loftus-Cheek certainly opens up the opportunity to play 4 at the back temporarily. I’m of strong belief that no manager needs to have a Plan B, except that for this Chelsea squad it makes perfect sense to play 4 at the back when we’re drawing in the 60th minute or in certain cup games. Personally our best football this season has come in a weakened team against Aston Villa in the Carabao Cup, where Reece was playing both inside and out wide changing the formation to four at the back at times. Most of our players improve so much when we play four at the back, and it just feels like we play so negatively at times to cover up a certain midfield duo (your words not mine). Chilwell and James go back to their natural positions, so do Hudson-Odoi, Ziyech and Pulisic. Mason Mount returns to play his best football as an 8, Loftus-Cheek is able to attack more, Kante has more freedom in midfield and most importantly more chances are created for our world class striker Romelu. Tuchel’s press conference ahead of the Malmo game was certainly pretty convincing in that they are potentially looking at changing formations to create more chances for the attackers, but it just seems like we have been crying out for this for weeks.
“One solution could be to change formation, put more offensive players. Let’s see.”
Yes, it does create weaknesses in other places in our team which is the big reason we’re playing 3 at the back right now. But, I do think the positives in creating more chances and putting more players in their natural position is larger than the negatives of not having a natural defensive midfielder and having a slightly shaky defender next to Thiago Silva. And, like I said before, this isn’t something which should be chucked in from the start, but more used as ‘emergency’ and if things aren’t going well, which you could argue is on it’s way if things don’t improve.
Do you think we’re playing at a sustainable level? Do you think we should have 4 at the back as a backup formation? Let us know on our social media platforms!