EPL 2013-14 Season Preview – Chelsea
A funny thing happened over the last couple of weeks – the betting markets no longer have Chelsea as the favorites to win the English Premier League. The boys from Stamford Bridge have instead been supplanted in the top spot by Manchester City. In a way, this makes a lot of sense. City have made strong additions to a team that already finished ahead of Chelsea last year, and they exchanged a good, but dour manager who has never quite succeeded in Europe for a good, more positive manager whose teams almost always punch above their weight in the Champions’ League.
Chelsea’s new hire at manager is none other than Jose Mourinho.
Last time Mou and Chelsea hooked up, the Special One took home two league titles in three seasons during an era when Fergie and Wenger seemed unbeatable. He has won five league titles in eight seasons in the major European leagues. His average finish in the Champions’ League is the semifinals.
I know the Premier League has been especially volatile over the last few seasons, and that even Sir Alex Ferguson has sailed off into the managerial sunset. I also know that Chelsea haven’t always been impressive in recent years. But even if you hate the man, you have to show some grudging respect.
This is Jose Fucking Mourinho.
As long as he manages a team in the league, the Premier League title is always going to be his to lose.
League Finish: 3rd
Notable Cup Finishes: FA Cup semis. Europa League Winner
Goal Difference Rank: 2nd
Shot Dominance Rank: 6th
PDO Rank: Tied for 1st with Manchester United
Note: I explain what the metrics mean and why you might care in the metrics appendix at the bottom.
On the whole, Chelsea’s season last year was merely okay. It was probably an improvement on the previous campaign (including a significantly higher league finish), but… they only won the Europa League and not the Champions’ League. So in the eyes of the world, it was much less impressive.
Here’s what we know. They were much better under Rafa Benitez than they were under Roberto Di Matteo. Chelsea’s league performance under RDM was a hot mess from the moment he took over, so improving it wasn’t really that hard. However, by analytical measures, they were probably better under AVB two years ago than they were under Rafa and Rafa had considerably better talent to work with. Given Rafa’s historic excellence, I feel like a lot of the discrepancy is due to the fact that he was a mid-season replacement. This team played a ton of matches last year, and finding training time to implement tactical concepts that need a lot of preseason love and attention was always going to be a stretch.
We know Petr Cech was good at stopping goals from being scored. Though it seems like he’s been around forever, he’s still only 31 (middle age for a GK), and this enabled Chelsea to loan out Thibault Courtois for another season. But we also know that Chelsea were fairly bad at preventing shots on target, giving up the fourth worst percentage in all the league. This might be one explanation for why they were particularly bad at holding leads last season. It’s also a clue that their defensive personnel in the center of the pitch might not be good enough.
We also know that Chelsea had the best group of attacking midfielders in the Premier League (only eclipsed by Bayern, Real Madrid, Barcelona, and probably Dortmund in Europe), but their forwards were consistently disappointing when it came to scoring goals. Demba Ba, a beast at Newcastle, immediately transformed into a mouse post-transfer. Fernando Torres, while useful and probably better now than overall public perception, will simply never be the electrifying player that he was in his youth. He will also never justify the lofty transfer fee Abramovitch paid for him as a vanity purchase. (For more on those guys, check out Colin's piece from last week. (link))
That said, having Juan Mata, Eden Hazard, and Oscar playing behind you will make up for a lot of deficiencies, as will having Frank Lampard chasing the all-time Chelsea goalscoring record. Mata is one of the most elegant players in the Premier League, and his consistent, exceptional contributions last season made him the Chelsea MVP. The team was fun to watch, and third plus a Europa League title was a fair return on how they played last year.
As you may have noticed if you've been reading the site, shot locations are a fairly big deal. Shooting more frequently from ideal spots leads to more goals scored, while preventing the opposition from shooting in prime locations is obviously better. Thanks to the tireless work of Colin Trainor, I can show you Chelsea's shot location data for both offense and defense.
Offensively,Chelsea were good, with 68% of their shots coming from Prime or Secondary positions. However, "good" trailed Manchester United by a full 10%. Good is likely not good enough to win the league. (Though to be fair, that United number is ab. surd.)
On the defensive side of the ball, Chelsea gave up 74% of shots to the opposition in Prime and Secondary spots. Compare that to Liverpool's 61% concession rate of shots in those locations and you start to see the defensive issues I was mentioning earlier.
On basic numbers, Chelsea's shot locations looked like this.
Major Incoming Transfers
Chelsea have an absolutely massive squad. They have been collecting youth talent from around the world for a while now and farm it out to various European clubs on loan to help develop them. When they have matured like ripe cheese, they either bring the players into the first team or, if their talent isn’t good enough for a team that is expected to win the CL every year, they sell them. Thus it comes as no real surprise that two of Chelsea’s most important incoming players were already part of the club, but played elsewhere last year.
I mentioned above that Chelsea had real issues at forward last season. This was despite adding the prolific Demba Ba during the winter transfer window. The “Chelsea players” with the best returns from the forward slot last season were Daniel Sturridge (sold to Liverpool), and Romelu Lukaku, who was on loan to West Brom all year. This year Lukaku is directly in line for a starting berth with the big club, and given his age curve, is probably an improvement over either Ba or Torres.
Another loanee who was nothing short of tremendous last season was Kevin de Bruyne. The young Belgian posted 10G/9A in 33 appearances for Werder Bremen, averaging 2.6 key passes a game and 3 completed dribbles at age 21. Oh my. His YouTube highlight clips are electrifying.
Chelsea have also added a couple of new purchases to the squad. They picked up Andre Schurrle from Beyer Leverkusen. The 22-year-old German is a powerful, dribbling shot monster. 11G/7A in 34 starts, crossed with 3.2 successful dribbles a game at that age projects very well. His key pass numbers aren’t as impressive as De Bruyne’s, but part of that may be because he shoots more(3.6pg) and doesn’t take free kicks. Regardless, he fits in very well with Mourinho’s typical plan of employing fast, wide dribblers who can score as part of his lightning counter-attack system. I don’t think they will want him to shoot as much as he did in Germany, but he’s a good addition to an already loaded attack.
Chelsea also signed Marco van Ginkel from Vitesse, a player that my brain only refers to as the Scooby-Doo exclamation “Ginkies!” Only 20, the stats suggest he’s a box-to-box player who is pretty good at getting on the scoreboard. He’s also 6’1”, providing another tall player in the box for set pieces, and yet another versatile building block to focus the team around in years to come.
Defensive midfielder is probably the biggest need for Chelsea, as they simply don’t have anyone in the squad that matches the level of production from that spot Mourinho usually gets. Mikel isn’t bad, but compare him to Makele, Essien (pre-injury), or Xabi Alonso and the gulf in quality becomes apparent. Though he was good on loan, I don’t think Nathan Chalobah (only 18) is ready to fill that hole, so I still expect Chelsea to make a move there.
Left and right back are sorted at the starting positions (Cole is ageless, and Azpilicueta was excellent), but while Bertrand is solid for LB backup, Ivanovich is sloooooow cover at RB. Then you come to the center back dilemma. John Terry is old. Luiz, though talented, doesn’t inspire the greatest confidence in anyone. Gary Cahill, though he moved some time ago, is still hard to peg in terms of is he good enough to start for Chelsea? Finally you have the aforementioned Ivanovich, who actually is consistent and fairly good, but gets exposed for pace against faster attacks.
Is this a good enough group for Mourinho to be comfortable with? I have no idea. I wouldn’t be happy with it, but outside of some early rumblings on Pepe, I haven’t heard any rumors.
Chelsea have the most attacking talent in the Premier League by some distance. It remains to be seen whether Lukaku or Ba will be the primary forward (or Rooney, assuming that rumor whirlwind is something more than Mourinho playing mind games), but they are likely to be considerably better than what Chelsea had in that position last year. Combine that with the exciting new attacking talent, and Chelsea’s second string attacking midfield would start for maybe 18 of the 20 PL clubs.
However, the issues with defensive fragility that plagued Chelsea last year – despite having a manager known for building defensive rocks in the past - have certainly not been addressed at the personnel level. That said, there is no manager in the world more capable of fixing this than Mou. He may not have invented defensively-solid, counterattacking football, but he certainly perfected it. I still expect at least one signing of either a centre back or defensive midfielder before the window closes for no other reason than this: You can’t rely on solely on Jon Obi Mikel and the ghost of Michael Essien to win the league and the CL.
The other thing you notice from watching Real Madrid the past few years, is that Mou’s teams are no longer boring. Sure, they don’t employ the clever passing systems that Barcelona or Bayern Munich do, but they will hammer an opponent with shots at a rate the vast majority simply can’t withstand. This should be exciting to Chelsea fans familiar with version 1.0 of Mourinho, for whom a 2-0 win was positively barnstorming.
No one really knows who will win the Premier League this year. It’s the first time I have ever seen a three-way pick’em in league outright odds, and the last two title winners both changed managers in May. However, Mourinho is the guy who has won five league titles in eight years in England, Italy, and Spain.
Installing Chelsea and Jose Mourinho as anything other than favorites for the title is disrespectful of the Special One, and almost certainly a mistake.
Shot Dominance is a measure of how many shots a team concedes versus how many they take themselves. This measure is useful in predicting where teams will end up in the table at the end of the season. It’s not perfect, but it is useful. It falls down a bit when faced with unique offensive systems like at Barcelona and Manchester United under Alex Ferguson, where they take fewer shots overall than you expect from great teams, but the chances they create are significantly more likely to score.
PDO is a measure of how well a team converts shots on the offensive end and saves shots on the defensive end. Good teams tend to post high levels of PDO and bad teams low levels over time, but there is a huge regression to the mean with this measure as well. Thus analysts tend to look at extremes of PDO as “luck factors.”