What the hell, Chelsea?
It’s impossible to ignore the Premier League’s new continuing serial, “What the hell, Chelsea?” This week’s episode found an unconvincing plot line involving Jose Mourinho claiming that his side had been dominant, despite a raft of evidence to the contrary and some comic relief as he joked about a computer failure in preparation. In reality, his team selection seemed to back-up a claim that he’d had very little time with his squad during the international break. Mikel coming in as a second defensive midfielder had the look of a back of a cigarette packet solution for an obvious problem, and it worked not one bit. A new hole was found ahead of the two DMs to go with the vast amounts of space given up behind them in the defensive ranks.
I joked on the podcast last week that Chelsea’s figures were looking “a bit QPR” and that was a reference to the basketball-style shot fests that had emerged. Yet at Everton, Chelsea’s attack just didn’t turn up. Two shots on target paled in comparison to Everton’s nine and once more we find it hard, nay impossible, to draw a positive slant from the performance.
Jose’s obfuscation and a slight abdication of responsibility might get the press buzzing but the smart people in the corridors of Stamford Bridge are unlikely to be fooled by excuses for very long. Chelsea are playing badly, not only by their own standards, but within league standards and their current position is entirely reflective of what they have put onto the pitch in five games.
As I write this, Paul Riley’s expected goals model places them dead last and the best I can measure them at via my models is 14th. Over half of their opponents shots so far have been on target, which is around 50% higher than a long term league average and will come down but it’s the sheer volume of them- 7.8 per game- that is the problem. And despite obvious personnel problems it’s not the goalkeeper’s fault: the save percentage is only a clip under par at 69%. The numbers back up the very obvious eye-test: Chelsea are currently letting teams get good quality shots off against them at a very high rate. Even West Brom, a team that rarely creates high shot volumes, managed six shots on target against them, a feat Pulis has only achieved once before in his tenure against… er… QPR last season.
Right now, Man City apart, the last team you would like to face with a swiss cheese defense is Arsenal who are creating shots at a machine gun rate- another 29 this week- and that is next week’s episode of this must-see event. The drama is far from over.
Early last season, West Ham were a superficially good side. They started the year 5-2-3, beat Liverpool and Man City, only conceded more than 11 shots once in their first seven games and generally looked like they might be a team that could comfortably compete in the top half. Of course, what followed as Sam Allardyce awaited his release was generally poor: they finished up a meandering twelfth powered nearly entirely by their pre-Christmas form and over the full season reverted to a more expected level. In game week three, they travelled to Southampton, gave up 18 shots, took only four themselves and lost 3-1. To say that was a warning of what followed later would require deceitful hindsight, but nonetheless it stood out as an island of mediocrity amongst seemingly good form.
It didn’t matter though: early results powered the media’s view, West Ham were alright, quite good even, and by remaining free of the threat of relegation their inadequacies were disguised for a huge post Autumn spell.
But this isn’t a story about West Ham, who for 2015-16 are existing in a weird goal frenzy that defies simple analysis, beating big teams away and losing to lesser teams at home. This is more a nod towards a team that has understandably drawn praise in these early weeks: Swansea. Is it possible to reframe their initial good performance as a reflection of Chelsea’s deficiencies rather than Swansea’s qualities? Maybe. Is beating a neutered Newcastle much to excite? Maybe not. And beating Man Utd 2-1 wasn’t the only thing that was reminiscent of 2014-15 in that game, they were also out shot and recorded a low shot count (9).
This week they went to Watford, found defeat and and devised very little in the way of attack. Despite benefiting from yet another sending off- meaning they have spent 25% of the season so far with a man advantage, in the 26 minutes at 11 v 10, Swansea only created one shot on target and were actually outshot (6 to 5). This after creating a mere three shots in the preceding hour. On paper, this game looked more like a reversion to the type of Swansea performance that characterised last season with lots of possession and very little cutting edge.
Who then are Swansea? An improved team with a newfound cutting edge or a similarly skilled team that ran hot through a short spell? Once more, we are faced by a sample too small to conclude and each possibility is viable, but it is unlikely that the narrative will be quelled by new evidence. Already the wider perception is that Swansea are a decent and better side and as we saw with West Ham- or indeed Swansea themselves last season, if for any reason that proves not to be the case, it will take significant time or a drastic dip in results before that view changes in the wider media.
If only there were some way to benefit from this.
Three clean sheets, three failures to score, nothing going on in the “shots for” column, a sub-par shot ratio and a point per game. The Tony Pulis show has returned with a familiar combination of stability without flair. It’s easy to imagine Saido Berahino is thoroughly fed up with his revised job description as a reserve left sided defensive midfielder and whilst I jest, one only has to look at the current varied trajectories of Pulis’ former clubs, Palace and Stoke to wonder if the semi-security provided by his turgid play is “a good thing”. Time and again he finds a 0-0 or a 1-0 from a shot profile that looks like a loss and as ever, all complaints can be referred to the league table.
Pity reporters given the task of describing the visit of Southampton, a team that isn’t matching the results of early last season but continues to prevent shots effectively. Indeed last year’s top four shot prevention teams are already occupying the same slots this season: Arsenal and Manchesters City and United round out the quartet. They also rank third for shots taken which suggests their early struggle for victories is unlikely to last and if there is a problem, it’s the same one they had last year: turning this underlying dominance into something tangible and getting the ball in the net.
Pelle has two goals from 22 shots so far, and again is the focal point of the attack. As last year, whether he can increase his personal conversion rate is likely to impact on whether Southampton can carve out a good or a great season. It is already easy to be quite impressed by the method in which Southampton have adapted to multiple sales and a cursory look at their squad suggest that they have greater depth this year too. With Ward-Prowse progressing, Rodriguez returning and Tadic and Mane each well capable of turning a game, they start this year with more variation in attack and will be hoping the eventual delayed introduction of Clasie can underpin these solid foundations.
Obligatory Tottenham win
Seventy minutes of ineffectual probing and failing to create any chances of note was a staid preamble to a classic Pochettino late punch victory up at the Stadium of Light. Pity Sunderland, they looked a whole lot more organised than in earlier fixtures but missed their one big chance and finally shipped the key goal late on. Fans will always desire an attack that beats forth with the ferocity of a tidal wave but there was more than a hint of Chinese water torture about Tottenham here, the slow repetitive effect of recycling possession in the opposition half finally causing Sunderland to leave just enough space for Mason to apply a finish. His injury is a concern- his form has been largely good so far, but he’s always been made of glass- and in the continued absence of the perennially underrated key cog Eriksen, the whole game was a lot harder than it might have been.
Son debuted and didn’t “Martial”, Kane, so devoid of confidence after his two goals for England, air kicked a good chance and opposite to earlier games, the result beat the performance. But! Tottenham’s numbers continue to be just fine, something that will not be said for the sales of the apparently wafer-thin away shirts, shredded so readily by physical defending.
Oh, regarding Anthony Martial’s Ricky Villa-esque debut for Man Utd, I fully expect that he will receive a firm rebuke from his manager in the week. As a player new to the club, he has clearly has not imbibed Mr van Gaal’s philosophy. At the start of his mazy run, there were surely simple passes available to him, which he clearly ignored. This is not how “Louis van Gaal’s army” does things.
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