Sarri's Chelsea are Just Getting Started
Chelsea are perfect. They’re coming off their most impressive win of the season, a 4-1 demolition of Cardiff City. Despite going behind early, Chelsea dominated the game, took the lead just before halftime, and coasted home before putting it away late. Five games into the season, we now have enough time to look at exactly what makes Maurizio Sarri’s Chelsea tick.
An Attack on the Rise
The scary thing about Chelsea is that despite being perfect, their attack hasn't really fired on all cylinders yet this season. While Sarri’s attacking mindset is well known, Chelsea’s numbers in that department are respectable, but not outstanding. They take almost 19 shots per game, which is great, it’s second only to Manchester City’s outrageous 25. But their expected goals per game total is only at 1.59. That’s good, it’s fourth in the Premier League, but it’s not overwhelming. The fact that they’ve scored 14 goals, tied with Manchester City for most in the Premier League, is, to some degree, a product of a hot finishing start.
A quick look at their shooting profile shows that they’ve showed more than their fair share of unlikely goals, with four of their goals coming from shots that were worth 0.15 xG or less, and six coming from shots below 0.20.
This suggests that while Chelsea may be dominating the ball, they’ve yet to really break down teams in the final third. Rather, they’ve had to settle for an avalanche of speculative efforts and rely on accumulating enough individual moments of brilliance to break through defenses that are resolutely packed against them.
This was somewhat less true against Cardiff, where the team created four chances of 0.15 xG or higher (as well as a penalty) despite playing against a team in Cardiff that is one of the more defensively conservative sides in the league, and was incentivized to play even more on the back foot thanks to taking a lead a quarter of an hour in.
One particularly noticeable difference in Chelsea was how starting Olivier Giroud instead of Alvaro Morata changed the passing dynamics of Chelsea’s front three. Giroud was extremely involved in linking play over the course of the game. He created Chelsea’s biggest chance by playing midfielder Mateo Kovacic through on goal. Giroud played eight passes to Eden Hazard and four to Kovacic as parts of moves that resulted in 1.12 expected goals. Giroud’s ability to exchange passes around the top of the box in close quarters changed the positional dynamics of Chelsea’s attack. Here’s what their pass map looked like against Cardiff.
This is what it looked like against a similarly committed defensive team in Newcastle, with Morata starting.
Morata is much less involved. The wingers are wider. The midfielders are deeper. Everybody is green instead of red (a measure of contribution to expected goals). This is a much more typical striker profile. A player who is relatively uninvolved but for getting goal scoring chances. Giroud, on the other hand, is doing a lot of creative work.
Over the years, Sarri’s system has operated with a myriad of different striker profiles. His Napoli teams moved from Gonzalo Higuain to Arkadiusz Milik to Dries Mertens all of whom have incredibly different skillsets. Higuain is a classic all around striker, who scores goals in every way possible while also providing creditable link-up play. Milik is a dedicated goal poacher. Mertens is a converted winger whose skills are centered around his ability with the ball at his feet. Clearly Sarri will be able to incorporate either Giroud or Morata, it's just an issue of which striker can play better with the talent around him.
Both strikers are ultimately going to play a lot of minutes. With Europa League kicking off this week, Morata and Giroud will both need to start and contribute. What the early returns seem to suggest, though, is that they are not interchangeable parts. Giroud’s presence is important to Chelsea when it comes to breaking down defenses, while Morata remains a much more dedicated goal scorer. He’s more mobile than Giroud, more able to create chances for himself, or bother a back line without support, but he won’t contribute much beyond goals when it comes to breaking down a set defense.
An Underrated Defense
Chelsea’s defense has also been surprisingly strong this season. While philosophically Sarri is known as an attacking manager, thus far his team is living proof that other team can’t score if they don’t have the ball. Chelsea are only conceding nine shots per game, the third lowest total in the league, and they’re only giving up 0.87 expected goals per game, second best in the league and one of only five teams below the one goal mark. They’re doing that all with a defensive pressure map that looks like this.
On the one hand, all that blue is to be somewhat unsurprising from a high possession team. On the other, most high possession teams display a pattern of pressing high up the field to win the ball back. That is, typically, a good press is the engine that drives high possession, and thus prevents other teams from having opportunities.
That does not appear to be the case with Chelsea. Rather than showing a high propensity to win the ball back, they simply show an extreme tendency to always have the ball. This creates two potential problems going forward. The first is, what happens against other teams that are also good at holding the ball. They’ve only played one match against a team committed to attack, and Arsenal spent a half ripping through them. Chelsea won because after a wide open first half which ended 2-2, Arsenal manager Unai Emery decided to try and defend his way to a draw in the second half. But, in that first half, Chelsea conceded 1.31 expected goals.
The second problem is what happens when they play against a team that excels at counterattacking into space. Most teams that attack as aggressively as Chelsea do make a concerted effort to maintain their spacing in order to end counterattacks deep in opposing territory before they start. We’ve yet to see any evidence that Chelsea can implement that approach.
It’s possible to overwhelm teams like Cardiff and Newcastle, to use sustained possession to turn a defend and counterattack approach into defend and pray. But, there are good teams that are able to counterattack at speed. Liverpool, for example, has often chosen to adopt a more counterattacking posture when it comes to clashes against the other best teams in the world, and used it to great effect. Manchester United are less dynamic, but they too will look to play up midfield and then play up the field quickly using a center forward and a winger in combination. Despite Chelsea’s impressive defensive start, there’s still not a lot to indicate that they are well equipped to deal with the attacks that other good teams will bring to the table against them.
Chelsea have a lot of promise this season. Their perfect start gives them a strong leg up for finishing in the top four. They’ve managed to take every point available while a new manager implements a new system while dealing with a whole host of players who had very little preseason time together thanks to the World Cup. That’s a tremendous early season accomplishment. That said, the finished Chelsea article is likely to look slightly different from where they are now. Their attack will probably improve, and they’ll pick teams apart even more ruthlessly than they have so far. Their defense on the other hand, despite it’s gaudy numbers, remains unproven. Before considering the team as an actual contender for the Premier League title, Sarri needs to show some evidence that his approach has a plan for dealing with teams that won’t simply be overwhelmed by their attack. Those remaining defensive questions will likely determine whether Chelsea are simply a good team, or they’re a title contending one.
Header image courtesy of the Press Association