Chelsea will appear in Sunday’s game against unbeaten North London rivals Tottenham this season, but the form conveniently hides the fact that in many ways Chelsea have not gained the upper hand.
A shallow defeat by Crystal Palace and Arsenal followed by a resilient and gritty draw against Liverpool at Anfield when there were just ten men left, followed by a 3-0 loss to Aston Villa last weekend and a 1-0 win over Zenit St Petersburg midweek.
At the start of the season, most pundits looked to Chelsea and not only made them favorites to win the Premier League title, but also as a team with no noticeable weakness.
This is understandable. Chelsea’s defense since Thomas Tuchel’s arrival is like the proverbial brick wall. Edouard Mendy and the three defenders (whoever they are) have retained 23 remarkable clean sheets in 36 games and have conceded more than one goal in a game twice. That’s an average of 0.5 goals conceded per game which is astonishing.
The midfielder is world class. N’Golo Kante is widely regarded as the best player of his type in the world playing in midfield and the Jorginho star has been on the rise since last year, culminating in winning the Champions League with Chelsea, the Premier League. Europe with Italy and UEFA. player of the season. He has clearly adapted to playing in the Premier League and has improved his game accordingly.
Tuchel’s 3-4-3 (or 3-4-2-1) formation relies on the use of defensive or offensive ends depending on the situation in the game, and few of us would have much to complain about. of Reece James, Ben Chilwell or Marcos Alonso’s suitability for the role, although the jury can decide whether Callum Hudson-Odoi is best placed to play right-back. No problem because Cesar Azpilicueta can and does it quite regularly.
Chelsea have a wealth of talent and various options for the two players behind Lukaku with Mason Mount, Kai Havertz, Hakim Ziyech, Christian Pulisic, Timo Werner and Callum Hudson-Odoi competing for two places.
If I had a growl I would say Chelsea currently have four wingers competing for ‘forward midfielder / inside striker’ positions in a team that doesn’t actually play with traditional wingers, with full-backs providing the breadth of the game. ‘attack.
To top it off, Chelsea have a truly world-class striker at Lukaku; the last piece of Chelsea’s puzzle perhaps?
We are already seeing exactly why Chelsea spent almost Â£ 100million on Lukaku and precisely what Chelsea needed, namely goals. Against Villa last Saturday, with Villa the better side for much of the game, certainly in terms of chances created, it felt like a game last season Chelsea could easily have drawn or lost due to their inability to convert them. chances in goals. On Saturday Lukaku had two chances and converted them both and as a result Chelsea won 3-0 which did not accurately reflect the way the game was played.
Likewise, against Zenit St Petersburg midweek, on a very frustrating night for Chelsea, Lukaku had a chance and scored. Last season it could have been a 0-0 draw or even a loss if Zenit had managed to score a goal at the break.
Despite the results and it must be said, a victory wins anytime, Chelsea were not at their best against Villa or Zenit. Of course, Chelsea fans will generally be quick to bemoan a poor performance alongside them rather than glance at the opposition.
It could be argued that Villa and Zenit had done their homework on Chelsea and perhaps found a flaw in an otherwise highly polished diamond.
Villa intended to match Chelsea’s aggressive high press and were not afraid to attack Chelsea. They were clearly aided and encouraged by the rabbit-like Saul Niguez caught in the headlights, making his debut and all staring at sea in the Premier League hustle and bustle.
Nonetheless, Villa was aiming for Chelsea midfielder two, often returning the ball and using a power play in midfield with three on two. They also used their first two, Ollie Watkins and Danny Ings, to good effect and they gave Chelsea’s defense more than enough to think about.
Fortunately, Chelsea’s defense was still in the form that prevented Liverpool from being at Anfield and that, along with Lukaku’s precision, was enough to see Chelsea take all the points.
Zenit St Petersburg posed a whole different problem and I think we can see a lot of that this season. Zenit, clearly no game for Chelsea on paper, erred on the side of caution and essentially played with ten men behind the ball.
To be fair to them, they played well and even managed to make a few forays onto the pitch, but they had great success smothering Chelsea and limiting them to 2 shots on target for the entire game. Fortunately, the only chance Lukaku had he grabbed and Chelsea saw the game come out 1-0.
The irony of Zenit’s setup is that we’ve already seen it all under the guise of ‘park the bus’. Jose Mourinho sadly introduced the phrase after a frustrating 0-0 draw with Tottenham at home on 19 September 2004: “Tottenham might as well have put the team bus in front of their goal,” he said.
At the time, Chelsea were favorites to win the title and had figures like Didier Drogba, Eidur Gudjohnsen, Frank Lampard, Joe Cole and Damien Duff to unlock the door. But it was clear that the teams had already started to fear Chelsea and therefore resorted to suffocating them in the hope that somehow they could get a result.
The same could be said this season. As European champions and title favorites, there will be sides in both the Premier League and Europe who use the ‘park the bus’ tactic to quash Chelsea’s threat.
But are Villa and Zenit’s different tactics really exploiting a loophole in Tuchel’s master plan?
The reality is that Chelsea have won both matches, so the simple answer is no. Additionally, Chelsea haven’t really decided to prepare for this season, especially creatively.
Tuchel readily admitted at a press conference on Friday that he ” I didn’t expect us to be at our best in early September, especially after this preseason and Covid. For me at the moment it is more important that we are competitive, that we play relentlessly and that we have the conviction to overcome difficult minutes and periods in games.
Tuchel added: âI’m not saying we’re not playing well, we can play better but we’re hard to beat.
Of course, it is difficult to dispute. It is often said that the hallmark of Champions is to play badly and still win. Tuchel made it clear when he joined Chelsea that he would make them a tough team to beat and he kept his word.
But do Chelsea need to do more now that they have the world-class goalscorer and an abundance of self-confidence after winning the Champions League?
Well, I suspect the answer to that question is a resounding yes, but there are mitigating circumstances including how the opposition is analyzing Chelsea and looking for obvious flaws they can exploit.
So far this season, weaknesses in Chelsea’s tactical plan have been probed but have stood the test. As said before, we have to partly thank Lukaku and the resilient defense for this, but opposing teams who come up with a tactical plan to break through Chelsea’s formidable defense must also outsmart Tuchel if they want any chance of success.
Tuchel has proven just how smart a tactical manager he is in his short time at Chelsea. Against Villa, he knocked out Saul Niguez at half-time to replace him with Jorginho, but it was quick to undo Villa’s control over the midfielder by strengthening the Chelsea midfielder with another man.
For the Zenit game, it was less a change in personnel and training than a tactical change. Chelsea struggled to break through Zenit’s 10-man defense. The obvious solution was to go wide, but Zenit did a good job cutting that supply off. Even though Chelsea could find Lukaku, he was usually surrounded by two or three Zenit defenders while the space for Mount, Ziyech and Kovacic was also quickly closed. Instead, Chelsea tried to play through them which again proved difficult, not least due to the slow movement of the ball.
At half-time, Tuchel implored Chelsea to move the ball faster and play more directly. They did and after 69 minutes finally broke through thanks to a cross from Azpilicueta and a good header from Lukaku.
When you factor in Tuchel’s ability to make tactical changes in the game to counter whatever the opposition is trying to do, it’s hard to see any obvious weaknesses in this Chelsea side; much like it was with Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea first team from 2004-2007.
If there was one thing I would add, especially when it comes to breaking up a team that âparks the busâ, it would be a creative playmaker; a classic number ten in the mold of Eden Hazard or Gianfranco Zola. A player who can unlock the most stubborn defenses with a moment of individual brilliance.
Chelsea under Tuchel may not have many weaknesses, if any, but perhaps the last piece of the puzzle is a player who can bring both genius and flair.
David Chidgey is a member of the Chelsea Supporters’ Trust Board of Directors and presents the award-winning Chelsea FanCast every Monday and Friday, available on Acast, iTunes, Spotify or chelseafancast.com .