Chelsea At Risk Of Becoming Victims Of Their Own Early Season Success — Jack McCutcheon

One of the most interesting themes of Gameweek 23 in the Premier League was the lack of wins for teams in the top half of the table. That includes Chelsea who fell to another defeat as they struggle to maintain the pace they set in the earlier stages of the season. If you look back, Chelsea actually had a nine point lead on fifth place, and that lead was ten points on the team who now occupy that position, Manchester United.

Fast forward to today and that gap is down to just five. Although that may not sound too alarming, the actual drop off in Chelsea’s results is definitely worthy of some concern. From those first 12 games of the season Chelsea picked up eight wins, a huge contrast to the four wins they’ve collected in the 11 games since then.

A big part of that has been the manner in which opposition teams have been able to slow down their offence, usually by defending deep and compact with very little space in behind to be exploited. To put the change in their offensive fortunes into perspective, they were able to score in 12 of their first 13 games, but with Saturday’s 1–0 loss at Newcastle, Chelsea have now been shutout in four of their last 10.

That begins to look even worse when you bring in the amount of goals scored in a similar time frame. From Gameweek 13 through 23 they have managed just 12 goals, a long way short of the 27 they put up in the first 12 weeks of the season. It is quite remarkable to be able to see such a definitive turning point around the GW12/GW13 mark where their fortunes changed, however I don’t think there is any need to panic.

At this stage, the reality is that Chelsea remain in the top four with a five point buffer between themselves and the teams in 5th and 6th. With Chelsea it is worth putting what they have accomplished so far this season into the context of the bigger picture as well. Think back to what the expectations were for Chelsea coming into 2019/20.

They had just lost Eden Hazard, the best player in the Premier League, to Real Madrid and were left with a transfer ban that stopped them from strengthening their squad while their rivals were free to attack the market. It almost seemed like this would be a season just for the club to take stock and see what they really had in all the young players returning from loan, and a season for Lampard to gain more experience without having the pressure of high expectations on his shoulders.

So through the lens of those circumstances, sitting in the top four and progressing to the knockout stages of the Champions League is an unqualified success thus far. The issue now however, is the form shown in the first phase of 2019/20 has set seemingly unrealistic expectations for where this Chelsea team should be.

Following the 1–0 loss at Newcastle, the amount of criticism aimed at Lampard and his Chelsea team has increased significantly, but this kind of slump should have been expected. This is a young Chelsea team and one characteristic always attached to a young squad is inconsistency, something that fits in with what we’re seeing now.

With that being said, the actual performances in the past 11 games or so, while clearly not at the same standard, are not necessarily accurately represented by the huge drop in goals scored and points collected. Both the underlying numbers, in terms of expected goals, and the eye test suggest that a lot of it can be put down to wasting chances and making errors in defence.

From what we’re seeing, Chelsea are still clearly the third or fourth best team in the Premier League at the moment. I think if you were to assess their season so far fairly then there is a lot to be encouraged about, particularly when you look at how the young players returning from loan have coped. Abraham is a definite hit, and in his first year as a Chelsea starter he’s been one of the best strikers in the Premier League.

Beyond that, Mount has shown that, at the least, he can be a solid squad player going forward while Tomori is an interesting talent at centre back that has plenty of potential for sure. Perhaps most excitingly, after Tammy Abraham, is the success of Reece James since he recently found a more regular place in the starting lineup.

At right back James possesses great physical attributes and from what we’ve seen so far, appears to be a very skilled crosser of the ball, which is a trait that seems to becoming ever more significant for fullbacks. The success of these players brings a much needed change to the club who had struggled to bring through the quality talent from their academy for a long time.

This Chelsea squad, going back 12–18 months, was one that you looked at and thought was desperately in need of a rebuild. Now, with the injection of youth players and the contributions they have made, it’s looking closer to a squad that’s just missing a few quality pieces for the first eleven.

Alongside the surpassed expectations on the field, that should be one of the biggest takeaways from this season for Chelsea because, even if just a couple of those players go on to be long term starters, the amount of money that saves them in the transfer market is huge. Of course that then allows them invest more into recruiting in top tier players to take this team to the next level.

Let’s take the example of Reece James here. The market isn’t exactly full of quality fullbacks, something which makes it an expensive position to buy for. Just look at Manchester United who spent £50 million on Wan-Bissaka who has limitations offensively. Meanwhile Manchester City have also spent huge amounts to fix their problems at the fullback positions and still haven’t completely found a solution.

To be able to find a quality fullback in house saves you that kind of trouble. It also plays into the kind of strategy for putting a squad together that has worked so well for teams like Liverpool and Leicester. That is to balance high quality, expensive signings with cheaper, good value moves and promoting youth academy players.

The key point here is that Chelsea are actually in a strong position right now, especially when measured against those preseason expectations. It was very plausible at that point that most of the returning loanees would be busts and they would be struggling around 7th/8th during Lampard’s first season at the club as manager. Instead they’re on course to hit their objectives and they’ve found some talent to build a team around.

Despite that, there is still plenty of negativity and pessimism surrounding the current state of their season, and the job Lampard is doing, which only goes to show how quickly fan’s expectations can be swayed by a short run of games in either direction. Instead of reading too much into the early season success or the mid-season struggles, serious judgements and expectations should be based on longer periods that consist of more than 12 games.

Originally published at http://jackmccutcheon.com on January 20, 2020.