Maybe it was a dull, long-winded professor. You know, some nerd in a novelty tie who made Ben Stein in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off seem like a man who’d just chugged six Red Bulls? The kind of man whose pulse can only be set racing by the words of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter.
Or maybe it was a traffic jam — a traffic jam that stretched further than the human eye could ever hope to see. A traffic jam so bad that it makes a person want to say screw it, abandon their car and just walk to their destination.
At some point in every person’s life, they’ve been so bored they’ve wanted to rip their hair out just because it would give them something to do. If there’s one positive in this darkest of timelines that is the 2022-23 season, it’s that we can all definitively say when in our lives we’ve been most bored: watching this Chelsea team in possession of the ball. Move over Professor Monotone, Graham Potter & Co. have come to take your crown and put us all to sleep.
Not much has gone right for Chelsea this season, but the team’s sputtering attack has been the most alarming concern. Chelsea have scored just 22 goals this campaign. Twelve teams in the Premier League have scored more. And the advanced metrics show this meager total isn’t a fluke: Chelsea’s expected goals tally sits at 23.8 (all stats per FBref).
Chelsea don’t have trouble getting hold of the ball as we are third in the Premier League in possession. And Chelsea rank fourth in the Premier League in touches in the final third per 90 minutes, so we don’t particularly struggle to ping the ball around in the opponents’ half either.
Moving the ball into the final third isn’t Chelsea’s problem — it’s what we do with it once we get there. More specifically, the concern is what we aren’t doing with the ball once we get near the opponent’s goal: shooting it. Chelsea are taking just 11.50 shots per 90 minutes. A total that ranks eleventh in the league.
One of the trademarks of Thomas Tuchel’s Chelsea was the emphasis on shot quality over shot quantity. Players would avoid taking hopeful punts from suboptimal positions and instead work around the ball and wait for a better opportunity to present itself. Potter’s previous teams have possessed a similar trait.
Two things: this season’s Chelsea are taking nearly four fewer shots per 90 minutes than last season’s team (and also taking around one shot fewer per 90 minutes than Potter’s Brighton did last season). There’s patience, and then there’s simply not taking enough shots. Also, the shots Chelsea are taking this season aren’t good. Only five teams in the Premier League have registered lower non-penalty xG per shot than Chelsea.
It’s been too simple for teams to defend against Chelsea. Opponents can easily keep their shape while we ponderously and predictably pass the ball around them. Close your eyes and picture a Chelsea attacker dribbling past a defender — genuinely challenging an opponent 1-v-1 then gliding by them. What does this player look like, and why does he look exactly like Eden Hazard?
Hazard himself is more punchline than player at Real Madrid these days, but Chelsea have sorely missed the gravitational pull he would exert in the final third. His trickery could unsettle defenses and drag opposition players out of position. When defenders get dragged out of position, space opens up. The attacking third in space is the most valuable commodity in football, and Chelsea have had precious little of it since Hazard departed.
In the Premier League, only Everton have had fewer dribbles leading to a shot per 90 minutes than Chelsea this season. There are many ways to create shots, but the lack of an attacking player capable of creating space and challenging a goalkeeper on his own has hindered Chelsea’s final-third potency. Instead of being able to utilize the cheat code of individual brilliance to move the ball by defenders, Chelsea have to pass, pass, pass, and then pass some more. Even Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona had Lionel Messi when opposing defenses refused to be pulled apart by tiki-taka.
There’s a striking absence of directness to this season’s Chelsea. The sideways passing of Jorginho has been well-discussed, but Mateo Kovačić and Mason Mount haven’t exactly been assist-generating machines, either. No player has more than two assists this season. And poor finishing can’t be blamed alone since Mount and Raheem Sterling are tied for the team lead with a paltry 2.9 expected assists.
Whipping crosses into the box has been mocked in recent years by the analytically inclined as the hapless strategy of the unimaginative. Those mocking have a point: a lot has to go right for a cross to find the correct forehead and for that forehead to direct the ball past the opposition goalkeeper. Crossing, however, can be a nice plan B or C to have at your disposal. At the very least, crossing might tempt a defender or two to abandon their position in an attempt to block the delivery.
With no reliable aerial presence lurking in the penalty area, crossing hasn’t been an option for Chelsea. Kai Havertz is better in the air than one might think, but he’s a far cry from peak Didier Drogba or Diego Costa. Plus, one of Havertz’s strengths is his ability to drift into pockets of space, so he’s never a fixed target. When watching the gorgeous arc Hakim Ziyech’s left foot can put on a cross, it’s agonizing to know there’ll be no one waiting in the box to get on the other end of it.
Help may have arrived in the form of João Félix (if he can just avoid red cards for the remainder of his loan from Atlético Madrid). Félix was a shot monster in his Chelsea debut against Fulham, firing off six efforts at goal in just under 60 minutes of play. Simply having a player willing to drive aggressively at the opposition’s goal injected a vibrancy into Chelsea’s attack that has been lacking all season. The Blues took 20 shots at Craven Cottage and generated an expected goals tally of 2.1, our highest single-match xG in the league this season. Of course, with this season being utterly cursed, we still lost 2-1.
With Félix expected to return to Atlético when his loan ends after this season, we will have to hope new arrivals Mykhailo Mudryk and Noni Madueke can be long-term solutions to Chelsea’s attacking woes. If, at least, they can provide aggression and spontaneity, they’ll be welcome additions.
In football, if you’re going to be bad, you should try not to be boring. Unfortunately, Chelsea have been both this season.