54 goals: Chelsea’s Defence Analysis

If there is any record left for Chelsea in the English Premier League that the fans keep as a bragging right, it is the astonishing 15 goals conceded in Mourinho first season. It is incredible no team has come close to the record. Well, Chelsea conceded 54 EPL goals in a season, the highest in the top 10 of the Premier League. It calls for huge concern. As often said, “great defences win titles’’. Let us take a look at the pattern of a porous defence all over the season.

Link to Spreadsheet: https://bit.ly/351jjCj
  1. Defending is a unit philosophy: To really understand defending is to check the overall system of play. To be fixated on goal conceded might miss the point. For example in the second game against Leicester City, Chelsea was in the backfoot for over 30 minutes with James Maddison and the gang having a field day. Something is still tactically wrong with Chelsea’s press within their own half. Beyond the errors of central backs — Rudiger, Zouma, Christensen or Tomori, there were obvious lapses by Barkley, Kante, Jorginho, Emerson, Azipilicueta.

Let us start with the lack of individual awareness around the box. This is the kind that takes a game a bit beyond reach. Below is a picture of Azpilicueta or Christensen against Manchester United. The trick is that most strikers drop behind Chelsea defenders and while the defenders watch the direction of the ball, the opposing striker is a step ahead. This also happened to Barkley against Norwich’s Cantwell. There were also multiple instances where players just watching movements happen and fail to mark in the box. The team had instances such as Kovacic jogging in the Sheffield first goal in the 2–2 draw, Pedro slowing down his run for Cresswell’s goal against West Ham, Kante against Everton or Azpilicueta or Emerson failing to track Newcastle players that led to the last-minute loss.

Based on my analysis, Chelsea’s centre defenders are responsible for 22 out of 54 goals conceded by the team. Other players on the field had blame and it was about not tracking down a player to the box, thereby providing space to shoot. The team needs to learn that when the ball is in transition, it is everyone’s role to mark, keep awareness and be on the right side of the opposing player.

2. Headers: It seems Chelsea players are not coached against headers or set pieces. 19 (11 headers, 8 diagonal crosses) out of 54 goals were connected to a cross being whipped into the box. This is a problem right from GW2 against Leicester City to Sheffield in Game 35. It seems that Chelsea’s zonal marking during a cross needs to be seriously reviewed. How do you drop a ball into the box and no one is picking a player or you have 5 10’ Azpilicueta marking 6 4’ Soucek in the box? Marking in the box is a very conscious decision but also midfielders taking note of runners to bomb into the box for a flying cross should be a training routine.

3. Following through: There were 4 instances where Kepa had to save a ball but Chelsea defenders were flat-footed, no one was around the keeper to end a rebound. Wolves in the 5–2 win, Sheffield in the 3–0 loss, and West Ham in 3–2 loss exploited this for their gain. It seems Chelsea players especially midfield players, just expect the ball would just disappear. Chelsea players might complain of the lack of dominance of Kepa in the box but the team has to cut him some slack as the club might have a coaching problem on set-piece defending. Out of the entire 54 goals conceded, I won’t blame Kepa for more than 8 goals. Chelsea defence had issues beyond Kepa.

4. Unforced Errors: Except for the Everton howler and Newcastle near-save, it very difficult to blame Kepa for most goals conceded by Chelsea. A lot was lost to individual errors either in a position that makes the enter defence line very vulnerable. My worry with Kepa at the end was that he stopped making efforts for longshot balls creating a huge uproar. He needs to be led and also challenged. I mean the challenge that Emiliano Martinez currently gives Bernd Leno. It is such a shame that Chelsea banked his release clause. Kepa is really not worth that much.

5. Tactical Awareness: A lot needs to be said about Lampard tactical awareness when the team is down by a goal or in a draw. Chelsea had less draws in matches because while it was level with teams, it pushed too high when it could have had more tactical awareness of opposition players. This happened against Everton, West Ham, Sheffield United and so on. There is a time to go hard for a second goal when you are a goal up but a state of draw in a game requires the team to balance the play between defence and attack as the opposition goal might just double the lead, putting the game to bed.

6. The Highline is not the problem: The headers and the quick movements around the box, as well as player errors, were more spaces to concentrate on rather than focus on a highline. Chelsea had only five main highline goals which include the Rashford’s second goal on opening day, the West Ham’s Yarmolenko goal and the loud Kante’s fall against Arsenal, last Liverpool goal in the 5–3 thriller and another. Liverpool also plays an highline but the entire team gets behind, with the players doing their best to stay in the right position against the opposing player. I saw Robertson do this against Willian. Alonso would have strolled in the same position if against an opposing team.

7. Pairing: Let us look at the defenders. It is no news that Chelsea has bought Thiago Silva. The question is who pairs him? Well, in team defence combination, a lot of respect has to go the Zouma-Tomori partnership that conceded 8 goals in 9 games. Lampard had hopes that Rudiger would be a plug for the team. I did not work. Christensen-Zouma also turned out for worse with 16 goals conceded in 8 games. Christensen-Rudiger partnership started 10 games with 12 goals conceded. There is a little quality between but if we drill into individual issues, we can peg it into this:

Zouma: Very prone to error but did not make a single mistake due to a header nor was he poorly positioned against an opposition player in the box. With a firm leader, he looks like the one to put beside Thiago. He needs to look at his positioning especially for his own goals and also needs to put in clean tackles. He had great ones against Norwich and Crystal Palace.

Christensen: He has a consistent problem around positioning or being on the wrong side of the opposing player. He lost his man on the high crosses that led to two goals and also did not have awareness for two low diagonal crosses that led goals. I believe that he can be coached on being more thorough and aware around the box. But if this how the club conceded most goals, it might be better to ask tough questions.

Rudiger: The problem with Rudiger is that he does not have a concentrated problem. I pinned five main faults over him and it’s all over the place. However, his positioning is still the main theme across issues and it seems that when the team structure collapses, he drops howlers that double the challenge.

Tomori: He deserves another look. The patch he had with Zouma with 8 goals conceded in 9 games needs to be looked into. They had two clean sheets. His few errors leading to a goal were mainly due to poor marking. He does not stay close enough on his opposing player and a single trick puts him off balance. I believe that Thiago can easily help him.

Lampard needs to find a set-piece and diagonal cross specialist. If most teams have found a route to Chelsea’s net via this route, it needs a second look. If other players don’t drop deep to defend or deliver sloppy challenges in set pieces, he needs to ask his new assistant — Barry — for help.

If I were him, I would keep Zouma, Tomori and Rudiger. I would put Christensen on loan or possibly sell (he has two years left). We have Sarr, Ampadu and possibly Rice asking for the same spot. 72m GBP is a lot to pay and the Kepa still has five years to go. I think he needs to stay one more season but he needs to be challenged. It would only get better with a leader in Thiago Silva who can help these young ones especially marking & positioning in the box.

God's Unfinished Sketch. Policy & Data Wonk. BudgIT Lead. Ashoka, Aspen Voices & Knight Innovation Fellow