Are there signs of hope for Chelsea ahead of a challenging fixture schedule?
Two wins against respectable opposition may have spurred a bit of life into the Chelsea squad ahead of some tough fixtures in the run up to Christmas.
Chelsea went into the season with a sense of optimism following an unbeaten preseason, picking up the summer series trophy in the process. However, since then, the Blues have had a harsh reminder of the ruthless, unrelenting nature of the Premier League with defeats, to West Ham United, Nottingham Forest and Aston Villa in the opening six weeks of the season.
The double pivot dilemma
In spite of this, the previous two fixtures may have provided reasoning for renewed optimism from the Stamford Bridge faithful; wins at home to Brighton in the Carabao Cup and away to Fulham in the league, without conceding a goal, show that Mauricio Pochettino may be turning things around.
Since joining for a record transfer fee at the time, Enzo Fernandez has been a cornerstone of the Chelsea midfield. However, exactly which role he takes up has varied; despite signing an abundance of attacking talent, Mauricio Pochettino has persisted with playing Fernandez (#8) in a more attacking number 10 role ahead of Conor Gallagher (#23), evidenced by his average position from matches earlier in the season.
The average positions show that against Nottingham Forest, Fernandez played more advanced with Gallagher accompanying Moises Caicedo in the double pivot. However, taking a look at the data, and as many Chelsea supporters have called for, Fernandez may well be better off partnering Caicedo, given his passing ability.
These metrics show that Enzo Fernandez completes the most smart passes, and through passes per 90 minutes of any player in the Premier League this season, along with the third most passes into the final third of the pitch. *A smart pass is a pass that breaks through the opposition defensive lines, i.e. a progressive pass that somewhat takes opposition players out of play.
Suggesting that Fernandez’s outstanding attribute is his passing ability, but with the absence of the likes of Christopher Nkunku and so many arrivals at Cobham, Pochettino shoehorned the Argentine into the more advanced number 10 role. However, simply swapping Gallagher and Fernandez for the game against Fulham allowed each player to play more to their strengths.
Undoubtedly, Gallagher’s best spell came on loan at Crystal Palace in the 2021/22 season, where he contributed 11 goals and assists in 34 matches, illustrating his ability in and around the penalty area. Swapping Fernandez and Gallagher could well provide a solution to the misfiring dynamics in the midfield.
Is this enough cause for optimism?
Ultimately, probably not. Simple changes like this may help the team dynamics and improve individual performances, but Chelsea’s underperformance has predominantly been in front of goal; evidenced by the fact that Chelsea have had a superior XG to their opponents in every game this season.
Chelsea have had some of the best possession and passing stats of any team this season, with the third most touches in the opposition box, second most possession and second most passes completed.
Nicolas Jackson has accrued an xG average(expected goals) of 4.12 across the first six games of the season, placing him behind only Erling Haaland and Mohamed Salah, despite only have one league goal to his name – demonstrative of Chelsea’s lack of efficiency in front of goal.
Nonetheless, the finishing from all of the attacking players needs significant improvement and not just the number 9. Ultimately, the squad doesn’t consist of much proven goal threat, but starting Ben Chilwell on the left wing and Enzo Fernandez as a number 10 doesn’t seem to be the answer, going off the early stages in Pochettino’s tenure. A case could be argued that Gallagher will offer more goal threat in the number 10 role, but until the return of Christopher Nkunku, it will be hard to judge exactly how good Chelsea are.
Favourable start, but a tough run awaits….
Although the data and the return of injured players suggests the future looks bright, these statistics are all from fixtures that the Blues should, in theory, be winning. The amount of control and possession they have may well change towards the end of the month when Stamford Bridge welcomes Arsenal, Brentford, Manchester City and Brighton and Hove Albion in between trips away to Tottenham Hotspur, Newcastle United, Manchester United, and Everton.
Following the international break, there should be timely returns for Malo Gusto, Reece James, Carney Chukwuemeka, Benoit Badiashile and Trevoh Chalobah to offer a boost and extra depth for Mauricio Pochettino.