Given the disaster Frank Lampard’s Chelsea regime was degenerating into, the upswing in results since Thomas Tuchel took charge has been a welcome change.
The London giants had lost five Premier League games between December 12 and January 19, an extreme downturn that threatened to derail the club’s Champions League qualification. While they may still not feature in Europe’s hallowed competition next season, the change in manager has at least sparked an improvement in results and put them back in the mix for a top four finish.
Chelsea have picked up 14 points from an available 18 in the league, conceding twice in that time. Throw in the FA Cup win at Barnsley and Champions League success vs Atletico Madrid on Tuesday and Tuchel’s team have kept six clean sheets in the first eight games of the German’s reign.
Be that as it may, their final-third frustrations and lack of penetration have been striking in the early weeks under the former Borussia Dortmund tactician.
It seems inconceivable that the Blues have struggled to fashion out opportunities owing to the presence of Hakim Ziyech, one of Europe’s most reliable playmakers at Ajax before moving to West London last summer.
The Morocco maverick has had chances at a premium since Tuchel took charge, starting only once in the league against Wolverhampton Wanderers and at Barnsley in the FA Cup, a beyond forgettable showing for the attacking midfielder and indeed many of his colleagues in South Yorkshire.
Indeed, the current lack of games was predicted by Goal after a few games under Tuchel, where it was explained that the formation alteration, which suits the North African in theory, is equally detrimental due to Mason Mount’s position tweak in the new system. Injuries haven't helped, either.
Wrote about Ziyech on @GoalAfrica after his most impressive PL outing statistically since November vs Wolves.— Seye Omidiora (@theReal_SeyE) February 4, 2021
Despite benefitting from Tuchel's existing 3-4-3 in theory, there's a sense the Chelsea man's place will keep fans guessing for a while. #TOTCHEhttps://t.co/r8woT46tED
The switch to a three-man defence has equally left Chelsea with one fewer attacking slot in the XI, with Ziyech, Mount, Timo Werner, Kai Havertz, Christian Pulisic, Olivier Giroud and Tammy Abraham all jostling for the front three slots. Callum Hudson-Odoi, principally deployed at right wing-back, is also an option up front, as seen in the 1-0 win over Tottenham Hotspur in early February.
Despite the apparent options in the forward areas, fitness issues to some of the bodies in those positions, Ziyech inclusive, has meant Mount, Werner and either Giroud or Abraham has been the popular triumvirate to start from the off.
So far, there’s been a paucity of quality chances created despite dominating possession and getting into promising positions. While progressing the ball hasn’t posed major worries, largely aided by opponents sitting off the London outfit, the lack of invention in the attacking third, questionable decision-making and disappointing combination play has been a recognisable challenge.
Games against Wolves, Tottenham and last week’s disappointing draw at Southampton have underlined these early challenges.
Possession against Wolves was sterile, although excusable because Tuchel had been with the side for only 24 hours, substandard combination play against Spurs meant the Blues couldn’t add to their advantage in North London and the lack of invention against Saints was alarming.
Tuesday’s 1-0 Champions League win over Atletico was another game that highlighted the ongoing issues in fashioning out opportunities to punish the opposition, which the West Londoners could still rue in the second-leg at Stamford Bridge.
While simply suggesting Ziyech’s introduction into the XI solves creativity issues to an extent, the effect that will have on various elements already demonstrated by the side early doors may be detrimental.
Against Spurs, the intensity of Chelsea’s press forced the hosts into playing the ball long and the visitors won the subsequent knockdowns, while Diego Simeone’s team were prevented from launching meaningful attacks as the English giants generally thwarted their build-ups and counter-attacks at source.
Mount led the press for both games, with Werner equally effective in hounding the opposition, a characteristic reflected in the team’s broader hassling of opponents this season. The Englishman ranks highest for pressures per 90 among his teammates while the Germany international sits in fourth for volume of successful pressures…a category topped by the club academy graduate.
Ziyech, however, ranks 13th and 18th respectively for the former and latter, suggesting that aspect of the game isn’t particularly his forte.
The England international is not as creative as the former Champions League semi-finalist, who still leads the way for shot-creating actions per 90: 5.58-4.74. From open play, Ziyech’s superiority is marked – 4.17-2.49 – highlighting the chasm that exists between both players in the final third.
It is no surprise that the Wizard of Amsterdam equally tops in the Chelsea side for goal-creating actions per 90 as well (0.84), which drops to 0.69 for in-play passes leading to goals. Mount’s respective average is 0.46 and 0.09, the latter of which reveals a staggering drop off in quality from open play.
Be that as it may, the 22-year-old greater flexibility has allowed Tuchel to make in-game tweaks without necessarily making substitutions. Having shown he can feature as a false nine, inside forward on the right and in the hole, that adaptability has so far made Mount a key player under the German tactician.
There’s a sense that the Blues have to get Ziyech in the side one way or another eventually, owing to his more direct nature and eye for the killer pass. The unfit Moroccan looked off the pace against Barnsley and barely took off vs Southampton, which continued a series of largely underwhelming showings since returning in the New Year.
While Tuesday night's performance against Simeone’s side was a tad improved, 17 minutes vs a side desperately searching for an equalizer and pushing men forward puts things into context.
Ziyech won’t suddenly solve all the creativity difficulty in this Chelsea team, but there’s reason to believe his return to fitness and swift integration into Tuchel’s team will make things easier for the West London side going forward.
Whether the manager risks other components that have typified his side so far, however, remains to be seen.