A blessing in disguise for Chelsea? Lukaku & Werner injuries should force Tuchel into a tactical change
Chelsea are top of the Premier League table, have conceded just one non-penalty goal, and have only dropped points against title rivals Liverpool and Manchester City.
The top line is that Chelsea are doing just fine.
But there is a reason why fans and pundits are questioning whether Thomas Tuchel’s restrictive tactical methods are suffocating the side’s creative instincts.
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Look beneath the surface and things don’t look quite so rosy.
Chelsea are sixth in the xG table with 12.8, three goals fewer than their actual tally of 16, and rank seventh for xG against, with a score of 10.3 (per WyScout).
What this points to is some slightly fortunate results built upon superb goalkeeping from Edouard Mendy and clinical finishing in the early part of the season. That story certainly passes the eye test.
Brentford put them under significant pressure in the final half-hour of Chelsea’s 1-0 win at Griffin Park (Tuchel’s team were outshot 17 to five), while Aston Villa were arguably the better side in a 3-0 loss at Stamford Bridge in September, in which Villa ‘won’ the xG battle 1.67 to 1.12.
Go deeper, and things are even more concerning.
Chelsea have taken the fifth-most shots in the Premier League (just five fewer in total and they would be bottom half) and have had 192 touches in the opposition penalty area – the third highest but dramatically fewer than Liverpool or Manchester City and only two more than West Ham.
Defensively, Chelsea have conceded as many shots as Brighton and Brentford and more than Wolves. Most remarkably of all, their PPDA (a measure of pressing intensity) is the third worst in the division at 15.73. Only Newcastle United and Norwich are pressing with less frequency.
This should not be particularly surprising to anyone who watches Chelsea regularly. In Tuchel’s 3-4-3 or 3-5-2 attacking verve is sacrificed for defensive solidity, and his rigidly choreographed shape is starting to produce static, sideways football.
Things feel claustrophobic, the team shuffling as one in a compressed midblock without the freedom to shake out of their formation and lacking the attacking numbers to put opponents under pressure.
They are too reliant on Mason Mount to link a seven-man defence with two forwards, and as the shape remains inflexibly strict teams have worked out how to defend against it. That’s because, without any space for improvisation, the formation is simply too narrow and prescriptive.
Chelsea’s wingers are restricted to playing in crowded central spaces as inside forwards; creative midfielders like Mount get lost among the bodies as opponents crush infield to limit Chelsea’s main passing lanes; and the wing-backs are isolated as the only players occupying the wide positions.
It is no wonder they rank 11th in the Premier League for passes into the final third, 10th for one-on-one dribbles, and 10th for progressive runs (a continuous ball control by one player attempting to draw the team significantly closer to the opponent goal).
This is a team lacking in freedom to break the lines, to break out of an overly-regimented tactical structure.
Before arriving at Stamford Bridge, Tuchel was famous for changing formation and style from game to game, which makes his reluctance to move away from this formation all the more baffling.
But whether through fear or obstinacy, his hesitancy to shift system might not last much longer following injuries to Timo Werner and Romelu Lukaku on Wednesday.
What looks like a problem on the surface could prove to be a blessing in disguise.
Tuchel will need to do a bit of experimenting to find out how to play without either of his strikers, and with a kind run of fixtures coming up – Norwich (home), Southampton (h), Newcastle (away), and Burnley (h) are their next four – there is space here to open up a bit; to bulk out the team with attackers.
Clearly packing in an extra attacking player is too simplistic a solution to losing your strikers, but in a round-about way Tuchel may end up in that situation.
Kai Havertz is expected to lead the line as a false nine, and although he has done this numerous times before, his goal against Malmo on Wednesday was only the third game in which he has scored while playing up front for Chelsea.
It has always been a hallmark of Tuchel teams to play quickly and vertically through the lines, testing the opposition offside trap at every opportunity, and so he will be troubled by the thought of Havertz coming short into the same space as two inside forwards.
The answer is greater width and depth coming from other areas of the pitch, and Tuchel will know that. His decision to start playing Lukaku and Werner together was a sign he had noted his team’s lack of movement – that slow withdrawal into a congealed central block – and wished to add depth with runners in behind.
With these two out, this must now come from somewhere else, and while Havertz is a competent all-round striker who will not exclusively come towards the ball, Chelsea will nevertheless need to surround him with quicker players. Callum Hudson-Odoi, whose cameo in midweek included an assist for Havertz, is back into contention.
The flashes of midfield quality we saw from Ruben Loftus-Cheek against Brentford should also nudge Tuchel in the direction of a 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3, in which more purposeful creative players are packed into the starting 11 to make up for the loss of Lukaku’s goals.
But more fundamentally than that, Tuchel must see that things need shaking up a little bit. Chelsea have become a little flat, easy to read in a formation too strictly demarcated.
Injuries to Lukaku and Werner force a shake-up of sorts, and as Chelsea prepare to face relatively weak opponents willing to sit every man behind the ball, it is surely time to switch to something more expressive and attacking; to replace the excessive caution with a system that, just a little, lets go of control.