This season hasn’t been a vintage one for Chelsea so far.
After their imperious performances winning the title last season, the west London club have had an interesting start to the season, hitting negative headlines for events both on and off the pitch. It’s easy to forget, though, that they are still likely to qualify for the next round of the Champions League, are still in the League Cup and are only a point behind second place in the Premier League.
There’s still a lot to be thankful for, in other words.
And yet this has been a strange season: with injuries to key players suffered right from the off, the Blues have had to make do and mend at times. They’ve also had to adapt to having new players bedding into core areas of the team.
Alvaro Morata is a change from Diego Costa, Tiemoue Bakayoko is not Nemanja Matic, and although the back three hasn’t needed to change too much, the departure of John Terry is perhaps more of an emotional void than a physical one for Antonio Conte’s side.
Of course, the defence has changed. Form and fall-outs have seemingly dictated that it should, as have injuries. And it’s left Andreas Christensen and Antonio Rudiger playing a bigger role than many thought they would have done at this stage of the season.
One other player who has a bigger role than we might have expected after seemingly losing his natural role in the team with the switch to the back three last season is Cesc Fabregas.
The Spaniard has played nine times in the Premier League so far, but his return of only one assist, and with a passing accuracy of 84%, the stats would tell you that he’s having less of an impact that you’d expect him to have.
It’s strange. So far this season, it’s Cesar Azpilicueta who is leading the assist list for Chelsea. His five assists in 11 games is really quite impressive for a player who spent most of last season playing centre-back. But it also points to something odd going on at Stamford Bridge.
Fabregas’ stats may seem low, especially when compared with Azpilicueta, but the really strange bit comes when you look at the chances they create. It turns out that Azpilicueta is not creating more than Fabregas. The midfielder averages 3.2 key passes per game, the most in the team. His defensive teammate in the Spanish national team, however, is averaging only 0.7 key passes per game. Fabregas is also coming in at fourth in Chelsea’s list for most shots per game, averaging 1.5 per match.
Those stats are probably best explained by looking at neither of those two Spanish internationals in the Chelsea squad but, as it happens, focusing on the contribution of a third Spaniard in the Chelsea ranks, Alvaro Morata.
The new striker has scored seven goals this season, and so far four of them have come from his head. That suggests that, despite the fact that Fabregas has been making chances for his team, Morata seems to be more comfortable with the crosses that Azpilicueta can provide. The defender has played four times at wing-back this season, but even when he plays on the left side of a back three, he still often gets forward and puts in crosses. And that explains his high number of assists.
And perhaps that also explains why Chelsea have looked poor at times this season: their entire attacking pattern has changed because Morata is a different type of player to Diego Costa.
But where Fabregas has been important, strangely enough, is in defence. So far this season, the Spaniard has averaged two tackles per game, and for a player who is usually seen as a number 10, that shows that he’s contributing to the team in other ways. He’s become quite important to Antonio Conte’s side in both attacking and defensive ways.
Chelsea are having a difficult start to the season, but the strangeness of the stats so far suggests that they’re in a transition period. And given they’re still fighting in all competitions, that means things could still click.