After Manchester City’s incredible dominance of the Premier League last season, it’s understandable that 5-4-1 is the most common formation they’ve faced this time around. With so much at stake in the Premier League, damage limitation has become the name of the game for those anticipating a scrap for survival.
To some extent, that negative approach can be extended to last season’s Champions League finalists Liverpool too – they look like another Manchester City in the making and their front three particularly needs to be contained rather than encouraged because of its sheer potency and velocity. Pushing up high against them just won’t work.
But why are Chelsea, a team who finished fifth in the Premier League last season, being treated as a side of the same relentless calibre, capable of twisting and torturing any rank-and-file Premier League outfit put in front of them until they buckle for mercy and eventually succumb to seemingly inevitable defeat?
Maurizio Sarri’s enjoyed the strongest possible start to his Stamford Bridge reign – four wins in four – but the Blues’ opponents have been making it easy for them despite us seeing nothing to suggest they should be treated with the same fear as last season’s record-breaking champions.
Just look at the statistics. Chelsea have averaged 64.7% possession so far this term. That’s just 1.1% less than Manchester City, almost 7% more than Liverpool and more than 10% more than Tottenham, and follows a disappointing 2017/18 campaign in which they ranked a lowly fifth throughout the Premier League for possession with an average of 54.4%.
Chelsea no doubt have a talented squad, and Jorginho is an incredibly talented deep-lying playmaker. But is he so talented that the Blues’ average possession has justifiably increased by 10.3%? In their last two games alone, the Blues have taken an incredible 77% of the ball. Manchester City, meanwhile, arguably the best team in Europe right now and certainly English football, have managed to record a higher return of possession just once this season. Are we now saying Chelsea deserve as much respect when they’re on the ball as Pep Guardiola’s illustrious champions?
Of course, that’s not only a consequence of Jorginho – not to mention Sarri’s much different style of play – but also the incredible ball-winning ability of N’Golo Kante, who can turn possession back in Chelsea’s favour in an instant, and loan signing Mateo Kovacic – a player of undoubted pedigree and technical quality, even if its not quite shone through during the last few years of his career.
Yet, we’re also talking about a midfield trio that have played together just twice before. Kovacic didn’t even sign for the Blues until the final few days of the transfer window, while Kante returned late from the World Cup after lifting the trophy with France. As good as the individual components are, they shouldn’t be playing with such utter dominance just yet and opponents certainly shouldn’t be sacrificing more ambitious game-plans to try and negate what is still far more a loose collection of talented players than a cohesive, possession-retaining unit.
And that bizarre paradox resonates throughout the whole team. Striker Alvaro Morata hasn’t even looked like scoring during the three games in which Chelsea have completely owned the ball, while Eden Hazard only returned to Chelsea’s starting XI a fortnight ago. He should be treated as a player feeling the burden of playing a summer-long tournament without much rest, but defences are giving him the lay of the land to create moments of magic in – they’re giving him the freedom to completely control games.
Admittedly, the Belgium international is a tough man to stop when in his best form, but the same bizarre allowances apply to Chelsea’s backline. The Blues have already shown this season that they’re prone to mistakes in defence and willing to leave huge gaps as the full-backs bomb forward, while David Luiz’s knack of leaving himself exposed when playing in a four rather than a three has been well-established throughout his career at various levels.
This, coupled with the fact that department has completely changed structure since the end of last season, should be enough invitation for any team in what’s meant to be the most competitive top flight in the world to really get at Chelsea’s defence and cause them problems. Newcastle though, were only interested in doing that during the final ten minutes of their 2-1 defeat, and Bournemouth couldn’t even break out of their 3-4-3, which became far more of a 5-4-1, to ever really test Chelsea at Stamford Bridge last weekend.
The only team to truly cause Chelsea’s defence problems so far this season are Arsenal, who managed to score twice within a ten-minute spell when they could have easily netted three or four more. But no opponent since has sought to capitalise on the weaknesses Arsenal exposed. Instead, they’ve faced the west Londoners with negativity and fear.
Now, this isn’t a swipe at Chelsea simply for the sake of it. Sarri’s already shown himself to be an exciting coach and there’s no doubt that the Blues failed to give an accurate reflection of their ability last season – the year before, they had the Premier League title sewn up by January. With this talented squad and Sarri’s way of playing, some of the English top flight’s lesser clubs should rightly fear them once every component has fallen into place.
But Chelsea, quite simply, aren’t at that stage right now. This is a team that has been together for just one month – five games in total if we include the Community Shield – that suffers from a centre-forward bereft of confidence, a star player only just returning from a taxing World Cup, an unfamiliar midfield consisting of two players who have never played in the Premier League before, and a defence set up to make costly positional errors. Then there’s a world-record goalkeeper who may well buckle under that price-tag if someone really lays on the pressure.
Teams should be treating Chelsea with the same rightful discourtesy Cardiff offered Arsenal on Sunday, almost snatching a result against a Unai Emery team still adjusting to life under their new manager. Instead though, Premier League sides capable of causing problems for big six teams, like Bournenmouth with their attacking flair and Newcastle under the vastly experienced instruction of Rafa Benitez, are gifting the game to the Blues before a ball is kicked.
While it may feel somewhat snide and grievous to downplay Chelsea’s perfect start to the season, it says far more about the state of the Premier League right now than the quality Sarri’s side have exerted upon the rest of the division. When Chelsea play Liverpool twice in two games at the end of September, the west Londoners might well suffer a painful reality check.