The date is May 29, 2021. The city? Porto, Portugal. The stadium? Estádio do Dragão. On the pitch, a final whistle is blown and Chelsea are deserved UEFA Champions League winners after a well-fought tactical battle with Manchester City that has been edged by a Kai Havertz goal in the 42nd minute.
The 72 million pound man has proved his worth at the biggest stage after a crazy season that has once again seen Chelsea in a weird spiral which has ultimately resulted in a trophy[and this time the biggest in football, mind you].
We fast forward to today – 19th of December 2021. Chelsea have just drawn Wolves in quite a boring game that has seen the side now effectively sit six points behind City after leading them by three not so long ago.
It’s premature to suggest Chelsea are out of a title race, some like me have never believed Chelsea were the favourites in such, but the truth is the side’s performances have dipped exponentially. A reoccurring thing in December, most definitely, but still, things have taken a turn for the worse.
Injuries haven’t helped and COVID cases have recently troubled the side too, but the truth is, reasons lie way beyond just injuries and COVID and this piece will delve just into that.
I’m far from the idea to just blatantly hate on people here but rather debunk a few ongoing issues at Chelsea over the past couple of seasons that have yet again come to haunt the Blues as they come crashing down to reality in a bleak December.
To kick things off, I feel the biggest elephant in the room is the so-called “depth” at Chelsea. At the start of the season a lot of people, be it higher-ups or fans banked on a host of the signings from the previous summer and most notably those in attack [as Edouard Mendy, Ben Chilwell and Thiago Silva proved key figures already] to push on/shake off what was their first season hoodoo.
Timo Werner got most of the slack, but in all fairness, Kai Havertz and Hakim Ziyech were very, very underwhelming in the majority of the games. The silky German, as he was labeled in a great chant by the fans, got a little bit more leeway as he produced a couple of notable performances in the Champions League knockout phase including engraving himself in Chelsea folklore following that goal v City.
Ziyech on the other hand had a fantastic start at first but fell off drastically and looked a shell of his former Ajax-self to say the least. Alongside them, a lot of emphasis was put on Christian Pulisic who was a VERY large reason as to why Chelsea reached the Champions League they won in the first place.
Romelu Lukaku was signed for a record fee and the side also had Mason Mount firing after being Chelsea’s best player in that campaign and off the back of a European Championship in which his team reached the final but lost. Somewhere in “the shadows” was also Callum Hudson-Odoi who had fallen down the pecking order but his talent remained undeniable.
All in all, Chelsea were set. This was their best and most “stacked” side, if you could call it and they were ready to mount a challenge [no pun intended]. And to be honest, they were. Only recently Chelsea dismantled teams when [almost] everybody was fit and firing.
Still, a couple of things have to be mentioned here. Despite managing to appease the stat sheets at times, all four of Werner, Pulisic, Havertz and Ziyech have been poor. They are obviously different profiles, but they are all bound by the same issue – consistency.
If we’re trying to be 100 % accurate the whole Chelsea squad has had that, but in particular, these four have been “troubled” by it in abundance. See, Chelsea’s system is set up in a way that relies heavily on its wing-backs and the front three.
As the WBs provide the much-needed width to stretch the opposition the AMs and striker are tasked with most of the build-up phase around the final third be it with their creativity and ability to pass in between the channels [to the aforementioned WBs/ST] or through sheer 1v1 ability.
Here is where consistency and luck come into play and Chelsea haven’t had either. Mason Mount, for all his ability, has been consistently troubled by niggling minor [up until only recently] issues that have kept him from being 100 % all the time and as a result, affected his form.
He still sits as one of the mainstays in the front three, but the question remains who should be next to him? Romelu Lukaku suffered from an ankle injury that sidelined him in a crucial period for the side and as a result, he’s still yet to adjust to both Tuchel and the side and has struggled[likewise the side to him].
Callum Hudson-Odoi had a good run in of games in his preferred left-wing position, but due to lack of more product his good games went under the radar and Tuchel swiftly returned to banking on others for his spot.
Truth is, barring Mount [and Lukaku yet] nobody has really managed to convince with his performances for quite some time. Nobody has grabbed games by the scruff of the neck and aided the side to break down defences and win points when needed most.
However, there is also another point of view that can be explored. And that is the squad-building aspect of it. Now despite all these names being fantastic on paper, the truth is Chelsea’s squad building process in that summer of 2020 wasn’t exactly ideal.
In terms of positions – yeah, sure, perfect. The side needed a striker as they didn’t trust Tammy Abraham to win them a PL and went on to sign one of the Bundesliga’s best in Werner. However, was that the ideal move? Sure, we can all debate it now as Werner struggles for form on a regular basis and his performances have seen even his biggest fans question him but is it really?
Thing is, Werner was a player thriving off spaces to exploit. In Julian Nagelsmann’s formations, he always played off somebody exploiting positions in behind the defense, between the channels often relying on his pace without the ball.
It proved effective in the Bundesliga where transitions are a regular thing and pressing is something that almost all teams strive to do, but in the Premier League, he evidently struggled. Sides managed to shut him down and that led to confidence being shot and him becoming the epitome of jokes about just how many clear-cut chances he’s missed.
Another player who was vastly touted by Lampard was Hakim Ziyech. To be completely honest, the Moroccan was something else when playing for Ajax. His flair, his passing, his creativity was just…wow.
He wasn’t the most dynamic, nor was he the best dribble out there but he knew his limitations and exploited that in a picture-perfect system of a great Ajax side that almost reached the 2019 UEFA Champions League Final.
Chelsea needed a RW and Ziyech was exactly that. But again, was he the perfect fit? His lack of physicality and intensity coupled with his horrid one-footedness and lack of 1v1 threat saw him quickly “figured out” by defences and he too suffered the same fate as Werner.
Couple that with Havertz who also struggled to adapt to the physicality of the PL and its level of play, along with Pulisic who is now a year and a half into his “post-COVID” form and is yet to even remotely hit the same heights he did in that short three-month spell [albeit injuries haven’t helped him] and you can see how Chelsea are struggling for results and productivity from their forwards.
However, it isn’t just the forwards that have caused the Blues headaches. As mentioned, it’s this whole fake image of “depth” that was created in the media by most pundits who I still believe do not watch the team regularly but base it on assumptions.
See, football is a changing material. One minute you are at your peak and the next you’re hounded out by supporters for below-par performances. It’s happened in various clubs, and Chelsea are no different.
People who watch on a consistent basis always come into the same agreement – The difference between starters and bench is just staggering. Ignoring the obvious problems at the forward positions which we already debunked there are others who also contribute to this “comeback to reality”.
Following Ben Chilwell’s injury a lot of people around football, mostly pundits, all agreed that whilst a knee issue to the CL-winning left-back would certainly be a problem, the system will remain the same as a PL-winning left-back will be his replacement.
And fair enough.. until you realise that we are talking about Marcos Alonso who is far from his best days in the Conte reign. Even if he was, we’re once again talking about different profiles here and Alonso is no different.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve celebrated his occasional belter v Tottenham just as hard as anybody but football at this level has moved past him. You only have to look at the game v City [and almost every other game] to see who was targeted when it came to pressing the defenders.
His lack of mobility when it comes to both with and without the ball being his main downfall quickly sees the side lose a host of their ability to move the ball at a fast pace and adequately and effectively beat the press.
The Spaniard’s lack of speed sees the aforementioned passes for the WB to cross/shoot even less of an option as he can’t really beat a man to such a position.
The same goes for César Azpilicueta on the other flank when he’s had to cover for Reece James. Dave, as Chelsea fans like to call him, is one of the club’s legends undisputedly but his problems are just the same as Alonso’s.
You then have to move into midfield and the same follows. Consistency and injuries once again trouble the side as talented players such as Mateo Kovačić struggle to keep up their momentum often moving in between great games and poor ones.
On the other hand, N’Golo Kante has been in and out of the side through various different injuries which always rocks the boat in the side so desperately reliant on the Frenchman’s work rate on and off the ball.
Jorginho had a fantastic 2021, arguably the best of the other 2 players who were next to him on the Ballon D’Or podium but he too has his limitations so he can’t bear the burden of a different partner every week when it could be argued this whole tactical set-up is based to protect him and subsequently revolves around him.
However, you then move on to players such as Ross Barkley, Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Saúl Níguez. For various different reasons, Saul no longer resembles the player he was when he burst out on the scene.
Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Barkley have both had very bad injuries that have definitely taken a toll on their bodies and affected their game..but it’s 2021 as mentioned. These players no longer have a place in a side such as Chelsea and here is where the biggest problem lies.
Whilst being praised as the world’s best, Chelsea’s board and most notably Marina Granovskaia have held players like Alonso, Emerson [who recently departed but only on loan], like Barkley and etc. to higher standards than they actually deserve.
By no means do I want to sound hateful towards them, but they aren’t worth what Chelsea’s Director of Football believes they are. Obviously, the motto is there: “We are no pushovers” and you are looking at a scenario of a precedent where anybody could just force the side’s hands into wanting less as they know a certain player is on the fringes…but is it really wrong?
In recent history, the Blues haven’t had the best of success in the transfer window. As mentioned above and throughout the piece the standout players such as Mendy, Chilwell and Thiago Silva do shine, but others either split opinion as to just how good they are [Jorginho & Kovacic] or downright flopped [at least for now – Werner, Ziyech, Pulisic] and the latter outweighs the former.
Out of the side’s last five seasons’ work on the transfer market only a couple of players have managed to really, really impress as the world’s best. Antonio Rüdiger has only recently come to life, Kanté is obvious, but who else?
Chelsea fans have a right to be frustrated too. The side’s best players along with the likes of Mendy, Kante, Thiago and so on have mostly been the academy graduates who pushed through Lampard’s first season to become a mainstay there. Reece James, Mount, Tammy Abraham all proved their worth in while, as stated, Callum Hudson-Odoi slowly returned from an Achilles tear.
In behind them was Billy Gilmour, off the back of a MOTM performance v one of the best DMs in world football – Fabinho. For a host of reasons, Fikayo Tomori was pushed out of the side, while on loan you had the likes of Conor Gallagher and Marc Guehi.
A host of these, including Valentino Livramento [who left the club due to it being linked to Achraf Hakimi among other things] have been quite the players for their respective sides but were disregarded for either the shiny on-loan signing such as Saul or because of the inability to get rid of certain players who were deemed below-par initially [Barkley/RLC/Malang Sarr].
And again, just to make it clear, I do realise that this might come out wrong in weeks time as Tuchel has proved he can stabilise and get results, but the fact of the matter is that Chelsea remain entangled in a battle to win and deliver with players who are either not good enough for a backup role or just failed to live up to the expectations.
I do realise just how frustrating it is for everybody to watch the side’s recent struggle and think what if this youth or that youth is given a chance.. Largely because there’s really nothing to lose and with the way some Cobham grads have absolutely demolished the “Not PL ready” myth you feel they can at least contribute in a peripheral role.
Chelsea’s problems have long been deeply rooted into their whole setup. While yes, the side’s global revenue and profile has risen massively as they were one of a handful of sides who were not and still aren’t affected by the global pandemic they remain in somewhat of a rebuild mode whilst still far away from the quality of a Manchester City.
Last season was a good benchmark to realise that certain individuals and the club’s policy as a whole have been the subject of failure under a host of managers who in turn have felt the wrath of the side’s ruthless sacking policy.
It’s finally obvious the side have a manager capable of producing results along with the tactical know-how to build a team capable of winning a Premier League but they need to rid themselves of issues that have troubled them before and may carry on troubling them in the future.
Only after that will they see the gap between themselves and the likes of Liverpool and Manchester City close..and if not, then I suspect Tuchel will be the latest casualty in Chelsea’s managerial merry-go-round.
By: Peter Pankovski / @23Pankovski
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Adam Davy – PA Images / Darren Walsh – Chelsea / Robin Jones – Getty Images