Chelsea have enjoyed a solid start to the new season. Other than a failure to beat Stoke and defeat against United Chelsea have won all of their other games. The media spotlight is firmly fixed on Manchester but Chelsea have found themselves only one point behind United and three behind City. Daniel Sturridge and Mata look to have provided the impetus that Chelsea so badly lacked last season, providing both craft, guile and goals in a side that was previously unimaginative and dull.
Things arguably look good, but there are underlying problems at Chelsea that must be addressed if the club is to sustain its relatively good start to the new season and continue to develop under Andre Villa-Boas. Chelsea have only kept one clean sheet in the Premier League this season. Compare this to the 05/06 season when Chelsea started the season with six consecutive clean sheets.
One of the consistent problem areas for Chelsea so far has been from set-pieces which was seen at Old Trafford, against Swansea and at Bolton. As well as this Chelsea appear to be suffering from serial complacency. The goals conceded against Bolton and Everton were when Chelsea were in a position of comfort and thus appeared to have lost concentration something that under Mourinho would have been deemed completely unacceptable. The goal conceded against Sunderland also appeared to be another complete loss of concentration in the dying minutes of a game Chelsea had wrapped up. This does not detract from the fact that there is clearly a problem that needs to be addressed.
It would be easy to place blame on the new manager, especially in the context that Chelsea finished last season having conceded fewer goals than any other side. However, this is a misleading stat as Chelsea have actually only kept two clean sheets in their last fifteen Premier League matches.
What is causing the unrest at the back? There are clearly several contributory factors. One short term cause could be the clubs January signing of centre-back David Luiz, whilst appearing to be a good one meant that the defender had to settle in fast. Luiz looks to have talent and could possibly prove to be a great signing for the club but in settling in he made a number of defensive mistakes, as well as disrupting Chelsea’s regular back-line. January is generally quite a bad time to try and bed new players in.
A further contributory factor this season is Chelsea’s defensive rotation. AVB has successfully rotated the side but with the defensive it is often not as wise to tinker as defensive strength is as much dependent on relationships as individual abilities. Chelsea’s best defence under Ancelotti came with Ivanovic operating as a right-back as he has a good balance of defensive and offensive capabilities. Bosingwa is no doubt a better forward thinking full-back but his defensive abilities leave a lot to be desired.
Against United for example he carelessly gave away the free-kick that led to Chris Smalling’s opening goal. Ivanovic is also far better on the cover than Bosingwa due to the fact he is used to operating as a centre-back and has better aerial ability.
With many teams choosing to switch the play out to wingers having a defender who has good positioning an aerial ability is increasingly important. Ivanovic has won 91% of his aerial duals this season compared to Bosingwa’s 70%. However the fact that Bosingwa has featured in eight games so far this season implies he is clearly in favour at the current stage.
Comparing Chelsea’s defensive stats to their rivals makes interesting reading. Structurally it appears Chelsea’s defence is relatively solid, they concede on average 10 shots per game compared to the 18 per game United have been conceding. Man City also concede more shots per game than Chelsea with 11 which further points to the fact that Chelsea’s defensive woes are the result of more individual error than a formation/tactical problem. Yet Chelsea have let in 9 goals so far this season, compared to United and City who have conceded six goals each. Could Chelsea’s conceding be down to bad luck and individual error or is there a more serious problem that needs addressing?
With regards to set-pieces this is a problem that must be addressed sooner rather than later. There is a suggestion that Chelsea have switched to a more zonal style of marking, although against United it appeared that Lampard was going man to man with Chris Smalling but merely lost his track of him. One thing is for sure, there appears to be increasing uncertainty and confusion within the Chelsea ranks when facing set-pieces. Based on the first eight goals Chelsea conceded they were joint second with conceding on set-pieces which whilst early in the season is a potentially alarming stat with 38% of goals coming from set-pieces. Again consider how organised and compact Chelsea were under Mourinho at dealing with set-pieces. Chelsea also have a very tall team. Of Chelsea’s players who regularly play, Lampard, Bosingwa, Alex, Terry, Luiz, Ivanovic, Mikel and Drogba are all six foot or above, which in theory means that they should have no problems dealing with aerial balls.
Individual error does come into set-piece defending. When Chelsea conceded against Swansea in the 85th minute every defensive player appeared to be doing their job except for the aforementioned defensively weak Jose Bosingwa who failed to stay goal side of the goal scorer Williamson. It should be noted that Bosingwa was also one of three Chelsea players (the others being Torres and Lampard) who failed to track their markees into the box as Chris Smalling scored for United.
With regards to the goal against Bolton Chelsea were outnumbered six to three at the far post, although the free-kick came just after half time whilst Chelsea were 4-0 up which might be responsible for the loss of concentration. But even when considering this the positioning of Chelsea’s players was bizarre at best as Boyatta walked in unmarked to make it 4-1.
It is clearly early to say whether Chelsea will suffer from defensive deficiencies so far this season. I suspect that when Chelsea opt for a settled back four (for defensive purposes preferably without Bosingwa) they will tighten up somewhat especially from open play. With regards to set-pieces we are only 8 games into the Premier League and three set pieces whilst not been good is not a sign of a deeper lying problem, yet. What AVB does need to do is nip any potential problem in the bud as soon as possible before Chelsea come up against teams who openly look to exploit this perceived weakness.