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Chelsea’s Slump Won’t Necessarily Be Fixed By More Attackers

The Chelsea Football Club played extremely well for the first 12 matchweeks of the 2019-20 Premier League season. After matchweek 12, Chelsea trailed league leaders Liverpool by just 8 points and had accumulated more points than defending champions Manchester City. Though the club looked to be in turmoil before the season began, Chelsea had somehow played itself into a title race.

But that quickly changed: Chelsea’s fortunes have nosedived in the past five weeks as the Blues dropped four of their past five league matches, including two defeats at home to teams in the bottom half of the Premier League table. After matchweek 17, Chelsea is 20 points behind league leaders Liverpool, in danger of falling out of the top four — and looking for help as January’s transfer window approaches.

Chelsea’s current run can in part be explained by poor shooting. In its first 12 matches, 39.2 percent of Chelsea’s shots were on-target, and 13.2 percent resulted in goals, both well above league average. In its past five matches, Chelsea has shot just 29.5 percent on-target and scored on 4.5 percent of them, both well below league average. In a matter of weeks, the Blues have gone from one of the best shooting teams in the league to one of the worst.

The team’s actual abilities probably lie somewhere in between. FiveThirtyEight’s model still gives Chelsea a 54 percent chance of finishing in the top four and qualifying for next season’s Champions League competition. Chelsea may not recapture its excellent shooting form from the first 12 matches of the season, but it’s also unlikely that it will continue its current abysmal shooting form. Shooting droughts happen. And when shooting droughts happen, goal droughts happen.

But scoring goals may be the least of Chelsea’s issues at the moment: Its biggest problem might be standing in its own goal.

Kepa Arrizabalaga is the world’s most expensive goalkeeper, but you wouldn’t know that from his numbers. When Chelsea paid $96 million for Kepa in 2018, it thought it was finally getting a long-term replacement for club legend Petr Cech. But the Spaniard currently has the worst save percentage in the Premier League among qualifying keepers, and he ranks 20th out of 24 keepers in goals prevented.1

Now that Chelsea’s transfer ban has been lifted,2 the club has some big decisions to make once the window opens on Jan. 1. Manager Frank Lampard has been given roughly $170 million to improve his squad. Will he buy reinforcements for its forward line, or choose to eat nearly $100 million and replace Kepa? Lampard seems more keen on the former, though the latter is allegedly on his wishlist, too.

“I will look at all areas of the team, but I think it was quite clear in the summer that you lose Eden Hazard, who was a huge part of scoring or creating our goals last season and the season before that,” Lampard said last week after Chelsea beat Lille to reach the knockout stage of the Champions League.

Of course, replacing Hazard was always going to be difficult — the silky Belgian forward finished the 2018-19 Premier League season ranked among the top 10 in a slew of offensive categories, including passes made in the final third, chances created, key passes and big chances created, and 14th in nonpenalty expected goals plus expected assists (xG+xA)3 — but several players have stepped up in his absence.

American winger Christian Pulisic has been one of the league’s most dangerous attackers since cementing his place in the Chelsea starting 11 — his nonpenalty xG+xA tally of 0.7 per 90 minutes is seventh-best in the Premier League among players who qualify (not to mention higher than the number Hazard posted a season ago). And striker Tammy Abraham has picked up where he left off in the English Football League Championship division.4 He is taking more shots and scoring more goals per 90 minutes for Chelsea this season than he did when he played for pre-promotion Aston Villa last season, and his nonpenalty xG+xA mark of 0.82 per 90 minutes is tied for fourth-best in the Premier League.

Chelsea’s young goal-scorers are at the top of the heap

The top 30 players in the 2019-20 Premier League by nonpenalty expected goals plus expected assists (xG+xA) per 90 minutes, plus Eden Hazard’s 2018-19 season

Rank Player Position Team Minutes xG+xA
1 Sergio Agüero FW Man. City 813 0.97
2 Gabriel Jesus FW Man. City 818 0.88
3 Kevin De Bruyne MF Man. City 1,317 0.86
3 Tammy Abraham FW Chelsea 1,233 0.82
5 Raheem Sterling FW, MF Man. City 1,404 0.82
6 Sadio Mané FW, MF Liverpool 1,329 0.72
7 Christian Pulisic MF Chelsea 987 0.70
8 Bernardo Silva FW, MF Man. City 938 0.66
9 Mohamed Salah FW, MF Liverpool 1,195 0.65
10 Jamie Vardy FW Leicester City 1,530 0.64
11 Son Heung-min FW, MF Tottenham 1,237 0.63
12 Teemu Pukki FW Norwich City 1,517 0.62
13 Roberto Firmino FW, MF Liverpool 1,364 0.59
14 Danny Ings FW Southampton 1,173 0.58
14 David McGoldrick FW Sheffield Utd. 989 0.58
14 David Silva MF Man. City 1,017 0.58
17 James Maddison MF Leicester City 1,415 0.57
17 Marcus Rashford FW Man. Utd. 1,490 0.57
19 Neal Maupay FW, MF Brighton 1,249 0.56
20 Dominic Calvert-Lewin MF Everton 863 0.55
20 Chris Wood FW Burnley 1,221 0.55
22 Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang FW, MF Arsenal 1,530 0.54
23 Raúl Jiménez FW Wolves 1,475 0.53
24 Anwar El Ghazi FW, MF Aston Villa 1,028 0.51
25 Diogo Jota MF Wolves 1,143 0.49
26 Anthony Martial FW Man. Utd. 862 0.48
27 Andriy Yarmolenko FW, MF West Ham 828 0.46
28 Harvey Barnes MF Leicester City 954 0.45
28 Todd Cantwell MF Norwich City 1,198 0.45
30 Jack Grealish MF Aston Villa 1,344 0.44
Eden Hazard (2018-19) FW, MF Chelsea 2,926 0.54

Source: FBREF.COM

Add the sometimes-terrific play of Mason Mount and the still developing but incredibly promising Callum Hudson-Odoi, and Chelsea’s attack — which has propelled the club to the second-best expected goals (xG) mark in the division — has been fueled by exactly the type of forwards the club and its manager insisted it would: young ones.5

Lampard’s desire to dip his toes into the transfer market to buy a forward seems to betray his earlier commitment to integrate Chelsea’s youthful roster. Chelsea’s recent downturn isn’t insignificant, but it probably isn’t a sign that it needs to spend $170 million on attacking options this winter.

Sure, acquiring a talent like Jadon Sancho from Borussia Dortmund, Leon Bailey from Bayer Leverkusen, Wilfried Zaha from Crystal Palace or Timo Werner from RB Leipzig would help any team, especially a team in desperate need of goals. But Chelsea’s shooting fortunes will most likely turn around. Lampard may want to simply trust the forwards that have gotten the club to this point and instead consider replacing its league-worst goalkeeper. Or perhaps Chelsea and Lampard should consider trying to add a left back to shore up its defense and provide relief to an embattled goalkeeper.

Chelsea’s excellent and young attacking core has played the club out of a position of few expectations and into one of top-four ambition. But now, at the first sign of a blip, they’re all in danger of getting their hours cut.

Check out our latest soccer predictions.

Footnotes

  1. All but one of the keepers below Kepa on the list are backups or have split time this season.

  2. The club was forbidden from participating in two transfer windows for violating rules about registering overseas players who were younger than 18, but the Court of Arbitration for Sport reduced the penalty to one window, which Chelsea served over the summer.

  3. All stats per 90 minutes played.

  4. The second level of the English soccer pyramid.

  5. Willian has played a lot of minutes on the right wing for Chelsea, and he’s hardly young anymore.

Terrence Doyle is a writer based in Boston, where he obsesses over pizza and hockey.

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