cwick (Chadwick Matlin, deputy editor): Folks, we’re back! But Frank Lampard is not. Chelsea’s manager was let go after just a year and a half on the job. In his place is Paris Saint-Germain’s former gaffer, Thomas Tuchel. Chelsea was underperforming, but was it underperforming badly enough to sack a manager? And how much was Lampard’s fault?
Let’s start with Lampard being shown the door. Were you surprised by the decision?
tchow (Tony Chow, video producer): I had a feeling it was a great decision to leave Chelsea out of our last chat. But no, I’m not surprised. Death, taxes, Chelsea firing managers and all that.
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ryan (Ryan O’Hanlon, FiveThirtyEight contributor and author of the No Grass in the Clouds newsletter): I guess I’m surprised by the fact that they fired a legendary player, but can we ever be surprised that Chelsea fired a manager? The last Chelsea manager to make it through Season 3 was José Mourinho … in 2007.
grace (Grace Robertson, FiveThirtyEight contributor and author of the Grace on Football newsletter): I don’t think you can ever be shocked at a Chelsea manager getting fired after a bad run of results, but perhaps Lampard’s sacking was a little unfair. The numbers on FBRef.com suggest that Chelsea had the third-best expected goal difference in the Premier League. Lampard was … maybe not doing a terrible job?
tchow: There was a graphic that made the rounds the day Chelsea announced the firing showing that Lampard had the lowest points per game of the recent Chelsea managers. Personally I think it’s a silly graphic, but the most incredible thing about it was the NUMBER of managers on that list.
grace: And how many of those managers Lampard himself played for! A real “what did you expect” situation.
ryan: It’s a strange move in the sense that Lampard is an incredibly inexperienced coach. Why would you hire him if you weren’t gonna give him a longer leash?
grace: It has been suggested that maybe there were some tensions between Lampard and the Chelsea hierarchy, so this might not be a pure results decision.
ryan: I also wonder if some recent events — a pandemic that seemingly affected everyone’s spending power OTHER THAN CHELSEA’S, plus a relatively down year for both Manchester City and Liverpool — made them feel a bigger sense of urgency.
tchow: Not sure if it was a BIGGER sense of urgency. By spending the kind of money they did, it felt like it was never going to be a “let’s wait and see what Frank can do” kind of season. It was a “Frank better figure out a way to win” kind of season, especially if you consider how they finished the season before.
cwick: Can each of you give a stab at articulating what was wrong with Chelsea? Both from the stats and the ineffable stuff?
ryan: If we eliminate “luck” as best we can by just looking at expected goals, then Chelsea has roughly been playing as a top-four team, like Grace mentioned. It’s just that these offseason moves were supposed to push them closer to City and Liverpool, but the xG gap essentially hasn’t narrowed.
grace: The numbers don’t look too bad at all, but the big signings — Kai Havertz and Timo Werner — have not been flying, which seems to be a big issue for the club. Werner is easier to explain in the data: He just keeps missing good chances. Havertz really has struggled in terms of his all-around game. Havertz’s expected goals and assists per 90 minutes are less than half of what they were at Leverkusen last season.
tchow: I think it was a perfect ill-fitting combination of having instability on defense and a manager’s inability to get the most out of his (expensive) offensive weapons. I think Lampard might have been able to survive one of those things, but not both.
ryan: It also just doesn’t feel like there’s a clear, sophisticated plan. Last season, it was clear that Lampard wanted them to press, but it was a lot more “guys running around” than it was any coordinated defensive movement. This year, they dialed back the press in order to improve the defense, but it also made the attack worse, so there was no real gain.
grace: It was increasingly unclear what Lampard actually wanted to do with this side. The team changed a lot, and there weren’t really clear patterns of play emerging.
cwick: Is Tuchel the right manager for a team this muddled? Did PSG prepare him for this?
grace: I think there’s no doubt Tuchel will instantly rectify the lack of clear tactical instruction and ideas in the side. The players will know exactly what they’re supposed to be doing. The question for me is just whether he can deal with the politics in both the dressing room and the boardroom.
ryan: I think that’s why he’s perfect. Chelsea never keeps managers for long, so who cares if he has a falling out with the board after a couple of seasons!
grace: They have so many good players, though, that he can spend the rest of this season figuring out which ones he likes before really nailing down “his” Chelsea team next year.
cwick: Grace, what about his time at PSG makes you think his tactics will be clear?
grace: I think it’s less his time at PSG than Dortmund, where he was much more in control. At PSG, he had to bow a little to accommodate some of the bigger stars, but we might see full-throttle Tuchel, with his complex tactical ideas and innovative methods of teaching the players.
ryan: There’s a story about him changing formations with Mainz, like, six times per game. Chelsea has so many mismatched pieces that I think they’re perfect for Tuchel’s constant tinkering and innovating.
tchow: Everywhere Tuchel has managed, there has been a clear tactical system of high-pressing, possession-based football with fluid formations. He has a couple players in the dressing room who will already be familiar with a complex system (like Christian Pulisic and Thiago Silva). I think out of all managers on the merry-go-round of high-profile managers available, Tuchel was as good as any (even if he was, reportedly, not Chelsea’s first choice).
grace: If I were a Chelsea fan, I’d be excited right now.
tchow: Same. I might have said as much in a couple of group chats when this was announced.
tchow: The thing I would be most excited about as a Chelsea fan is the possibility that Tuchel could get the most out of a player like Havertz, which is absolutely a necessity for the Blues. Judging from his first game under Tuchel, it’s a promising start.
cwick: Do soccer types have an agreed-upon timeline for when a new manager should be held accountable for what the squad is doing on the field? Do analytics have anything to say about that?
ryan: The main analytical finding re: managers is: most of them don’t matter.
grace: Agreed. Tuchel or Lampard probably matters less than how good Werner ends up being.
cwick: And we are decoupling those two things from each other?
grace: Well, that’s the trick, ain’t it?
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tchow: Yeah, there was a study done that looked at manager replacements in the Bundesliga to try to figure out the impact on team performance when the manager changes midseason or between seasons. It ended up finding that it really doesn’t matter.
ryan: One study literally found that “no manager” (an interim) was better than most managers.
tchow: Kinda puts the purpose of this chat into perspective, doesn’t it?
grace: The Economist had a study on this a while ago suggesting that while the best managers are only worth 3 to 4 points a year, the very best players (you know the two) are worth more like 9.
cwick: Last time we got Grace a job on “Ted Lasso.” This week one of you gets to be a Premier League manager, since it won’t make a difference.
grace: I could do both part time, for all it matters.
ryan: Automation is coming for you, José Mourinho.
grace: Automation to teach players automatisms.
tchow: Hey, 3 to 4 points this season could mean the difference between Chelsea finishing in the top four or finishing out of Europe entirely, so maybe it’s not nothing.
cwick: Tony the Arsenal fan is always thinking about the Europa League.
ryan: Maybe we should clarify our point here? Long-term, most managers don’t make their teams perform better than their payrolls suggest they should. Chelsea is currently winning games at a level below its spending. The team will improve under Tuchel because it has good players and because it has been unlucky and, potentially, because of some things Tuchel does. But maybe it would have improved under Lampard too!
grace: There’s the so-called new manager bounce, as well. Teams on a bad run generally start playing better, change or no change.
cwick: Let’s dwell on Werner for a second, because it feels like a lot of Chelsea’s woes can be fixed by fixing Werner. He has 0.52 goals and assists per 90 minutes, far below his previous marks, though as we have said, the xG numbers are a little better. So how does a manager fix a striker in this kind of rut?
grace: My assumption is always that it’ll just be fine and Werner has just hit a bad run of variance. If anything, you’d want to show him the data so he can understand he’s not really doing that much wrong and should keep at it.
ryan: Werner fits the Kylian Mbappé/Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang archetype — two goal-scorers who excelled in space for possession-dominant teams under Tuchel.
tchow: Playing Werner in his preferred position in the center of the field could be a start, although even Lampard was doing more of that toward the end.
grace: I still think he needs to play off a more physical striker to thrive, as he did at Leipzig, but Chelsea has both Tammy Abraham and Olivier Giroud to make that work.
ryan: I don’t think it really matters where he “starts.” He had a lot of freedom at Leipzig to find space in both wide areas and then make runs into the box. He rarely scored from runs that started centrally. I feel like Tuchel will make a point of figuring out how to get him into space, regardless of the starting formation.
grace: He’s similar to Aubameyang at Arsenal, who’s fine out wide when the side is creating chances, but as soon as they’re not, then it feels like a problem. If Chelsea has a structured way to get him the ball in space, he’ll be fine.
ryan: A Structured Way of Getting Timo Werner the Ball in Space — a pretty good band name, and also something that Frank Lampard did not have.
cwick: OK, so let’s take a look at what Chelsea’s ceiling might be, regardless of whether Tuchel has any effect. The Blues currently sit in eighth, 11 points back of Man City (which has a game in hand) and 7 points out of Champions League qualification. That’s a lot of teams to leapfrog, and I’m not sure I see any of the top four fading aside from Leicester City without Jamie Vardy. What’s the path to the top?
grace: The FiveThirtyEight model has Chelsea at 22 percent to finish in the top four, which is clearly the target, but probably involves a lot of things breaking their way. I personally consider it a little bit unlikely unless more than one of these teams goes on a bad finishing run.
ryan: At the same time, the model has Chelsea rated as the third-best team in the league.
tchow: The only team out of the current top four you could see dropping that many points in the remaining half of the season would be Leicester. Although Man United did just lose to last place Sheffield United, so anything is possible.
grace: Chelsea’s match against Spurs away next Thursday is a pretty huge game now that could swing its chances.
ryan: I could definitely see them doing it. Their high end — and the model agrees — is higher than any of the other non-Liverpool/City teams in the league. United, Leicester and Spurs are all grindy teams to different degrees, while Chelsea could go on a monthlong run of blowing teams off the field and it wouldn’t shock me. Still might not be enough for the top four, though.
cwick: I suppose there’s Champions League, as well, where their next opponent is Atlético Madrid.
grace: The perfect test to see if Tuchel can break down low blocks against the best low-block defense in the world.
ryan: Man City is the favorite in the Champions League, per the model, which … means the tournament is wide-open. Perhaps we’ll see something like Jürgen Klopp’s first partial season at Liverpool: a deep European run, and the team gives up on going for the league top four to focus on that.
grace: Chelsea will have to improve their patterns in possession a lot by the time they face Atlético Madrid, because if they play the way they did against Wolves, they’re not breaking through.
ryan: Not even Diego Simeone will be able to handle Pulisic at wingback, imo.
grace: Pulisic has been a little … off it this year? His expected goals and assists per 90 are down about 39 percent from last season. The obvious answer is he’s still finding his way back after the injury, but the games are coming fast now.
tchow: What Chelsea fans will definitely be hoping for is that they get Dortmund Pulisic for the remainder of the season.
grace: I think if they get the Pulisic of late last season, they’ll be delighted. He’s been really unlucky in that he was clicking into a high gear and then picked up the injury.
ryan: I think this just shows how much potential the team really has. Their underlying numbers are really not that bad — and that’s despite Werner, Pulisic and Havertz all underperforming to varying degrees. We’ve seen them all be fantastic, just not together at once.
cwick: So if I am reading the room right, we are very high on Chelsea despite their likely finishing out of the top four and potentially not getting past Atlético Madrid? Soccer!
grace: If we could reset the season, I’d be very high on them, but the points and the Champions League draw don’t put them in a great spot.
tchow: I mean, I think if you go back to my preview of this season on our Hot Takedown podcast, I said Chelsea would finish second? Which admittedly might have been foolish, but I was very, very confident that given their new talent, they would be terrific. It’s definitely still a promising squad.
ryan: Managers don’t matter, and results don’t matter, either, Chad.
grace: The only thing that matters is the position in the FiveThirtyEight Global Club Soccer Rankings.
cwick: You joke, Ryan, but this is my whole shtick! That what should truly motivate sports fans is the narrative of rise and fall, not championships. Which makes me sound like an Arsenal fan.
tchow: Nah, I’d very much like a championship trophy. Honestly would even take the Championship trophy at this point.
cwick: You know it’s bad when Tony has given up even on Europa League success.
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