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You did not have to be a professional analyst to work out Chelsea’s biggest problem last season. The Blues ended the campaign in fourth place, a respectable achievement given they had been hit by a transfer ban the previous summer and lost their star man, Eden Hazard, to Real Madrid. But throughout 2019/20, their defense was their Achilles heel.
Frank Lampard’s side conceded 54 goals in their 38 matches last term. That was not only considerably more than the rest of the top six but also gave them a worst defensive record than the 14th-placed Crystal Palace. No team in the top half of the division had their backline breached as often as Chelsea.
Many expected the club to address that issue in the summer transfer market. Instead, the majority of their expenditure went towards improving the team’s attack. Chelsea spent around £250 million on new additions ahead of this season, a more substantial outlay than any other club in Europe. Kai Havertz, Timo Werner, and Hakim Ziyech were the headline acquisitions; Werner is a striker and Havertz and Ziyech are attacking midfielders.
Chelsea did add Ben Chilwell to their squad, but the former Leicester City man is an attack-minded left-back. They did not entirely neglect the back half of the team, though: the Blues signed experienced center-back Thiago Silva on a free transfer and bought goalkeeper Edouard Mendy from Rennes.
Silva arrived in late August and was not involved in Chelsea’s first few games, while the Mendy deal did not go through until the last few days of September. As such, Chelsea’s defensive problems continued in the opening weeks of the season. A 3-1 victory over Brighton & Hove Albion on the opening weekend was fortunate, with the Seagulls creating several excellent chances. Chelsea then conceded two goals to Liverpool, three to West Bromwich Albion and, after a 4-0 victory over Crystal Palace, three to Southampton.
That meeting with Southampton was seemingly evidence of why Chelsea would not be able to win the title this term. Lampard’s men played some fine attacking soccer that day, with Werner netting a brace before setting up Havertz’s goal on the hour mark. Yet at the other end they could not keep the Saints out, and Jannik Vestergaard’s stoppage-time effort saw them drop two points at home.
Since then, however, Chelsea has shown signs of progress. They recently kept five clean sheets on the bounce in all competitions, shutting out Sevilla, Krasnodar, and Rennes in the Champions League, and also denying Manchester United and Burnley a goal domestically. That run came to an end last time out as Sheffield United took the lead at Stamford Bridge, but Chelsea roared back to win 4-1.
Silva has been excellent in the last few weeks. Some questioned whether the Brazilian would be able to cope with the increased physical demands of the Premier League given his age, but the 36-year-old has stood up to the challenge in his recent appearances. He has brought calmness to the Blues backline and remains adept at playing out from the back too.
Mendy has also performed well of late. Kepa Arrizabalaga, still the most expensive goalkeeper of all time, cost Chelsea too many points last season. Based on Opta’s Expected Goals on Target model, he conceded 11 more goals than an ‘average’ goalkeeper would have based on the shots he faced in 2019/20. History suggests it is not possible to win the Premier League with a poor shot-stopper between the sticks.
Defending is not just about individuals, however. Much depends on the team’s collective structure, and keeping goals out is a task that all 11 players can contribute to. There are also positive signs in that regard. The 4-3-3 formation Lampard has employed in recent outings looks more solid than previous setups, and the underlying numbers appear to back that up. Chelsea has the lowest Expected Goals Against (xGA) in the Premier League with 7.93, meaning they are giving up few high-quality chances.
Pleasingly for Lampard, this has not come at the expense of his side’s attacking output. Chelsea’s cumulative xG is 13.36, a record bettered by only Leicester, Tottenham Hotspur, and Liverpool so far. There is still a long way to go this season, but right now Chelsea have struck a much better balance between attack and defense.
Liverpool and Manchester City are still the two favorites to finish on top of the pile. DraftKings Sportsbook offers +163 on Jurgen Klopp’s team retaining the trophy, while Pep Guardiola’s side are listed at +175. Next in the line at +700 is Chelsea, just ahead of Tottenham on +800. In the ‘winner without Manchester City’ market, the Blues are available at +450.
Given their summer spending spree, Chelsea is expected to at least get closer to the top in 2020/21. The Blues finished 33 points adrift of champions Liverpool last time out, and a similar gap would represent a failure this season. Winning the title will still be a big ask, but Lampard knows that his side must at least be part of the conversation.
Chelsea faces Newcastle United this weekend before a clash with London rivals Tottenham at the end of the month. That will be a key test of both teams’ title credentials, and Lampard may feel he has the edge on Jose Mourinho after overseeing two wins against Spurs last term.
Lampard said after the victory over Sheffield United before the international break:
The balance of the team was good today, but we must continue. I know how football is, and I know that it’s not just about individuals. It was always going to be hard work against Sheffield United but they came through it.
Maintaining that balance will be key to Chelsea’s hopes of winning the Premier League title for a sixth time this season.
Greg Lea is a freelance soccer journalist from London. He is the former editor of The Set Pieces, and has contributed to the Guardian, FourFourTwo, and ESPN. A Crystal Palace fan, he is a long-time subscriber to the belief that it's the taking part that counts. Email: [email protected]More info on Greg Lea
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