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Houssem Aouar, Kai Havertz, and Who Could Fill the Hamšík-Shaped Hole in Chelsea’s Midfield – Improving Chelsea Part Four

Defending the premise of this series at the start of each post does become quite boring and tiresome, but the deterioration of Chelsea each subsequent week continues to force my hand. That’s how it feels at least. So, if this is your first post of the series and I come across as a mad, rambling, Sarri-apologist, I direct you towards Part Three and Part One of this series where I set out the premise and motivations of this project pretty clearly.

This post was quite the undertaking, so if you do enjoy it I would massively appreciate it if you could share this with anyone else you think might enjoy it. This is my twitter if you want to follow me for similar content.

What’s on the menu for today?

As we established in the previous part of this series, the attributes that Marek Hamšík brought (in spades) to Napoli’s midfield are entirely absent from Chelsea’s current trio of choice. After focusing on those at Chelsea who are yet to be given their opportunity, and potential signings who fulfilled some of our requirements but ultimately weren’t quite the right fit, we can finally have a thorough look at the heavy hitters who could step into Chelsea’s midfield and provide the attributes that are so sorely missed.

How are we going to do that?

The numbers can give us a decent indication of what each player offers in some areas, such as shot volume and quality, defensive output, and ball retention, but they (the stats I have at least) aren’t perfect for evaluating other skills that we are looking for. I used a combination of pass maps and video to evaluate how much each player progressed the ball, and how each player progressed the ball. Video obviously provides vital information about the types of possessions/phases-of-play the player thrives in, how quickly they make decisions, and the techniques they employ to act on those decisions. Whilst the overriding focus of the player clips I compiled was to show how each player progresses the ball, I also make note of other important attributes that are only apparent through video.

To lift the unbearable suspense (because you definitely didn’t skip the last post for its lack of juicy names), these are my favourite picks to fill the Marek Hamšík-shaped hole in our midfield:

(In no particular order)

Julian Draxler

The German midfielder has been fairly widely-known since his breakthrough in 2012 as a teenager at Schalke, but his solid performances at PSG seem to have gone unnoticed in the shadows of his superstar teammates. This season he has played a significant role for Tuchel, at the heart of his ever-morphing midfield. Although it would appear that nominally he hasn’t played all that much as a central midfielder this season, Tuchel will alternate PSG’s shape several times throughout some matches, so the positions on the starting teamsheet are not all that significant.

In a recent match against Rennes, Tuchel employed a 442 in the first half, switched to a 343 at half-time, and then dropped Di Maria into an “8” position to make more of a 3142 formation once they took the lead in the second half. This is clearly illustrated by my blurry screenshots with squiggly lines drawn on them. The point is, in Tuchel’s positionally fluid system this season, Draxler has been picking up the ball in the positions that we are looking for and has been very productive.

Also, PSG’s TV camera angle is amazing for looking at the team-shape. Would appreciate more of this from other football clubs please.

What is impressive about Draxler is that he advances the ball and contributes to shots really well through both his dribbling and his passing, rather than relying heavily on one skill or the other. That makes it much more difficult for the opposition to nullify his influence, as they can’t just cover his passing options, nor can they only aggressively pressure his first touch. They have to find a balance between the two and hope for the best.

Crucial to the effectiveness of Draxler’s passing is how quickly he makes decisions after receiving the ball, a consequence of scanning well, and frequently. He doesn’t dwell on the ball to assess each option, wait too long, and just resort to playing sideways. If the pass is on, Draxler plays it. This is even more important playing for PSG, with how lightning-quick some of his teammates are. If the timing or weight of his pass is even slightly off, the chance is missed.

What really makes Draxler a nightmare for defenders is, when there are no available teammates ahead of him, the German won’t let you off the hook every time with a square pass, he has the confidence to try to beat you, and is successful in doing so a lot more often than he isn’t. He is very unpredictable with how two-footed he is, the speed at which he makes decisions, and how quick his feet are in tight areas. Whilst he can’t just push the ball five meters in front of himself and chase it like a lot of high-volume dribblers can, he has enough acceleration to get in front of defenders once he’s wrongfooted them, or played a one-two around them.

I have no idea how available he would be, or how much he is enjoying his time at PSG, but I would definitely explore Draxler as an option. The quality of PSG relative to their league competition may worry some, but Draxler’s performances at his previous clubs, and in the Champions League with PSG would quell any concerns I might have. He’s been impressive in a variety of playing styles, in both France and Germany, demonstrated by his contribution of at least 0.18 NPxG90 and 0.15 xA90 in every season since 2014/15. I would not be very worried at all about the transferability of Draxler’s skills to the Premier League and Chelsea.

Piotr Zieliński

Signing Hamšík’s literal understudy for the past three seasons does feel like a cheat of an answer to this question… ehh, who cares!

Zieliński was impressive at Napoli in the 16/17 and 17/18 seasons whenever he got on the pitch, but that was the problem, he could never displace Hamšík, Jorginho or Allan. I mean, to have a player as good as Zieliński just not getting minutes, the manager would have to be stricter about rotating his players than Chelsea are under Maurizio Sar… oh, that’s right. Luckily for us, Zieliński has played the second-most minutes in the league of any Napoli player this season, only behind Koulibaly, so we’ve got the all clear to see how he’s been doing.

The Polish midfielder makes the list because this season he has been really good at pretty much everything we’ve asked of our midfielders. That said, I don’t know if he’s exceptional at any one part of the game in the same way that some of the other players on this list are. There are still elements to Zieliński’s game that I do really like though, and I think they would translate well elsewhere.

One of the areas Zieliński does standout in statistically is pure shot-volume, taking ~1 extra shot per 90 minutes over most of the midfielders on this list, but what is notable is how he makes the best of those shooting opportunities. His timing in approaching the ball is impeccable, always arriving at the ball such that he can strike it cleanly and accurately, helped by his ability to connect with the ball well on either foot. This adds value to these chances that might otherwise be spurned by other midfielders, the majority of whom have worse timing and technique than Zieliński. I also like that this doesn’t seem to be overly system dependent, Zieliński pops up on the edge of/inside the box at the right moment in longer possessions as well as transitions.

The Napoli midfielder is a really good ball-progressor, specifically with his ability to carry the ball. He can cover a lot of ground very quickly and uses his pace and quick change of direction effectively, both on and off the ball, to create separation from defenders. As you can see from several of these clips, he even manages to do this from a standing start in non-transition possessions, which is pretty rare.

Although he does have room to improve his progressive and creative passing, specifically in his combination play around the box, Zielinski still has an impressive range and variety of passes in his locker. This, much like his shooting, is also helped by his two-footedness.

There may have been some positional worries with Zieliński, as his creative output (0.16 xA90 for the season) has mostly come from the left of a midfield four (0.29 xA90 from left-midfield and just 0.09 xA90 from central-midfield). But, having now watched a fair amount of Napoli, I have learned that the two central midfielders in the four play as “6s” whilst the wide midfielders really don’t end up in positions that dissimilar to the “8s” at Chelsea under Sarri. If anything, his NPxG90 rate of ~0.20 (which has been consistent regardless of position) is even more impressive given he has spent so many minutes deeper on the pitch. In his previous two seasons at Napoli, he was consistently productive as an “8” in a 433.

The fact that Liverpool (the team who haven’t made a single bad signing since Christian Benteke for £42M in 2015) are reportedly interested in Zieliński probably means absolutely nothing, but I will take it as a sign of encouragement. It also suggests that he ranks really well in some incredibly advanced metric that none of us mere humans could even comprehend, conjured up by the boffins behind player recruitment up in Merseyside.

I really like Zieliński, but he probably wouldn’t be my first choice on this list, not that it would likely matter much anyway given Chelsea’s supposed agreement with Napoli not to sign any more of their players after the dealings over the past summer.

Franck Kessié

Franck Kessié has been one of the best ball-progressing midfielders in Italy since his time at Atalanta, but this is the first season where he has shown enough shot-contribution to squeeze onto this list. To be perfectly honest, Kessié’s 0.3 NPxG+xA90 this season, up from ~0.2 in the previous two seasons, still might not be up to scratch for what we need in this position, but he is such a good player that I had to include him. Under a different manager a double-pivot of Kessié and Kanté would be wonderful, and having a midfielder who advances the ball as much as he does is so valuable because of the burden it lifts off of those around him.

One part of his game that really aids his ability to pass and carry the ball forward, is Kessié’s resistance to pressure. He is the first midfielder that we have covered that I would consider particularly press-resistant. It isn’t a crucial attribute for the type of player we are looking for, but it certainly seems that it is becoming increasingly useful each season, as teams who press out-of-possession are proliferating throughout Europe.

Complemented by his ability to resist pressure and carry the ball is Kessié’s range of passing, which is considerably better than that of many midfielders who progress the ball through carries and dribbles as much as Kessié does. Under Gattuso, AC Milan set up such that the wide-forwards (usually Çalhanoğlu and Suso) often play very narrow and deep in possession, not leaving many players tasked with stretching the opposition in behind. Kessié’s ability to find what might be the sole forward, or even fullback, making that darting run is all the more impressive.

My suggestion of a Kessié – Kanté double-pivot mostly came out of my thinking that Kessié would provide almost all of the ball-progression, with Kanté covering his defensive shortcomings. Whilst I stand by that, Kessié does such great work in the box, that you would be tempted to play him further forward as well. I really enjoy his timing arriving into spaces, his awareness of what is around him, and the disguise he puts on the passes he plays and touches he makes.

I still think Kessié would probably be a less-suited solution to the extremely specialized midfield-role we are looking for, but I also think he is one of the more talented, and tactically flexible midfielders on this list and would thrive under most other managers.

Kai Havertz

There really aren’t many players who make an impact in a top-5 league at 17 years of age, but when they do, they tend to go on to be pretty successful. The list of attackers obviously includes the likes of Wayne Rooney, Kylian Mbappe, Raúl, Michael Owen and maybe a handful more. Kai Havertz contributed 0.2 NPxG90 and 0.2 xA90 (amongst positive output in other areas) over the course of ~1400 minutes in the Bundesliga at 17 years old. He will probably remain in the shadows of other teenage superstars because he doesn’t quite get the goals and assists that create the headlines, not least due to the role he plays, but he gets a hell of a lot closer to that list of 17-year-old superstars than most do.

He also increases the number of reported Liverpool targets on this list to two, which is always nice.

We are quite lucky that Kai Havertz made the box-shot and shot-assist cutoff I set because he is an example of an excellent creative and progressive passer who doesn’t excel in any of the passing stats on the midfielder radar. This is expected given the stats I have access to, included on the player radar, tell you such a limited amount of information about the passing ability of a player. Hence the necessity for me to watch so much video of each player, to try to determine their progressive abilities. But, if you’ve made it this far, you must not mind my eyes in place of those stats, so on we go! 

In longer possessions, Kai Havertz does two things exceptionally well, which allow him to be such a creative and progressive player in the final third. Firstly, he always arrives into the FB-CB vertical corridor at the right moment, rather than waiting in that space and allowing himself to be picked up by a marker. Secondly, his first-touch is perfect, just about every single time. He always receives on the correct foot to present himself with the most options, and takes the ball precisely in the direction of his next action, whether it be a pass, shot, or an opportunity to face up a defender. Havertz also has a fantastic weight of pass, unpredictability in taking on defenders, and a wonderful strike of the ball, but his ability to take each “step” leading up to those actions perfectly, as frequently as he does, is what sets him apart from his peers.

Havertz’s physicality was apparent in his ability to accelerate away from and/or hold of his opposition in some of those clips, but in transition, it really comes into its own. There just aren’t many central midfielders at 1.88 meters tall, as quick as he is, with such good balance and coordination. Combine that athleticism, with his technique, with his knack to make the correct decision on Every. Single. Offensive Transition… and you’re left with a deadly counter-attacking weapon to complement the intricate player he is in longer possessions. His height also creates mismatches aerially from set-pieces and in open play.

I understand that Bayer Leverkusen create a significant number of shots from counter-attacks and that some people may be sceptical about Havertz’s ability to perform against teams who spend more time defending in a low-block. But, Havertz is so exceptional technically and physically, complemented by the best decision-making you will ever see from a 19-year-old, that I would be very confident in Havertz’s skills transferring to the style of play of a more protagonistic team. Whichever team Havertz leaves Leverkusen for will have a midfielder that they won’t need to replace for the next decade, at least.

Houssem Aouar

The makeup of this current Olympique Lyon squad is very reminiscent of the Monaco team of the 16/17 season, in that it is brimming with young talent that looks set to be poached by some of the biggest clubs in Europe. Ferland Mendy, Tanguy Ndombele, Nabil Fekir, (even Memphis Depay, Moussa Dembele and Bertrand Traore to a certain extent) will soon be ready to move on to bigger and better things if they aren’t already. Any clubs that had a close look at one of those players last summer will now likely be kicking themselves for not acting on their interest, as Lyon’s impressive performances against Hoffenheim and Man City in the Champions League group-stage seem to have inflated the individual players’ reputations, and potential transfer fees. Houssem Aouar is the youngest of the current crop, but is clearly one of the best prepared to take on the challenge of playing for one of Europe’s elite.

A graduate of one of the most prolific academies in Europe – that has produced the likes of Karim Benzema, Alexandre Lacazette, Corentin Tolisso, Samuel Umtiti, Anthony Martial and Nabil Fekir – Houssem Aouar has witnessed first-hand the clear pathway to the first-team and the pastures beyond should you take your opportunity. If I had more time I would go back to compile the quotes, but on a recent On The Continent podcast, Andy Brassel spoke of the academy/first-team dynamic at OL. He described how, as much as their footballing-ability ultimately determines every young player’s future at Lyon, the academy engenders an air of confidence, even arrogance at times, in its graduates and having that type of personality is crucial in their progress towards the first-team. Once they make it to the senior group and are surrounded by fellow academy graduates, they really “run the team” and actually hold the authority over their counterparts signed from elsewhere, regardless of how great the discrepancy in age and experience may be.

Regardless of whether he matches up to those stereotypes off the pitch, it is glaringly clear that Aouar carries a certain personality onto it.

Technically, Aouar is quite unique compared to any of the other midfielders we’ve covered so far in his ability to dominate one-on-one situations, with the presence that I’ve been describing. The way dribbles are recorded statistically doesn’t entirely capture this, as Aouar’s 1.8 Dribbles90 is excellent but not streets ahead of what Havertz and Draxler manage. What I am describing that isn’t appreciated through my very binary dribble stats is his ability to beat his man so comfortably from both a standing start and mid-sprint in transition. There is a fluidity and a grace about Aouar’s motion, as he keeps the ball the same distance from his foot at all times, ready to push it in any direction as he reacts to the opposing defender’s movements.

Aouar’s confidence also manifests itself in his willingness to take the ball under pressure, and his ability to still find a dangerous pass or shot from even the tightest of areas. He keeps the ball too close to himself, gets too much of his body between the ball and his marker, and makes decisions too quickly for the opposition to dispossess him with the same ease they would with most players.

Aouar does rely on transitions to progress the ball, but it should be noted that he creates plenty of those transitions himself through his defensive work, and he makes use of those transitions very effectively. Aouar runs more quickly with the ball than most of his opposition can without it, and he picks the right pass more often than not. Essentially, he’s just very difficult to contain once he gets going.

For all of his positive dribbling and passing, in transition and in longer possessions, Aouar also contributes plenty of shot quality and volume indicated by his 0.37 NPxG+xA90.

There aren’t many players out there that demonstrate the qualities necessary to improve the midfield of Champions League contender before their twenty-first birthday, but I’m confident Aouar does. Along with Kai Havertz, the Lyon no. 8 is the best midfielder (in this style) in his age group (+/- 1 year). The opportunity to sign either of them is the opportunity to acquire a midfielder with a decade of world-class performances ahead of them.

Kerem Demirbay

Finally, all the hard work feels as if it’s paid off as we find a midfielder who is neither on the tip of every Chelsea fan’s tongue nor in the title of every “Best FM Wonderkids” article. Having only made two appearances for the German national team, and just five appearances in the Champions League, anyone who isn’t an avid Bundesliga fan probably hasn’t seen Kerem Demirbay play. Which is exciting, you’re about to have a new favourite player!

Demirbay’s slow rise to prominence hasn’t been helped by an extensive injury history, that would certainly be a concern to any potential buyers. Recently, German midfielder has suffered a myriad of soft-tissue injuries, the most significant of which seem to be ankle-ligament related, which have seen him miss 20 matches over the past two seasons. It is a shame because when he does get on the pitch, he’s exceptional.

The phrase “a wand of a left-foot” seems to get bandied about more every season, describing players who don’t actually have anything that special. Kerem Demirbay does have “a wand of a left-foot”. Even if Demirbay had significant tactical or physical shortcomings it just would not matter because wherever he is on the pitch, wherever the opposition players are, and wherever you (his teammates) are, he will find you with his left-foot. It doesn’t even seem to matter if it’s at the end of a counter-attack or part of a twenty-pass move. All of these clips are from open-play, but I should also mention that he has a wicked set-piece delivery, contributing a massive 0.18 xA90 from set-pieces to complement his 0.21 xA90 from open-play.

Even after I built him up so much, I bet you didn’t see that coming.

Demirbay’s passing ability is impressive enough on it’s own to warrant a move to a bigger club, but the German midfielder also contributes 0.21 NPxG, 2.5 dribbles and 3.3 defensive contributions per 90 minutes. His poor ball-retention and diminutive build can cause problems at times, but I still think Demirbay is a massively net-positive asset whenever he plays. His ability to wriggle away from defenders before finding a shot on goal, or one of his signature dinked passes is particularly impressive.

The more you see of Demirbay, the more difficult it is to understand how it took him so long to make his impact in the Bundesliga, and how nobody has made a more concerted effort to take him off of Hoffenheim’s hands. Demirbay would be an excellent option for any team that couldn’t afford/attract Aouar or Havertz, and has young midfielders waiting in the wings to make a significant impact in two to three years (no idea who I’m talking about there…). By then, Demirbay’s powers will be on the verge of waning, but hopefully not soon enough to stop you recouping most of your investment in him. He might be the best peak-age player on this list and is probably the least expensive one as well.

That’s all the video I have time to put together, but there were two more midfielders who did make the cut. I imagine everyone reading this has seen Nabil Fekir play before but, if not, a quick YouTube search will return dozens of videos. Fabián Ruiz also made the list, but I am pretty sure I want to write something on the transition from his role at Betis to his current role for Ancelotti’s Napoli, at some point, so stay tuned for that. This has been quite different from my previous posts, so I hope you still enjoyed it, and if you didn’t I always appreciate constructive criticism. Thanks for reading :).

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Mason Mount, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, and the Marek Hamšík-Shaped Hole in Chelsea’s Midfield – Improving Chelsea Part Three

This is the third part of my “Fixing Chelsea” series. If you missed “Improving Chelsea – Part 1” or Part 2, I would recommend reading those first as they provide some context to this instalment, and what this series is trying to achieve more generally. Part 1 in particular sets out some assumptions about Chelsea’s current situation that I would recommend reading. I also post additional content that doesn’t make it into these posts on my Twitter.

In short, the solutions I suggest through this series are as much: parts of a realistic framework of actions that would improve Chelsea’s current first-team squad, as they are parts of a fun exercise answering an interesting question: If Sarri were to be successful at Chelsea, how could that be assisted through player-recruitment?

In our attempt to recreate the most effective and functional elements of Sarri’s Napoli side, we really couldn’t ask for a more similar pair of midfielders in style and quality to Allan and Jorginho, than Kanté and… Jorginho himself. It genuinely makes it a lot easier to isolate what the midfield is missing when you have the exact fit in one position, and about as close of a fit as you’ll find in the second.

What’s missing then?

In comparing the output of Marek Hamšík to any other midfielder, let alone the largely ineffective Mateo Kovačić and Ross Barkley, it becomes very clear what he brought to Napoli’s midfield and by extension, what Chelsea are missing in theirs.

As you can see, the excellent Bernardo Silva, pre-eminent David Silva, and “€150M” (Mateja-Kežman-represented) Sergej Milinković-Savić are the only central/defensive midfielders to have managed over 0.8 non-penalty box-shots90 and 1.8 open-play shot-assists90 this season. Marek Hamšík hit those marks in each of his three seasons under Maurizio Sarri.

I keep my data for wingers/“10s” separate from my data for “8s”/“6s”, which is why there aren’t more names hitting Hamšík’s benchmarks.

How have Kovačić and Barkley fared this season?

Now, finding someone who will have the same creative and offensive output as Hamšík did for Napoli will clearly be somewhere in the range of very difficult to impossible, but improving upon the performances of Mateo Kovačić and Ross Barkley is much more manageable. This season Barkley and Kovačić, like most midfielders, haven’t gotten near Hamšík’s ~3.5 box-shots + shot-assists per 90 minutes, but have still managed a respectable 2.3 and 2.1 box-shots + shot-assists respectively. That doesn’t tell the entire story though.

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Kovačić’s shot-assists have largely propped up his figures, and Chelsea’s exceedingly average shot-quality means that a shot-assist for a Chelsea player generally isn’t particularly valuable. The Croatian’s 0.25 NPxG+xA90 is some distance off the 0.4 that Hamšík managed across those three seasons under Sarri’s tutelage. I have also made my thoughts on Kovačić’s general play pretty clear on my twitter. I’m less than impressed, to say the least.

Ross Barkley has managed an impressive 0.25 xG90 and 0.24 xA90 this season, but I would be amazed if he sustained that over a larger sample size than ~600 minutes as a starter, and against better opponents. Since Kovačić’s first start for Chelsea, the opponents Barkley has started against this season currently average just 22 points (level with Cardiff). Aside from that, Barkley offers even less ball progression than Kovačić, if that is possible, and loses the ball 4.9 times per 90 minutes. He just hasn’t been able to thrive in this possession-heavy style of football, compared to his time at Everton where he spearheaded their transitions with his ability to carry the ball.

Kovačić and Barkley aren’t bad players, but this system definitely doesn’t get the best out of either of them, and I am very confident that they could be improved upon.

What will be our Key Performance Indicators? (What else did Hamšík do for Napoli?)

(Did rather than does because he has a completely different role under Ancelotti, so it really isn’t worth analysing what he’s been up to this season.)

As we’ve already covered, two of Hamšík’s most valuable skills were his chance creation and shot volume/quality, relative to the position he played. We’ll use open-play shot-assists90 and non-penalty box-shots90 to evaluate this.

For anyone new to football stats: we remove set-pieces from shot-assists because set-piece taking is a different skill from creating chances in open play. We only look at shots from inside the box as they are much more valuable (more likely to result in goals) and as a result, we minimize some of the “noise” in generic shot-volume. We exclude penalties from shots as being the designated penalty-taker is a different skill to getting on the end of chances in the box.

Why not use xG/xA? I’m sure some people will wince at the sight of box-shots and shot-assists, rather than the xG and xA we’ve all become so accustomed to, but they do provide a useful place to start. Basically, of my totally unsustainable and utterly convoluted data-collection practices, manually compiling xG and xA from Understat for 339 players would probably take the cake (and my sanity), hence my willingness to exclude it here.

The box-shots will give us a pretty good approximation of xG, but shot-assists are much more variable. My compromise is: we will use the two counting stats just to put an initial list of players together before looking at their xG and xA as part of our final judgements.

I think this is also a good place to mention that we need to have a conversation about shot-assists and expected-assists. Being the player who’s making that final pass is great. Our ability to distinguish a perfect cutback for an open goal, from a simple two-yard pass to Suso/Townsend/Ziyech for them to shoot from 30-yards using xA is also great. Buuuut, Player A can be a better creative passer than player B, without necessarily setting up as many (quality) shots as Player B. This is important to keep in mind generally and is relevant when looking at some of the players who make our final list.

Alongside creating chances and shooting, one of Hamšík’s most important attributes was his ability to progress the ball. This is a different skill to creating chances, and we have to view it as such when compiling our list of midfielders. Metrics such as passes-above-expectation, SaturdayOnCouch’s yardage-gained, and deep-progressions (I’m not a massive fan of these but we’ll include them in the list) are great at giving you a better idea of how effective a player (or team) is at progressing the ball.

Seeing as I have neither the data, nor means to manipulate that data (…yet. I’m trying to learn), to create something to evaluate how progressive players are, we will have to rely more heavily on the eye-test initially than I would like. I also used some lovely pass maps from the Stats Zone app, to try to evaluate each player’s ball progression abilities. You can download the Stats Zone app here for IOS: http://t.co/ho58H8fogt. If that link doesn’t work the download link is also in their Twitter bio.

We don’t have to be too concerned about the defensive abilities of the players we look at, as Hamšík would only contribute ~1.5-2 tackles + interceptions90 for Sarri. This actually means that we can also look at players who play as “10s” but could be moved back to an “8” position.

Much like the current Chelsea team, Napoli racked up the passes under Sarri, with Hamšík contributing 75-80 passes per90. We want to find someone who is quite involved in their team’s possessions, particularly in advancing the ball for their team, rather than a second-striker type who is just lurking around the box and laying off passes to onrushing teammates.

Some more niche points regarding players identification:

Marcos Alonso, Emerson Palmieri, and Olivier Giroud. Those are the only left-footed players in Chelsea’s current first-team squad. Whilst I doubt there is much empirical evidence supporting this, it seems fairly obvious that having a balance of left and right-footed players throughout your team is at least somewhat beneficial. Manchester City with all of their left-footed attackers, and Liverpool with Salah and Shaqiri, always seem to be able to threaten teams sitting in low-blocks more than we do, thanks to their different range of passing/shooting/dribbling tendencies.

In contrast to Part 2, I will set a more lenient age-limit, because it would be somewhat remiss of us to block the pathway of the players in Chelsea’s pipeline who could potentially fit into that attacking “8” position, by signing a player of a similar age. I also feel that it will be easier to find an undervalued midfielder in their peak-years than it is finding an undervalued striker. That said, if we were to find a young player who looks like they will be cheaper, and eventually better than, the best peak-age player currently, that is probably a smarter business decision. Though there is always the risk of losing one of those players currently in the pipeline working that way.

Before we get into targets, let’s look at the players already under contract at Chelsea:

Ruben Loftus-Cheek

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The Lewisham-born midfielder has been at the club longer than any other player in the first-team squad, having joined in 2003 as an under-8. He hasn’t really been given a fair shot at that third midfield position this season, having only played ~300 minutes in the Premier League (just one starting appearance) so we’ll have to judge him on his time at Crystal Palace last season.

I know he mostly played on the left of a midfield four last season, but given his role in the system, and the positions he would take up throughout a match, I thought it made more sense to show him on the CM/DM radar rather than the “10”/Winger radar.

As you can see, he excelled in the metrics that are the biggest priorities for the role we are trying to fill. Loftus-Cheek’s 2.4 shot-assists+box-shots90 is impressive, especially considering his expected-stats were right in line, with his 0.17 NPxG90 and 0.16 xA90 already exceeding the output we have seen from Kovačić in those areas so far this season. He also progressed the ball effectively, largely through his exceptional dribbling ability, an area in which he is an outlier amongst central-midfielders.

Given the quality of the players around him, Crystal Palace’s style of play, and his few performances for Chelsea this season primarily in cup competitions, I have few reasons to doubt that Ruben could come in for the first-choice “8” without there being a significant drop in performance level.

Mason Mount

(Getty Images)

Chelsea->Vitesse->*insert Championship club here* is a well-trodden and fairly ordinary path for many Chelsea academy graduates. Mason Mount’s last 18 months have been everything but that. Mason took the leap out of youth football at the earliest opportunity possible, and hasn’t looked back since, winning the U19 European Championships as the Player of the Tournament, claiming the Vitesse Player of the Year award, spearheading Derby to a famous FA Cup victory at Old Trafford, and being called up to the England Senior team despite playing in the Championship.

Much like Loftus-Cheek, Mount clearly excels in two of the areas we are paying particular attention to, chance-creation and shot-volume. Much like Ruben at Palace, Mount’s low defensive and passing numbers are more a consequence of the style of football played by Vitesse and Derby than his own ability. Mount is actually a better defender than his numbers would suggest as well, with his pressing being a standout feature of his game and one that suits the way Chelsea defend under Sarri, as James Socik detailed in his StatsBomb article earlier this season. Anyone who watched him man-mark Cesc Fabregas out of the game at Stamford Bridge (before it was cool to man-mark Chelsea’s deepest midfielder) would have picked up on this as well.

It is really impressive that Mount has been able to perform so well at such a young age, without being particularly physically imposing for his age, especially in two leagues/teams with such contrasting styles of play.

This comparison between Mount’s time in the Eredivisie and Championship also shows just how strange the Eredivisie can be in allowing midfielders and defenders to rack up the dribbles in a way that might not translate to more physical or defensively proactive/aggressive leagues. Essentially, I’m looking forward to all of the “What Happened to Frenkie de Jong?” pieces that will be written in November next season, after he tries to take players on in La Liga or the Champions League in the same way he does right now, only to get shouldered off the ball without a foul being given… 😉

The other young’uns

Tino Anjorin is a first-year scholar (16-17 y/o season) who was described by Chelsea U18-manager at the time, Jody Morris, as the best finisher in the group. He was still just a schoolboy (15-16 y/o season in this example) at the time, and this was a group that included Daishawn Redan and Charlie Brown who managed a combined 42 goals last season, and a certain Callum Hudson-Odoi. Pretty high praise.

Anjorin glides across the pitch with ease, has an exceptional weight of pass, and an uncanny habit of being in the right place at the right time with decisive actions. Physically, he is probably already prepared for Premier League football, with a similar build to Ruben Loftus-Cheek standing at 1.86 meters according to Transfermarkt, but he looks even taller than that when I’ve seen him in person. Don’t be surprised if you see him get opportunities sooner rather than later.

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Billy Gilmour

On the opposite end of the physical spectrum is Billy Gilmour, who is more of a Cesc carbon-copy than a Loftus-Cheek look-a-like. Billy does apparently model his game on Fabregas’ as well, and it seems to be working. He dictates the tempo of each and every match he plays with his metronomic passing, is impossible to dispossess, using Cruyff turns and stepovers to resist pressure, and has an eye for the home-run pass to send a teammate through on goal. I’m not aware if this is the case for Tino as well, but Billy has definitely been in first-team training so there is always the chance that he catches the manager’s eye. Billy even stood out for Scotland’s U21s when he was just a first-year scholar, competing against full-grown men without much of an issue physically.

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I totally understand the opinion of those who would recommend against signing a player for that third midfield position, and would prefer to let Mount and Loftus-Cheek share the role and prioritize signings in other positions. However, my first instinct would be to bring in a world-class “8” to help make Chelsea a Champions League regular and Premier League title challenger, once again. I also think there would still be room for Mount and Ruben, as either could capably play as understudy to N’Golo Kanté in less-crucial matches. What is absolutely certain, is that there is no need for Chelsea to spend €50M on a Barella-type midfielder, or make the Kovačić deal permanent, when they have so much talent already under contract at the club.

The potential targets!

I will be using a similar process to find these players as I did for the strikers in “Part 2” but I won’t be able to rely on the stats quite as heavily, as I explained when we looked at what Hamšík did for Napoli.

Guys who have been good this season, but don’t quite make it to the final list

Florian Neuhaus – 21 – Borussia Mönchengladback – This has been his first season in a top-flight league and he has proven to be one of the better players in the Bundesliga at bringing the ball into dangerous areas with his passing. He just needs to contribute to more shots than his current 1.3 open-play shot-assists and 0.7 non-penalty box-shots per 90 minutes. He does some neat work around the box and is definitely one to keep an eye on.

Stefano Sensi – 23 – Sassuolo – Has only started putting impressive performances and a solid number of minutes together this season. The Italian does give you the benefits of being more of a two-way midfielder though, contributing 3.6 interceptions + tackles per 90. He’s a good player, but just doesn’t quite suit our needs.

Jonas Hofmann – 26 – Borussia Mönchengladback

Leonardo Bittencourt – 25 – Hoffenheim

Marcel Sabitzer – 24 – RB Leipzig

Hofmann, Bittencourt, and Sabitzer all have similar issues, in that they contribute plenty of end-product (between ~0.4 and ~0.6 NPxG+xA90), but are either involved later in possessions too often or not progressing the ball enough for our requirements. This is Sabitzer’s first season playing any minutes as a central midfielder, having spent the majority of the previous two seasons as a marauding winger/“10”. Both Hofmann and Bittencourt have only managed ~3000 starting minutes in the past 2.5 seasons.

Once again, you can download the Stats Zone app here for IOS: http://t.co/ho58H8fogt, or the download link is also in their Twitter bio.

Kevin Kampl – 28 – RasenBallsport Leipzig – Kampl has been one of the best midfielders in the Bundesliga this season. He actually does play in the right area of the pitch for what we’re looking for and is an excellent passer and his ability to progress the ball rivals any midfielder in the Bundesliga. His exclusion from the final list is mostly down to age. 28 is just too old, especially considering this is really his first standout season offensively.

Rade Krunić – 25 – Empoli – He’s been great this season at creating chances for teammates and dragging Empoli up the pitch with his excellent passing, but this is his first season showing that sort of output and he’s 25. I would be pretty sceptical as to whether you would end up with the 0.29 xA90 Krunić of this season, or the 0.07 xA90 of Krunić 16/17.

Pablo Sarabia – 26 – Sevilla – Sevilla have had the second-best attack in La Liga this season, and Sarabia has been the second-biggest contributor to that with his 0.7 NPxG + xA, only behind Wissam Ben Yedder. Unfortunately, he is definitely more of a winger/“10” type. You could make the argument that he could be transformed into an attacking “8”, but I would be hesitant about how much of his output would be retained.

Sergej Milinković-Savić – 23 – Lazio – The Spanish-born Serbian midfielder has the highest shot-contribution volume of any player on this list, at 1.6 NP box-shots and 2.0 OP shot-assists per 90 minutes. His 0.45 NPxG+xA90 is very healthy as well. There is no question that he produces a massive offensive output for a midfielder and causes lots of problems with the physical mismatches he creates at 1.91 meters tall. My only concern with Milinković-Savić is about his ability to advance the ball up the pitch, but the sole reason why he hasn’t made it to the final list is the reported €120-150M fee. If you’re wondering where those prices came from last season, and why his name hasn’t been mentioned at all in the past five months… Basically, he scored 12 non-penalty goals from midfield last season, catapulting his reputation into the stratosphere, when really, he outdid his xG by about 5.5 goals and this season he has regressed to the mean. That mean is still pretty impressive, but unless the asking price has dropped by at least €60M, the other players on the final list would provide a similar output, if not better in some areas, for at most two-thirds of the rumoured price for Milinković-Savić.

I have now rambled on for too long in this post, so the players who do make the cut will come in the next part of this series. I have actually finished the next part already, so the more people enjoy and share this post, the more encouraged I will be to publish the next one sooner. 

I hope you did enjoy this post, even though I took it in a slightly different direction to the last one, which was largely forced on me because of the quality of the players already in this position at Chelsea and the nature of the data available to me. That said, I also chose to focus more on the requirements of the role, and the players who didn’t make the cut so that I could analyze each player that I do like more granularly, as I do in the next post.

If you do have any criticisms, suggestions, requests, feel free to comment on this post or tell me on my twitter, where I’m more likely to respond. Thanks for reading. 🙂

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Timo Werner, Luka Jović, and the Hallmarks of a “Sarriball” Striker – Improving Chelsea Part Two

Trying to devise a player recruitment strategy to support the needs of Maurizio Sarri, based on the assumption that he will be Chelsea’s manager past this season, doesn’t seem quite as decided as it did before the 2-0 loss to Arsenal and subsequent comments from the manager, but away we go!

Throughout my lifetime, there has scarcely been a bigger story surrounding Chelsea Football Club, at any given moment, than the club’s striker. Each expensive big-name signing seemed to struggle more than the previous, as they failed to displace, or in recent times fill the boots of, the immortal Didier Drogba. Higuaín’s six-month loan doesn’t look like it will be another signing of that ilk, as it should be just a stop-gap solution to hold Chelsea over until the summer. But, the club’s hierarchy will soon find themselves in an all too familiar position as they embark on the search for a #9 who can help the club achieve both immediate, and long-term success.

Under Maurizio Sarri at Napoli, both Dries Mertens and Gonzalo Higuaín had the finest moments of their careers, scoring bucket-loads of goals. Before we start looking into which strikers might suit this current Chelsea team best, we should try to understand how those two forwards were so successful for Sarri.

Both Higuaín and Mertens managed immense non-penalty expected goal totals, underpinned by massive shot volume and middling shot quality. In the 15/16 season Higuaín had 0.76 NPxG90, 5.4 NP Shots90, 0.14 xG/Shot whilst Mertens had 0.80 NPxG90, 5.1 NP Shots90 and 0.16 xG/shot in the 16/17 season. Napoli’s offensive output dropped off a bit last season as Mertens’ performances took a (likely age-induced) hit. Mertens also proved to be a productive creative outlet, helped by Lorenzo Insigne’s improved output, with his 0.28 xG Assisted90 whereas Higuaín offered just 0.08 xG Assisted90. Both players were also important in helping Napoli progress the ball into dangerous areas with their passing and dribbling, each completing over 1.5 dribbles and 27 passes per 90 minutes. One of the more interesting quirks about the way Maurizio Sarri’s teams play is how few headed chances they create for strikers. In Sarri’s three seasons at Napoli, neither Mertens nor Higuaín ever accumulated more than 7% of their shots from headers. That is low, and will significantly influence what type of striker we should look for. Now that we have a pretty good idea of what those two players did to be successful for Sarri, we should also consider the nuances of this current crop of Chelsea players and what the squad has lacked this season.

Generally, when looking at two strikers with a similar xG90, the striker with better shot volume is more appealing than one with better shot quality, as demonstrated by players such as Ronaldo, Messi, Kane, and Suarez. They have all shown that being able to score a few goals each season from outside the box allows you to stand out from your peers, who are feeding solely off chances closer to the goal. One problem with the current Chelsea squad is that there are too many attackers who settle for shots from poor positions, rather than putting themselves in positions where they are more likely to score. The total absence of a midfielder bursting into the box like Hamšík did for Napoli contributes to this, but we will address that at a later date. This is depicted by our 0.1 xG/Shot from open play this season, which is still viable as we saw under Conte in 16/17, but is not close to the electrifying 0.14 and 0.16 of Liverpool and City, respectively, this season. So, contrary to our general understanding of top strikers, I feel that this Chelsea team would benefit more from having a striker that gets on the end of excellent chances in the box, than one who is willing to have a pop from 25 meters a few times each match.

Now all of the boring business is out of the way, let’s get into what everyone really came here for, the names!

Everything I do from now onwards will be looking at players in Europe’s top-5 leagues with at least 500 minutes, and my data doesn’t include the most recent round of fixtures.

Step 1: Get Someone Who Can Score

0.4 NPxG90 feels like a pretty reasonable, if not generous, floor to set. Ideally, we will find some players who are more dangerous than that, but players can always improve significantly depending on their age and the quality of their team so we’ll start with this.

That has left us with 58 players.

Players who were cut that we might go back and take a second look at: Juan Camilo Hernandez, Antonino La Gumina, Richarlison, and Gaëtan Laborde. Maxi Gomez, Giovanni Simeone, and Patrick Cutrone all would have made the cut last season as well and are also worth taking a second look at.

Step 2: Get Someone Who Will Do It For Years To Come

As fun as this is, I don’t want to be sitting here with the same problem less than three years from now, so let’s look at only u25 players.

Only 14 players left… That was quick. I also removed players who would be totally unrealistic signings like Rashford and Jesus. If you were an entire football club, a 14-player list is definitely short enough to look at each player individually. I am a mere human so let’s go one more.

Players who were cut that we might go back and take a second look at: Ciro Immobile, Loren Morón, basically any players with banter last-names.

Step 3: Let’s Not Find A Young Olivier Giroud And Force Them To Play “Sarriball”

As we discussed earlier, Sarri’s teams just don’t put crosses into the box for a striker to head home. Moreover, nobody has whipped a decent cross in from the touchline at Stamford Bridge since Ashley Cole left. To be fair, Callum Hudson-Odoi might be in the conversation with some of his recent crosses. Let’s get rid of anyone whose headed attempts on goal make up ≥25% of their total shots. Remember Higuaín and Mertens were at 5% and 7% respectively. Morata’s HeaderShot% has dropped from 29% last season to 17% this, Giroud dropped from 43% to 27%.

That leaves us with 7 players! Just 7!

That is definitely a short enough list to look at each player on an individual level.

Guys who didn’t make the last day of try-outs: Patrik Schick, Sébastien Haller, Yussuf Poulsen, Santi Mina, Krzysztof Piątek (Gonzalo Higuaín’s replacement at Milan), Arkadiusz Milik, Aleksandar Mitrović.

All of these guys are really talented and whilst I would have my doubts about them fitting in at Chelsea under Sarri, I’m sure they’ll be successful elsewhere.

Step 4: Who’s Left?

André Silva of Sevilla (on loan from AC Milan), Iñaki Williams of Athletic Bilbao, Luka Jović of Eintracht Frankfurt (on loan from Benfica), Timo Werner of RB Leipzig, Joelinton of 1899 Hoffenheim, Moussa Dembélé of Lyon, and Raúl de Tomás of Rayo Vallecano (on loan from Real Madrid).  

I don’t think any of these names will be a massive surprise to most people that are reading this post, but what we should reflect on at this point is which strikers didn’t make the cut and why. Anyone can reel off a list of the most exciting young strikers in Europe, but being able to pick out which ones are/aren’t the “real deal”, and who would/wouldn’t be the best fits for a particular team, is entirely different. Let’s get into the players now.

Moussa Dembélé is a pretty special and unique talent. He can both pose a threat in-behind opposition defenses in non-transition situations and be difficult to defend against with his back to goal because of his ability to pin his defender and combine with team-mates. You’re lucky to find a striker who can do one of those things well at the top level, he does both. I would want to see him perform at this level over a little bit of a larger sample of minutes than 664 as a starter. One to continue watching for the rest of the season.

It would probably be a bit too “Moneyball” of me to tell you that Chelsea should sign the striker who has just ~1200 minutes (all this season) of top-flight football at 24.3 years old and is valued at just £6.3M on Transfermarkt. On the other hand, Raúl de Tomás scored 44 goals and got 8 assists in ~5,300 minutes of Segunda División football for 0.88 G+A per 90 minutes. Other than taking shots though, he hasn’t done much of anything this season for the 18th best team in La Liga, but he might be worth taking a closer look at for a midtable/trying-to-avoid-relegation Premier League team.

Following Roberto Firmino’s example, by taking his first steps out of Brazil and into European football at Hoffenheim, is Joelinton, who is about 5cm too tall for me to make an FM Regen joke. On a serious note, the similarities between the two players continue. Joelinton is a striker who does a lot more than just take shots, to the point that he profiles more like an attacking midfielder in some areas. The Brazilian is an absolute nightmare to defend against, especially on transition, because of his physicality. There aren’t many strikers at 186 cm and 80+ kilos who have his pace, strength, and level of coordination, that aren’t at top clubs.

Joelinton also puts in 2.6 tackles + interceptions per 90 minutes, completes 2.0 dribbles90 and has 0.25 xG assisted90. You’ll be hard pressed finding something not to like about Joelinton, and he would be great for a team that has wide forwards with big offensive output. Attackers of the Sané/Sterling/Salah/Mané/Son mould. Unfortunately, Chelsea don’t have any wingers that fit that description, and Pulisic won’t change that. As much as I like him, Joelinton’s NPxG90 of 0.4 probably isn’t enough to fill the goal-scoring void in Chelsea’s team right now. We’ll keep an eye on him in case that changes.

And then there were four.

Evidently, a consequence of setting such a broad age bracket is that we have ended up with a 3.5-year difference between the eldest striker, Williams, and the youngest, Jović. That isn’t a problem, but we do have to account for the fact that those two players have completely different age-profiles, thus you wouldn’t expect Williams to have nearly as much room for development as Jović.

This is already approaching 2000 words, and I don’t know how much value there is in determining who is the best/worst player from such a short list of clearly talented targets so I will try to be brief in the analysis of the players.

Luka Jović

The Bundesliga is generally a much more transition-oriented league than the Serie A or the Premier League (the crazy pressing tends to leave plenty of space behind defenses) but it wouldn’t be unreasonable to have some doubts about Jović’s adaptation to a less counter-oriented team in Chelsea. Frankfurt lead the Bundesliga for the percentage of open-play shots-for that come from counter-attacks at 11%, next best in the Bundesliga is 7%, whereas Sarri’s Napoli, and Chelsea this season, have averaged around 2%. Jović has enough talent to adapt to a different style of play, but he might struggle to “hit the ground running”.

To his credit, Jović creates some of these counter-attacks himself out of absolutely nothing, and it is pretty spectacular to watch when he does.

I’m not totally convinced by Jović’s ability to pass or carry the ball into dangerous areas in longer-possessions, compared to some of the other players on this list, but he can have some tidy moments around the box.

My favourite aspect of Jović’s play is that, although I’m pretty sure he is right-footed, he has a cleaner strike on either side than some strikers have on their one strong side. Here are a few clips of shots on his left foot and one on his right foot.

I don’t know if the Serbian striker’s skillset would fully transfer to a team that has longer possessions, but even if he can only translate most of what he does well to another team, there’s a lot there to work with. Jović probably isn’t the best player on this list right now, but he might have the highest ceiling of the four strikers.

Timo Werner

As we saw in those clips of him carrying the ball on transition, Luka Jović is quick, but Timo Werner is an absolute freak. I’m sure this isn’t new information to most people but I can’t stress enough how much of an outlier Werner’s pace is, he regularly pulls onto the opposition right-back, and will hardly face one faster than him all season. This is a really useful element of the German’s game, but he also has a number of other skills that make him such a dangerous player.

I’m pretty convinced that no striker on this list uses the ball better than Werner, particularly after carrying/dribbling with it. He is frequently getting the ball into dangerous areas, either to create chances for teammates or himself and constantly drags his team further up the pitch.

If you look at most average position maps from RB Leipzig’s matches, it looks like Werner is playing centrally, but as you can see from those clips, that isn’t the full story. The striker does most of his work either side of Yussuf Poulsen, who plays much more as a focal point for the attack, and Werner’s positions either side of the Dane average out somewhere in the middle of the pitch on position-maps. This tendency isn’t ideal for what Chelsea need, but could prove effective as part of a positional rotation with one of the wingers.

Werner is hair’s breadth away from being the best striker in the Bundesliga, behind a certain Pole playing in Bavaria, and is one of the best strikers in Europe. He is yet to turn 23 years old. Whichever club Werner leaves Leipzig for should consider themselves very, very lucky.

André Silva

The story is that André Silva flopped at AC Milan last season, but has reinvented himself on a Sevilla side who have the second-meanest attack in La Liga. In reality, Silva went through a bit of a poor finishing spell on a really dysfunctional team last season, where he scored 2 goals from ~4xG, and just wasn’t given much of an opportunity afterward. This season he has been flanked by the excellent Wissam Ben Yedder and outstanding Pablo Sarabia, bullying defenses as a trio every weekend.

Silva’s best attribute is certainly his awareness of where his teammates are and his ability to find them with a variety of passes. Silva rarely makes the wrong pass on transitions and always maintains the tempo of attacks.

As much as I banged on about Chelsea’s need for a striker who gets into good positions, as opposed to one who shoots-on-sight, Silva’s 2.7 shots per 90 is a serious concern. On top of that, 15 of his 44 shots this season came in just two matches. Silva just doesn’t have the burst of acceleration to create separation from defenders in order to get shots off. He is totally reliant on the service that comes into him. The only real positive here is that when those chances do come to him in the box, he is often in the right position and his athleticism allows him to hold off defenders or win headers better than most strikers can.

Overall, André Silva wouldn’t be the improvement up front Chelsea need right now, but he has enough positive elements to his game that you would want to keep a close eye on him.

Iñaki Williams

It is hard to see the value in paying the €80+ million release clause to sign a 25-year-old Iñaki Williams, but we’ll have a look at him anyway.

Like Werner, the first thing that stands out about the Spanish striker is his pace. He has been recorded hitting almost 36 km/h in a match, which I’m assuming would put him well into the first percentile of any player in Europe. Williams also has a similar game to Werner generally, in that he spends more time in wide areas than most strikers do, and uses his pace to create separation from defenders whilst carrying the ball to create chances for himself and teammates. Williams doesn’t use the ball as efficiently as Werner does, and he relies much more on there being space to exploit whereas Werner can also be dangerous in longer (more passes) possessions.

I would argue that, whilst Werner uses the ball efficiently more often and in a greater variety of situations than Williams, the Spanish striker is better at using his wheels to arrive onto passes than Werner.

There’s no denying that Williams might be the most exciting player to watch on this list, he really makes top-flight football matches look like video-games at times. My only reservations around him as a player are about how effective he would be in a team that possesses the ball higher up the pitch, for longer periods of time. To pull the trigger on Williams, you would have to be absolutely certain that Williams could A: effectively translate all of his skills to your team, and B: improve upon his 2.7 shots per 90. As we discussed with André Silva, that just isn’t enough shot volume for a top team, despite the quality of those shots being so impressive. That said, the Bilbao-born striker certainly has enough juice, even from a standing start, that you would be more confident about him translating well to other teams than most strikers who thrive in counter-attacking systems. Williams is also the most versatile player on this list, having played ~5000 minutes starting on the right wing in his younger years.

That’s just about all I’ve got. This was more about the process of using data to find strikers that fit both Sarri’s system, and Chelsea’s current squad, rather than really analyzing each player as deeply as I would if I were writing about just that one player in isolation. Nobody knows if any of these strikers would have any interest in Chelsea but most of them, and some of the players we cut along the way, would improve Chelsea and are at the right age to improve going forward.

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Prices and Availability

I don’t find discussing potential transfer fees and player availability particularly interesting or productive, but I understand some do, so the following few paragraphs will be just that. Feel free to click off if you don’t care for that sort of thing.

As Chelsea have already found out, this past summer, you have to pay a premium on any players at Athletic Bilbao, as the Basque club do not enter outgoing transfer negotiations and force buyers to pay the full release clause of each player. 12 months ago, Iñaki Williams signed a 4-year deal with an €80 million release clause that will progressively rise to €108 million. That isn’t very good value for a player who would be 25 by the first league fixture next season.

According to a recent report from Bild, Timo Werner could be available for as little as €40 million with his contract expiring in just 18-months and the player showing no interest in penning a new deal. If Timo Werner wasn’t already the best option of these four players, he certainly pushes head and shoulders past his competitors who would probably, or definitely in the case of Williams, be significantly more expensive.

I haven’t been able to find any definitive price estimates for André Silva, but Sevilla will have to pay AC Milan €38 million, on top of the €4 million loan fee they have already paid, to make the loan deal permanent. I’m not sure if it would be possible to out-bid Sevilla to sign him permanently in the summer, but that solution would definitely be worth exploring.

I was not able to find any information regarding a potential Luka Jović transfer information other than the price Frankfurt would have to pay Benfica to make the move permanent in six months, just €10-12 million. You would also imagine that Jović’s wages would be a fraction of the cost of the other players’ wages.

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What Chelsea Could Look Like Six Months From Now – Improving Chelsea Part One

When Maurizio Sarri was appointed by Chelsea in the summer, there was a hope amongst fans that they would finally get to see their team play in more possession-based, attacking, and proactive style than what they watched, at times, through the previous two managers’ tenures. Whilst it would have been fairly naive and unrealistic for fans to have expected the new manager to make this transition immediately, the 28 points won from the first 12 matches of the season seemed to raise expectations only for them to crash back down to earth as Chelsea only took 19 points from their following 10 matches. The teams around Chelsea picking up points every week, regardless of their performances, hasn’t helped ease fans’ anxiety. But, it is indeed worrying that Chelsea performances did take the same nosedive as their results after 12 matches, and they haven’t just been unlucky.

All of that said, even when Chelsea were racking up the points at the start of the season, they looked like a mere caricature of Sarri’s Napoli side from 2015-2018. If we pretend for a moment that the Chelsea board is, in fact, the most patient decision-makers in world football, and are prepared to do anything to see Sarriball in SW6, how could they help the Italian manager?

First, we need to make a few assumptions.

  1. This current Chelsea squad is not good enough to maintain a rate of 2.33 points-per-game (what they managed for the first 12 matches this season) over the course of 38 games and finish on 85-90 points come May.
  2. Their slump over the past 10 league matches has not been a result of fatigue to (key) players because of Sarri’s dogmatic rotation policy, thus the squad simply is not good enough.   
    1. Or, the 14 most used players are fatigued because of Sarri’s squad management, but if we were to improve the quality of the non-first XI players, Sarri would be less hesitant to rotate and thus we would solve the fatigue problem.
  3. Maurizio Sarri is, in fact, a good head coach and if he were given the right resources he would be able to create a team that could challenge for the Premier League title, playing in his “style”.
  4. Chelsea can convince Callum Hudson-Odoi, and in particular Eden Hazard to stay. This is by far the biggest “if” on this list, but a lot of the finances and squad priorities move around if Hazard Leaves. Obviously.

Now all of the mental gymnastics are out of the way, we can safely analyze the squad and try to find ways to improve it without any Conte/Mourinho apologists coming after us for defending Sarri, who is the bane of their existence.

This is how the squad has looked so far this season:

Before we get stuck into this any further, know that I am aware how volatile many Chelsea players’ contract/transfer situations are, and I am going to try to do my best to show how I would get the most out of this squad without being unrealistic. I also realize that looking at the squad as granularly as I am about to may seem excessive, but it is necessary to understand the priorities of the squad, and show why we maybe shouldn’t spend tens of millions on Wan-Bissaka, Barella, Paredes, Hysaj or Rugani, each of whom we’ve been heavily-linked within the last 6 months, before addressing other positions.

So how could this squad look going into a 2019/2020 season, after Chelsea have likely finished 3rd/4th in the Premier League (reasonable based on most analytical predictions), and qualified for Champions league football? (before any transfers in, or major transfers out):

Out of contract: Giroud, Cahill, Piazón, Caballero, Green, Kovačić, Higuaín

Higuaín’s transfer has not been confirmed at the time of writing this, but it looks like he will sign on a 6-month loan with an option for Chelsea to extend for a further 12 months. So hopefully a rapidly declining, 31-year-old Higuaín will not be leading the line for Chelsea heading into the 19/20 season.

Sold or loaned out for a loan fee/wages: Morata, Zappacosta, *Dasilva, Zouma, *Bakayoko, *Pašalić, Kenedy, Batshuayi, Baker, Rahman, Kalas, Omerou, Hector, Miazga, Pantić, Kane, Nathan.

*Based on what has been made public information, the loan clubs of Aina, Dasilva, Bakayoko, and Pašalić all have option-to-buy clauses in the contract of the respective loanee.

Loaned out to further their development (only from players that have been mentioned/included in the squad graphics so far): Castillo, Tomori, Clarke-Salter, McEachran, Gallagher.

Zappacosta has been linked with a move away recently so I have assumed that one of Ola Aina, who is more prepared having played at a higher level, or Reece James would step up to play as the backup to Azpilicueta. All of this is my alternative to spending £50M on Aaron Wan-Bissaka or Elseid Hysaj. Wan-Bissaka is one of the best young right-backs in Europe, who also happens to be English which is very helpful for HG player quotas, but so are Aina (in terms of eligibility) and James, and both are so capable that I really think that money could be better spent in other areas. James’ pass% looks worrying, but it is largely a consequence of the ridiculously high proportion crosses he has to play for his team, which are obviously always low-percentage passes. It should be noted that whilst Reece James is playing in a league of a lower standard than the other three defenders, he is standing out on just the 19th best team in the Championship. Hysaj is unique in that he older than the other three players and has worked with Sarri before, but he just seems quite limited, as we can gather from some of his numbers. It is also worth mentioning that Aina is playing further forward than the other players on the list, but he has managed more than double the xG assisted per 90 minutes of Wan-Bissaka and Hysaj this season at 0.14, and being two-footed he has played ~500 minutes at left-wingback and ~400 at right-wingback. That is pretty rare and it goes without saying how useful it is having a player that covers either flank in such a specialized role. Azpilicueta is a reliable defender for now, but will ultimately need to be replaced as he just doesn’t create enough chances or progress the ball enough with his passing or ability to carry the ball, and he isn’t particularly dynamic athletically.

Sarri’s Napoli was even more offensively skewed to their left-hand side than Chelsea currently are, and Faouzi Ghoulam was a significant part of that, as he was one of the best left-backs in Europe when he was fit and playing at Napoli. Marcos Alonso is nowhere near that level. In his 980 minutes last season, Ghoulam scored above the 64th percentile in eights stats I track, and above the 94th in three, whilst contributing 0.18 xG assisted per 90 minutes, which is all fairly consistent across his time at Napoli. Marcos Alonso ranks above the 53rd percentile in just aerial wins and pass completion% and contributes just 0.09 xG assisted90. Regardless, it seems his 90th-minute winners seem to have piqued the interest of the two Spanish giants for a while now. Chelsea should greet any significant transfer fee offered for the 28-year-old with open arms and re-invest it in a better, younger option. Emerson is very productive offensively, but there are still question marks surrounding his defensive work. We will look at left-back options in a future installment, but it isn’t as big of a concern as other positions.

The center-back position at Chelsea this season has proven to be totally impenetrable to anyone not named Antonio Rüdiger or David Luiz. This is despite the fact that Andreas Christensen has absolutely everything you could want from a center back but currently finds himself out of favor as apparently Sarri “isn’t convinced by Christensen’s physicality”. He isn’t small, but he is no Kalidou Koulibaly, I’ll give Sarri that. Christensen is a great player and incredibly valuable asset, and if we can keep hold of him in the summer, he should be first choice from next season on. Ampadu, Luiz, and several of the lads out on loan, could be capable backups to Rudiger and Andreas for cup competitions.

Rather than spending £30M on someone like Paredes, Ampadu could also play as the backup to Jorginho, something Sarri has described as “possible” in a recent press conference. At the very least it is worth trying Ampadu and Kovačić as backups there for the rest of the 18/19 season and make a more informed decision in the summer. Paredes is a good player, who creates more chances for teammates and is probably more versatile than Jorginho and would be a fine signing, but in terms of value over replacement, the £30M could be a bigger difference-maker elsewhere on the pitch.

Given we already have Ampadu listed as a backup player in two positions, and there aren’t many Kanté-style midfielders in the pipeline at Chelsea, it would make sense to bring in a backup for him. Conor Gallagher is of that mold, and one of my favourite players at the club, but I want to see what he can do out on loan somewhere first. Spending £50M on a Nicolò Barella, who is very good to be fair, to solve this problem probably isn’t the best use of resources. Chelsea should look at Fiorentina’s deal for Hamed Junior Traorè at €12M for… creative inspiration.

I have left one of the “8” slots blank, as it is abundantly clear that in order to challenge for the premier league next season, Chelsea desperately need a midfielder who progresses the ball, creates chances for teammates and gets on the end of chances themselves. Someone who does what Hamšík did for Napoli from midfield. Barkley is also at the bottom of the squad list in that position as he has done a whole lot of nothing in his time at Chelsea and I would prefer to see Chelsea recoup their investment and give Mount and RLC more of a chance. This season, Barkley has had 1.4 open-play key passes90, 0.9 dribbles90, 0.9 non-penalty box shots90, and very little progressive passing, carrying or movement to justify his massive 4.9 turnovers90 and insignificant 1.7 tackles + interceptions90. We will look for a world-class “8” in a later episode of “John Explains How his Chelsea FM19 Save Would Work in Real Life”. To be clear, that was just a joke to wake up anyone that dozed off after all those numbers.

Moving on.

The future of each of Chelsea’s wingers seems to be totally up in the air, so take the rest of this section with a pinch of salt. Willian and Pedro have their uses, but they are 30 and 31 respectively and the club should try to get a transfer fee for them while they can, as both will have just 12 months left on their contract come this summer. The winger picture could look totally different if Callum and Hazard were to leave in the summer, but assuming they don’t we will still probably need to sign another young winger, it would just have to be made abundantly clear to Callum (and the new signing) that he would be ahead of this new arrival in the pecking order.

In Sarri’s first season at Napoli, Higuain scored 36 league goals, winning the Capocannoniere title and equaling Gino Rossetti’s 87-year-old record for goals in an Italian top-flight season. In Sarri’s following two seasons, the converted winger, Dries Mertens was excellent if not world class for Napoli, especially in the 16/17 season when he put together 0.8 NPxG90 and 0.28xA90 whilst frequently moving the ball into dangerous areas very effectively. There is nobody at Chelsea at the level of either of those strikers when they were at their peak, and generally, the striker position looks like it will be the biggest priority six months from now. Tammy Abraham is a very talented footballer, and he’s only 21 years old, but he probably isn’t ready to start every match. Given we have pushed other positions down the transfer pecking order, such as right-back and “6”, more resources can be allocated towards landing the best young-ish striker that wants to move to West London. With Tammy and this new signing, Chelsea could have a pair of strikers that could be rotated and score dozens of goals every season for the next 8+ years. In the next installment of this series, we’ll look at who that striker might be.

P.S.

I am currently working on adjusting all of my defensive numbers based on the percentage of possession each player’s team averages but didn’t want it to hold me back from writing this. Hopefully, I will have done that in the near future. In the meantime, know that players who play on teams that don’t have the ball very much generally get a boost to their defensive numbers, compared to players on teams with all of the ball, who get fewer opportunities to defend as a result. In other words, Wan-Bissaka’s defensive stats should be a bit lower, whilst Hysaj’s are a bit lower than they should be. Featured image from Reuters.