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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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”.
- 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.
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.
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.