Soccer is complicated; do not let anyone tell you otherwise, and especially do not let them ever baby-sit your plants, let alone your children. It’s a dynamic, fluid game that rarely stops, and involves 20 men or women or both using only their feet in an attempt to progress a ball some 110 yards and then thwack it past one of the two people on the field allowed to use their hands and into a eight-yard-by-eight-foot goal. Every single score is a small miracle and every single soccer game is a mathematical formula, a weather system, a ballet, a backroom brawl, a tragicomedy, a dice roll, a physics problem, a long-distance race, and a deep glimpse into the banality of existence — all rolled into one.
Or, here’s how a group of eight European scientists put it, in a recent paper where they attempted to describe the passing patterns of a single match:
Passing networks are, in fact, dynamical system themselves, and the full identification and quantification of how variables determine the evolution of the game of a team are still open problems. Indeed, since the game cannot escape from the existence of stochastic forces combined with the high complexity of its intrinsic dynamics, modeling and forecasting a football match becomes a highly challenging task.
However, sometimes that classic existential fear of the complexity of multilayered, stochastic forces interacting with topographic and spatiotemporal factors obscures something obvious. Say, something like this: Chelsea don’t have enough players who can shoot anymore!
On November 10th, Chelsea were undefeated, tied with Liverpool in second-place in the Premier League. They were taking over 18 shots per game — slightly less than Manchester City’s league-high 20, but way more than Wolverhampton’s next-best 14.6. Today, on January 22, Chelsea are in fourth place, barely fending off a pair of three-point-back chasers in Manchester United and Arsenal, who pummeled Chelsea, 2-0, on Saturday. From November 11 on, they’ve taken just 13 shots per game — tied for fifth-best over that stretch.
Now, a team can overcome a drop in shot totals by taking better shots, but Chelsea have not re-jiggered the equation to fit their new inputs. This graph comes courtesy of Football Whispers, and it shows how many expected goals Chelsea have produced per match. The current season began with the game against Huddersfield on August 8:
In the 11 games up to and including the Crystal Palace match, Chelsea averaged 2.45 points per game. In the 12 games since, they’re only averaging 1.67. Over that same split, Chelsea’s defense has actually improved slightly (from 1.1 xG conceded per game (third over that span), down to 0.87 (second)), and so the culprit for the collapse is clear: Wayne Gretzky was right, and Chelsea are missing all of the shots they’re not taking.
In the offseason, the club swapped one irascible Italian manager for another, exchanging the lagoon-blue eyes and frankly flawless transplanted hair of 2016-17 Premier League winner Antonio Conte for the fidgety cigarette-nibbling of former Napoli coach Mauruzio Sarri. They’re both great, accomplished coaches, but the move spoke to the lack of long-term planning you see with so many sports teams. Rather than replacing a coach with another decision-maker who has a similar style/philosophy that fits a good chunk of the team’s entrenched player personnel, franchises will wildly overreact and opt for the polar opposite of the previous guy in charge.
For example: The New York Jets, a terrible football team without which the world would be a much better place and I would be a much better-adjusted human being, have been stuck in a 20-year-cycle of swapping soft-spoken cerebral types for loudmouth maniacs for soft-spoken cerebral types and so on and so forth. They just fired Todd Bowles, who was often criticized for not showing any emotion on the sideline, and they replaced him with a guy who looks like the more buttoned-up cousin of Gritty, the Philadelphia Flyers mascot and rightful, righteous socialist icon. In two or three years, the Jets will fire their new coach and replace him with someone more placid because we’ll hear that the players are worn out and need a softer touch from the man in charge. Everything will change, and the Jets will continue to thrash around in a pool of their own incompetence.
Chelsea … are not the Jets! They’re one of the best soccer teams in the world, and they’ve won two of the past four Premier League titles. However, they might be even more volatile than Gang Green. (To all the non-NFL fans here: Yes, one of the most dysfunctional franchises in professional football proudly shares a nickname with an infectious disease that causes tissue-death and turns your skin black.) Since the adorable Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich bought the London club in 2003, they’ve had 13 different managers, and there’s really no through line connecting any of them other than the fact that they all got fired eventually.
And so: Conte and Sarri. The former would be best described as a pragmatist: He organizes the players at his disposal in whatever fashion he thinks will most likely produce the best results. (He also constantly complains about how his players aren’t good enough, which complicates the narrative, but people contain multitudes, we’re dealing in broad strokes here, etc.) Sarri, however, is, an idealist: He has a very specific way that he wants his teams to play, and they’re going to play that way, no matter who his players are. That style is premised on high-degree-of-difficulty passing out of the defensive third, a dominant midfielder who consistently completes near 100 passes per game, and a set of five players in front of that midfielder who all push forward but maintain strict positioning to stretch out the opposing D.
Before he came Chelsea, Sarri’s Napoli were my favorite team in the world to watch. They didn’t win any trophies (bonus points for being romantically destined-to-fail), but despite a substantially smaller budget, they came within four points of ending Juventus’s seven-year streak of Italian titles last season. (Soccer is bad for your health, pt. 150: Napoli had the highest xG and lowest xGA in Serie A last year … and still didn’t win the league.) Pop in an unlit cigarette, and treat yourself to some of this:
However! At Chelsea, Sarri inherited a collection of players who’d just spent the past two years playing in Conte’s conservative system, which typically employed five defenders at once. At first, it seemed like Sarri recognized the mismatch between his players and his proposed way of playing. He literally had Chelsea buy Jorginho, his passing midfielder in Naples, so he was able to tick what seemed like perhaps the most important box for, uh, Cheples/Napsea/please-someone-come-up-with-a-better-portmanteau, but he also started off by playing with a traditional striker. At Napoli, he turned Dries Mertens, a mini 5-foot-7 Belgian winger, into a center forward, and it worked (Mertens scored 46 goals in Sarri’s final two seasons) because Mertens was so much quicker than the taller center backs he was directly positioned against. Rather than searching for another hard-to-find Mertens clone, though, Sarri consistently played one of his two bigger strikers, Alvaro Morata or Olivier Giroud, for the first few months with Chelsea.
Now, it doesn’t quite track with the immediate drop-off, but Sarri eventually couldn’t help himself, and he started playing his new mini 5-foot-8 Belgian winger, Eden Hazard, as the team’s starting center forward against then-undefeated Manchester City on December 8. In the most important sense, it worked! Chelsea won 2-0. Except, they only generated eight shots and 0.53 expected goals. That’s the kind of game where you might savor the three points but re-assess the underlying process.
Instead, Sarri has stuck with the formation for most of the games since the City win, and it just hasn’t worked. Hazard might be the best dribbler of his generation — while some of the best NBA players and NFL seem to often defy gravity, Hazard seems to relish it — and he’s one of the top players in the Premier League. He’s not a scorer, though, as he’s never notched more than 14 non-penalty goals in a season and never averaged more than 2.6 shots per 90 minutes over a full campaign. (For comparison: The greatest Premier League goalscorer of this decade, Manchester City’s Sergio Aguero, has averaged nearly five shots per 90 minutes and scored at least 16 non-penalty goals in each of the past four seasons.)
The misuse doesn’t end with Hazard, either. A simple comparison between Napoli’s midfielders (Jorginho, Allan, and Marek Hamsik) and forwards (Lorenzo Insigne, Jose Callejon, and Mertens) from last year with their Chelsea counterparts this season does the trick:
This past weekend against Arsenal, Chelsea didn’t register a shot on goal in the first half, and the game was effectively over after the 40th minute. Chelsea launched a bunch of potshots after going behind by two, but they couldn’t generate anything when the game was still competitive:
So, what to do, what do do? Sarri could try to shake up his approach, but that’s not really how the whole idealist thing works. He could also give more playing time to Giroud or Morata since they’re the only two players on the team averaging more than three shots per 90 minutes—but oh, what’s that? Chelsea are about to send Morata to Atletico Madrid. Meanwhile, Giroud is 32 and probably does not have the legs for a full-timer’s minutes anymore.
Which leaves us with this: If the club is committed to maximizing Sarri’s style, it seems like they’re probably gonna have to find a bunch of new players for him. After the loss to Arsenal, he said that his current players are “extremely difficult to motivate”. Well, American Hero Christian Pulisic, the Fifth Face on Mt Rushmore, is on the way this summer (though he’s never even averaged two shots per 90 minutes in a season), and I already warned you about this, but it seems like the declining 31-year-old striker Gonzalo Higuain will join the club any day now. (Rule of thumb: If you’re buying two players who are more than a decade apart, as are Pulisic and Higuain, you might need to reassess your recruitment strategy. And another rule of thumb — call it the “Doc Rivers Rule”: Be skeptical whenever a manager buys a former player (or a player who played well against his team). Higuain scored 33 goals for Sarri at Napoli … three years ago.) But even if Pulisic and Higuain provide a boost, there are probably still not enough shots coming from the midfield. The third attacking spot beyond Hazard and Pulisic could use an upgrade, but the club’s best internal prospect, Callum Hudson-Odoi, seems like he wants to leave. Also, Hazard has been making eyes at Real Madrid for the past year. Oh, and Chelsea might soon be facing a two-year transfer ban because they signed underage players a few years ago.
There might be a simple fix to a lot of this. Of course, that doesn’t mean you should expect Sarri, or the club he works for, to try it.
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