Football Features

Can Chelsea make those “big strides” to catch Liverpool? A breakdown of what the Brighton win revealed

By Harry Edwards

Published: 13:52, 17 September 2020 | Updated: 13:49, 5 December 2022

Chelsea successfully kicked off their 2020/21 Premier League campaign with a 3-1 away win over Brighton & Hove Albion.

It was a game many had been waiting to see, eager to assess (or criticise) how well Chelsea played given their activity in the summer transfer window. The Blues have made six new signings so far, and are still being linked with more before the window closes, with Frank Lampard looking to improve on a squad that just about finished fourth last season.

It wasn’t a perfect performance for Chelsea. Some questions were answered but more were also brought to light, particularly regarding a few specific members of their squad.

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Kai Havertz needs time

Probably the biggest talking point from the game, outside of the result, was the performance of Kai Havertz, following his big-money move from Bayer Leverkusen. It was touted as the biggest deal of the summer, so all eyes were on the German to see how he fared on his Premier league debut. But it wasn’t a great one.

At best Havertz was a peripheral figure, struggling to get into the game at the Amex, but at worst he was one of Chelsea’s poorest performers. The German had just 38 touches of the ball on Monday night, with only Kepa Arrizabalaga and Ruben Loftus-Cheek having fewer among the starters, though the latter played 19 fewer minutes. He created just one chance and his game will largely be remembered for a misplaced pass in the second half that found the advertising hoardings with no teammate nearby. But his performance should be taken with a pinch of salt.

Perhaps surprising some, Lampard lined Chelsea up in a 4-2-2-2 with Ruben Loftus-Cheek playing alongside Timo Werner and the duo of Havertz and Mason Mount behind them.

Playing on the right side of midfield isn’t a position Havertz has no experience of, having played out wide for Bayer Leverkusen in the Bundesliga last season, amassing 225 minutes at wide right and 321 slightly more centrally. But the role was slightly different. Havertz was asked to play a deeper role than he may have at Bayer, letting Loftus-Cheek do most of the attacking, and as his heat map above shows, actually spent more of the time in his own half than the Brighton one.

But Havertz wasn’t without his good moments, playing a wonderful pass into Werner in the first half but the German’s shot was blocked. He also made three tackles, with only Mount making more among the Chelsea team, though there is certainly room for improvement. And Havertz will surely improve. After all, this was his Premier League debut, in a completely new league with a team he’s been at for little over a week. That’s why he’s still 7/1 to be Chelsea’s top scorer in the Premier League with William Hill* this season, behind only Werner and Tammy Abraham.

*You have to be 18+ to gamble. All odds and offers within this article are accurate at the time of writing (17:30, 15/09/2020). BeGambleAware.

The Ruben Loftus-Cheek question

Another Chelsea midfielder who failed to impress on Monday night was Loftus-Cheek who, as mentioned, actually started alongside Werner at the top of the attack. The Englishman was the first to be hooked by Lampard in the second half when Chelsea were looking to take back control of the game, being replaced by Ross Barkley after 61 minutes, and he did not use his time on the pitch well.

As mentioned earlier, Loftus-Cheek had just 27 touches of the ball against Brighton and completed just 11 of his 17 attempted passes. His replacement Barkley completed 20 by contrast. Loftus-Cheek also failed to have a shot or create a chance, spurning a good opportunity to play Werner through on goal when Chelsea were on the counter, instead playing the ball directly against the defender. And unlike Havertz, he did not contribute defensively either, with no tackles or interceptions.

It brought criticism from Gary Neville who said, after the game: “Loftus-Cheek, he’s been given his chance. I thought he was really disappointing. I don’t think Loftus-Cheek can complain. He’s been given games.

“I don’t think he’s ever grasped his chance yet. There’s going to come a point when they’re going to cash in and get £25million for him.”

But again it comes with an asterisk. Loftus-Cheek doesn’t appear to have fully recovered from the ruptured Achilles injury suffered in May 2019 which kept him out for over 13 months. The Englishman looks bereft of the confidence that once had him gliding through opponents for Maurizio Sarri and one of the first names on the team sheet leading up to the Europa League final. He also looks short on speed of thought, was guilty of making the wrong decisions and failing to execute them accurately even when he did choose correctly.

This will be a big season for Loftus-Cheek to prove whether he can recover, or succumb to injury as Michael Essien once did for Chelsea and ended up nowhere near the player he was pre-absence.

A newfound fight

Despite some individual performances creating headlines for the wrong reasons, Chelsea’s win showed the Blues are going in the right direction. One of Chelsea’s biggest problems last season was their lack of proficiency in front of goal, scoring 69 goals in the Premier League, just under their expected goals tally of 70.96. That lost them games on various occasions, particularly during the late November-December period where West Ham, Southampton and Bournemouth all left Stamford Bridge with wins.

Against Brighton on Monday night, Chelsea’s xG was 1.66 (0.44 xG for non-penalty goals), but they scored three and came away with a win when they clearly weren’t at their best. This was referenced by Lampard post-match when he told reporters: “We’ve been together as a team for four days, with new signings and quarantines before that, so to expect everything to click on day one is very difficult, but there was great determination.

“We might have dropped points in this [type of game] last year; we won’t get over-excited but it had resilience about it.”

In this very fixture last season, Chelsea took an early first-half lead but would ultimately have to settle with a draw thanks to Alireza Jahanbakhsh’s wonderful bicycle kick and it was the same case in pre-season, with the Blues pegged back to a 1-1 draw. Across the season as a whole, Chelsea were fairly poor at defending leads, dropping 18 points from winning positions in the 2019/20 Premier League, with only five teams having a worse record.

When Leandro Trossard equalised for Brighton in the 54th minute on Monday night, it could have easily gone the same way for Chelsea. But the Blues reacted and fast, re-taking the lead just 100 seconds later through Reece James’ rocket, and built on that with the third 10 minutes later.

It wasn’t perfect from Chelsea, and they could have been back on level terms almost instantly after James’ goal, with Lewis Dunk missing a header from close range with the Blues’ defence wide open.

Lampard added: “We definitely want to close that gap to Liverpool – we have to have intentions to be up there even though it is a big ask to win [the title]. We are behind, it’s step by step. Hopefully we can make big strides.”

Realistically, Chelsea are unlikely to win the Premier League – they are currently 8/1 to do so – but they do look a solid prospect for another top-four finish at 4/11 with William Hill.

More to come

As mentioned earlier Chelsea have made six new signings over the summer, including Hakim Ziyech – although that was confirmed in February, and five of those are expected to be part of the first team over the campaign.

Havertz and Werner were the only new signings to feature at the Amex and while the former may have struggled, his compatriot was one of Chelsea’s best players on the night. After being caught on the wrong side of Brighton’s offside trap on a few occasions early on, Werner quickly adapted his runs to try to exploit the Seagulls’ defence. And it was Werner’s pace that brought Chelsea’s first goal, with the German combining with Jorginho to capitalise on a poor pass from Steven Alzate, taking the ball around Mathew Ryan who then swiftly brought him down.

But there is still so much more to come from Werner, who will want to open his goalscoring account soon, and the rest of the Chelsea squad. Ziyech is currently injured, having picked up a knee problem in pre-season, but will slot seamlessly into the right-midfield role Havertz occupied on Monday night. Ben Chilwell and Thiago Silva will add to the Chelsea defence, both in terms of security and creativity particularly for the former. Then there are Chelsea’s key players from last season who missed out.

Mateo Kovacic may replace Jorginho for the game against Liverpool, having served a one-game suspension for his red card in the FA Cup final against Arsenal, and Christian Pulisic was expected to be part of the squad before another injury setback ruled him out.

And it’s looking likely that there is another arrival on the way at Stamford Bridge before the transfer window closes.

William Hill’s 2020/21 Premier League top scorer favourites:

  • Mohamed Salah – 7/2
  • Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang – 4/1
  • Harry Kane – 13/2
  • Timo Werner – 9/1
  • Jamie Vardy – 10/1

Mendy deal looks more important

A lot has been said of Kepa’s performances over the past two years and, unfortunately for the Spaniard, Monday was another night to forget.

The 25-year-old started the game confidently, looking to claim crosses which he had drawn criticism for not doing enough last season, albeit with mixed success.

But then came Brighton’s equaliser. Although Trossard’s strike was a decent one, it brought up questions of Kepa’s abilities as he allowed it to bounce under his body and into the bottom left corner. It was the 19th goal from outside the area that Kepa has conceded since joining Chelsea at the start of the 2018/19 season, more than any other Premier League goalkeeper during that time.

He was backed by Lampard after the game, as you would expect from any manager, but it had many Chelsea fans hoping the arrival of Edouard Mendy comes sooner rather than later. Mendy, 28, impressed in Ligue 1 last season, helping Rennes finish third and conceding just 24 goals in the process. If Mendy does arrive he will immediately provide much-needed competition for Kepa, with some already convinced he will replace the Spaniard as Chelsea’s no.1.