Chelsea have their defenders to thank for their strong positions in the Premier League and Champions League.
The Blues are currently three points clear at the top of the Premier League after 10 games and need just one more point to reach the last 16 in their defence of the Champions League. Thomas Tuchel’s side have kept 10 clean sheets in 17 games across all competitions so far, conceding just seven times. But that’s not what we mean when we say they have their defenders to thank for this season’s success.
Chelsea have been incredibly well-rounded when it comes to goal distribution across their team. Seventeen different players have found the net for their 35 goals across all competitions so far (excluding one own goal). Reece James is Chelsea’s joint-top scorer across all competitions as things stand, with four goals in 11 appearances, level with Romelu Lukaku. The Englishman has also been directly involved in more goals than any other Chelsea player this season thanks to his three assists.
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His wing-back partner Ben Chilwell has been equally good, now just one goal behind James across all competitions after netting in three consecutive Premier League matches. What makes their return even more remarkable is that neither could truly consider themselves Tuchel’s first choice in their position in the early stages of the season. So, what changed?
In Tuchel’s first half-season at Chelsea, from replacing Frank Lampard at the end of January to winning the Champions League in the final days of May, the formation was more conservative. The three-man central defence was implemented to fix Chelsea’s biggest problem: conceding goals. As a result, the wing-backs did not push up so high, operating around the halfway line on average.
That rarely changed, even when the personnel was different, meaning the likes of James, Chilwell, Cesar Azpilicueta, Emerson, Marcos Alonso and Callum Hudson-Odoi were tasked with similar jobs on the flanks. In this system, the onus to score goals was largely on Chelsea’s attackers, which could explain why the team managed just 38 of them in 30 matches and failed to score at all on seven occasions.
But this was changed for 2021/22, and without sacrificing the defensive stability. In just 17 games so far, Chelsea have scored 35 goals (as mentioned earlier), averaging just over two per match. They have only failed to score twice and much of their threat has come from the wings.
In the Premier League and Champions League, Chelsea’s wing-backs are more advanced, adequately filling the gaps left by their inside forwards and providing the width Tuchel’s side need to break down packed defences. This can’t simply be explained by the increased prominence of James and Chilwell. Alonso and Azpilicueta, Tuchel’s favourites at the start of the campaign, were expected to fulfill more attacking roles, too.
“I would not call them defenders but they have to defend in some moments like defenders, but they are more free to attack the opponents’ box than they are in the role as a full-back,” Tuchel said of his wing-backs recently.
“So it is necessary that they are included and we bring them to the box at the end of our attacks and increase the goal threat. I am happy when we create chances, and I’m happy when we have five or six players in the box to be dangerous.
“In this system we play, it’s true that the wing-backs are there and have the freedom to be dangerous.”
When Chelsea’s first starting XI of the season was announced, in the Super Cup against Villarreal, many were surprised to see James’ name among the substitutes. Having also deputised as a centre-back towards the end of the 2020/21 campaign, he was expected to start in Belfast but had to wait until the second Premier League game of the season to be named in a lineup.
That game couldn’t have gone much better for James, who scored and assisted in Chelsea’s 2-0 win over Arsenal. Another assist came in the 1-1 draw with Liverpool at Anfield and although a red card halted his momentum, James was on the scoresheet on his next Premier League start (Chelsea’s 7-0 win over Norwich).
Then there was the 3-0 win over Newcastle, in which James sent two rockets into the back of the net with either foot, essentially playing as a winger while Chelsea struggled to break their hosts down for large parts of the game.
In the Premier League and Champions League, James has averaged 1.12 goal involvements per 90 minutes this season, taking 1.87 shots per 90 and created 2.43 chances, a marked uptick on his first season under Tuchel in the league and Europe. There, James took 1.14 shots per 90, created 1.59 chances but failed to score or record an assist.
One of the main reasons for this jump will be that James has been allowed to spend more time further up the pitch, actually making the opposition half his own in the league and 2021/22 Champions League. While James’ attacking contributions mainly comprised crosses from deep (something he is excellent at) last season, the Englishman is now more involved closer to the opposition area, looking to beat his man before setting up a teammate. James is aided by his understanding with Azpilicueta, providing the overlapping run when the Spaniard advances as he loves to do from the right-centre-back role.
James’ advanced positioning paid off for his two goals against Newcastle, making use of his ‘horse-like’ shooting. A weird analogy but not our own. The comparison was made by Tuchel.
“We don’t need exercise shooting with Reece… he shoots like a horse!”
Chilwell has enjoyed a similar transformation on the left wing, but the former Leicester defender had to wait even longer than James to get his chance in Tuchel’s new system. Chilwell starred in the 2021 Champions League final but did not feature at Euro 2020 for England after suffering with Covid and had to wait until October for his first Premier League appearance of the season. Prior to that, Chilwell’s sole start came in the League Cup win over Aston Villa as a rotation option, along with substitute appearances against Zenit and Juventus in the Champions League.
After Alonso’s struggles in Turin, though, Chilwell started against Southampton and has since made himself almost undroppable. He scored in three consecutive Premier League appearances against Southampton, Brentford (the winner) and Norwich City. Since returning, Chilwell has started in five of Chelsea’s seven matches, coming off the bench in the League Cup and having been rested completely in midweek as the Blues beat Malmo 1-0.
Unlike James, Chilwell had to work hard for his spot in Tuchel’s team last season, Alonso being a natural wing-back. The Englishman averaged 0.19 goal involvements per 90 minutes in the Premier League and Champions League under Tuchel in 2020/21, taking 1.1 shots per 90 and creating 1.17 chances. Like James, however, those numbers have been blown away this season. Chilwell averages 0.56 goals or assists per 90 minutes, 2.26 shots and 1.88 chances in the Premier League and Champions League.
The major change here has is that Chilwell isn’t shackled to the wing so much. Under Tuchel last season, he hugged the touchline as if his place in the team depended on it. At times, it worked. Especially as an out-ball for Edouard Mendy to build attacks. Just look at Chelsea’s Champions League final victory, where Mendy-Chilwell-Mason Mount was a frequent passing combination and resulted in Kai Havertz’s goal. But it also hampered Chilwell offensively.
Now, under new instructions directly from the head coach, Chilwell has license to move centrally and can often be found occupying a No.8 role or even No.10 at times when the game allows him, as long as they have a wide teammate occupying the wing. From here, Chilwell is more dangerous and can help make up for his attacking teammates struggles. For instance, the goal against Brentford came from a central run, Chilwell moving unmarked onto the edge of the area before lashing the ball home.
Combined, James and Chilwell scored or assisted over a quarter (28.6%) of Chelsea’s 35 goals across all competitions so far. But like Tuchel said, they’re not exclusively defenders. They now “have the freedom to be dangerous.”