At the half-way point of the season Chelsea are, as anticipated by many, sitting pretty at the top of the Premier League table. A three point lead is perhaps smaller than some would have expected, especially given how they were (albeit very prematurely) tipped by a few to go unbeaten before suffering defeat away at Newcastle, but it’s a reflection of how they – at least up until Man City’s recent surge of positive results – have been the best side in the division by some distance for the majority of the campaign.
As their record of having the drawn highest amount of goals scored (41) and the lowest amount of goals conceded (14) demonstrates to good effect, José Mourinho’s side are the best balanced as a whole unit in England. He also has, unlike a number of the managers who are competing for the positions around the top four, a clear vision of what his best side is; a vision which he has been able to put into practice almost continuously.
With consistency being so important in a defensive unit, there’s no surprise that having the same back five (Courtois, Azpilicueta, Terry, Cahill and Ivanović) in 15 of their 19 Premier League games has reaped its rewards at the back. Familiarity in front of them has helped a lot too, both in defensive and attacking phases, with the preferred personnel of their double-pivot, Nemanja Matić and Cesc Fàbregas, only failing to start one game each.
Oscar has missed (or not started) just four games as well, often as a result of tactical preferences more than anything such as away vs. Man City – the pairing of Matić and Fàbregas do leave too much space behind them for Mourinho to fully trust them in big games as of yet, so the Spaniard is often moved forward into Oscar’s attacking midfield role for a more defensive option in the pivot. Beyond that, the interchanging of Willian and André Schürrle, and the odd knock for Diego Costa, and there is very little which sees Chelsea’s line-up change.
If you take Mourinho’s clearly preferred line-up (the back-five, double-pivot, Hazard, Oscar, Willian and Costa) and look at the consistency of which those players have been played, there’s a staggering level of how commonly they have been used together. In 16 games this season, or 84% of league fixtures, they have had at least 10 of those players on the pitch at kick-off; a feat which is almost unseen in the notoriously tough fixture schedule of a side challenging on all fronts. There’s been little need to utilise the squad players other than as impact subs, rather than them being regular fill-ins to the overall detriment of the starting eleven and then results.
Look at the likes of Man Utd and Arsenal, who have had huge difficulties with injuries limiting their ability to put out similar sides from even one week to the next, and this is even more impressive. Some of it comes down to ‘luck’ – or, as some may call it, using proper conditioning and training methods – with fitness, which is a credit to everyone at the club for managing that effectively, but there is one thing which has not been given as much credit as it deserves for allowing this highly consistent run of line-ups: game management.
Rather than playing matches at high intensity levels for the full 90 minutes, Chelsea (as a whole group) have developed a tremendous ability to manage within games extremely successfully – allowing themselves periods to relax and conserve energy throughout the game. This is done in parts of the match where the result is, at that moment in time, in their favour; and it’s hugely beneficial in the long-term for both players and the team.
With injuries more likely to be picked up when the body is fatigued, reducing the work load in matches (a very high intensity environment) in turn reduces the risk of them appearing and keeps the strain on the body down. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re covering significantly less distance or completely taking their foot off the pedal, but having the game largely in their advantage already creates a set of circumstances which is much kinder to the physical condition of players at the end of matches.
Perhaps the most fundamental aspect of doing this is starting games off rapidly, by taking the initiative and – vitally – scoring early goals; almost winning the match before it even begins and giving themselves the opportunity to ‘manage’ games due to the lack of an impending need to score whilst they are in the lead. 24.4% (10 of 41) of Chelsea’s league goals have come in the opening 20 minutes of games, and they have done that in nine separate matches. Stretch that to the 30th minute and it increases to 34.1% of their goals, or 14 in total, in 10 separate matches. That’s 53% of games where they’ve managed to score in the opening third minutes-wise, an impressive achievement.
It’s a figure which is reflected in the average time of their first goal scored in matches, the 29.7th minute, and demonstrates that Chelsea know how to impose themselves on a match now. That was something which was heavily critiqued and principally absent last season, with the signings of Fàbregas and Costa in particular adding the critical creativity, energy and firepower which is needed to maintain and make use of a quick start. In total there have been just five occasions where they haven’t scored in the first-half of a game.
Opening the scoring (as they have done in 13 games) and maintaining the early control which they normally establish as a result of doing so has proved to be a very prominent feature of their play this season. When they do hold a lead at half-time they have a 100% record in terms of converting that into a win at the full-time whistle – having done so 11 times. That scenario, as in winning at the end of both halves, accounts for 78.6% of their league victories this season.
Being so effective at establishing and then holding onto these leads, a positive consequence of brilliant balance and defensive coordination throughout the side, has the effect that there’s often no real need to play at a high tempo for the other stages of the match. Instead of seeking to push a lead to four or five, they’re comfortable in their own ability to either just retain possession or keep compact and soak up pressure. Why waste energy on constant overlaps and darting runs from deep, for example, when you have the three points in the bag already?
That’s not to say Chelsea‘s threat is reduced in the latter stages of games, however, far from it. They’ve actually scored 18 goals (in 13 different matches) from the 60th minute mark onwards, a very significant proportion of their overall tally – in fact that’s more than they score in the opening 30 minutes which is so important to them.
The reasoning for that can be somewhat exemplified in one game, their 2-0 victory vs. Arsenal at Stamford Bridge, which also serves as an excellent representation of the general pattern of Chelsea’s games. In that match they controlled the majority of the ball in the opening stages, holding 54.1% of possession between the start of the game and the 27th minute when Eden Hazard opened the scoring, but from that moment the shift in their mentality was clear. The goal saw them revert to a more conservative style instead of intensely pressing on their dominance (such as how they did in the 6-0 win against the same team last season) – having just 32.8% of the ball from then until half-time.
It was more even possession-wise in the second half though, 47.8%, and they grabbed the killer goal in the 78th minute. Chelsea didn’t push all out for the second, but they also didn’t just sit back and allow themselves to get overrun by Arsenal pressure: they controlled the game or at least what could happen in it for large periods despite having less of the ball. There was clear structure throughout and the different phases of the game which they underwent are evident, managing the game and its intensity so as not to waste energy except for vital moments (like for the Costa goal).
Having rested at certain points during their matches, it means that Chelsea are able to be very well energised for the important moments in the latter stages: hence so many goals being scored late on in games (only Arsenal and Man City have scored more in the last 30 minutes, and only six sides have scored a higher percentage of their overall goals tally in the same time). That period is when teams are at their most vulnerable due to tiredness and Mourinho’s men are always in a position to take advantage of that should they need to.
If it isn’t at the start (when they initially establish their advantage) or the end (when they take advantage of fatigue) when they rest then, then there must be a period throughout the game where they are more relaxed in their dominance. That’s reflected accurately when you look at the figures for the goals they score between the 31st and 60th minute, when their offensive threat is clearly at its lowest.
Just 22.0% of their goals have come in this period of time, which is the second-lowest percentage of all teams in the league (behind Sunderland on 6.2%). Of the nine goals they’ve got in that time, just a third of them have been to extend a lead compared to 72.2% of their goals doing so late on. What this shows is that, when they do score in this middle period of the game, it’s most likely to be a ‘decisive’ goal: one to either equalise or take the lead. It isn’t anything that doesn’t need doing anyway.
That’s as opposed to carrying over pressure from the first half an hour and compounding leads or killing games off, and these moments are instead saved for later in matches. There’s strong logic behind that – these opportunities later in the game will be much more clear-cut chances in theory as the opponents are chasing the game and will thus leave themselves vulnerable at the back to counter-attacks.
Again, that can all be linked back to energy conservation, meaning that Mourinho’s team are not wasting their stamina on creating chances which they are less likely to score from throughout. Focus is instead placed on the establishment of a lead early on, holding onto that and then extending it when there’s a greater likelihood they can score.
Chelsea are, in some ways, only playing 60 minute matches at the intensity which you’d expect from a professional football team. There’s no relentless pressing, no endless streams of attacks and no desperate search to kill off games for the full match. It’s all efficient, measured, pragmatic – but most importantly extremely effective.
Managing games in such a fashion, rather than unnecessarily playing in top gear for the full period of time, is an enormous reason as to why Mourinho has been able to pick his preferred line-up more often than not throughout the whole season. If they can continue to do this properly until the business end of the season and the players keep up their form, expect to see Chelsea fighting on all fronts come May. And they’ll probably be better physically prepared for it than any team around Europe.