After a pleasantly surprising start to the Premier League season, grumbles have become ever more audible around Stamford Bridge. Chelsea’s increasingly laboured performances at home have sparked the complaints with the side having struggled to break down opponents in the Premier League since beating Crystal Palace 3-1 at the beginning of November and even that game saw the visitors draw level in a game in which the Blues had dominated.
Other than the obvious aspect of disappointing results, the principal complaint is that the team are simply boring to watch, a complaint that is fully justified. For all the possession, for all the thousands of passes racked up, Chelsea have looked impotent in front of goal in recent weeks. Some of that has been due to facing some excellent defensive performances or teams putting eleven men behind the ball. Though largely it has been due to an unfathomable safety-first attitude that has been instilled into the team’s forwards.
The Blues’ approach play can be impressive and swift though that all changes once in the final third. The first instinct now appears to be to turn away from goal, the players seemingly instructed to retain possession at all costs. There’s nothing wrong with keeping the ball rather than forcing an opening that isn’t there yet it appears to have been so drilled into the players that the actual objective of finding the back of the net is now secondary to denying the opposition the ball.
Instead possession is recycled endlessly, the ball continually shuttled from one side of the pitch to the other. However prettily its done, the net result is to allow the opposition defence time to reset with any element of surprise eradicated and the attack reduced to walking pace.
Being patient and demonstrating composure is an asset. Equally, attempting to instil a skilful passing game is highly commendable. But in order to make the style effective and engaging, it is vital that the game is played at a decent tempo and that the team can identify the right moment to pounce.
The shared characteristics between Maurizio Sarri’s preferred system and that deployed by Pep Guardiola has often been cited. On the evidence of the Italian’s tenure so far at Chelsea, however, there are some stark differences.
At both Manchester City and Barcelona, Guardiola has been happy to see his team be thoughtful, considered and – if we’re honest – downright slow in their build-up play. Its much like an expert swordsman biding his time before knowing when to execute the telling thrust. Once that moment arrives, there’s an immediate injection of pace both in the passing and the movement and from nowhere a defence that has been lulled into thinking it is in control is suddenly carved open.
Guardiola’s teams also use the full width of the pitch, whether via full backs or wide forwards, in a bid to stretch the opposition’s barricades as thinly as possible. It provides different angles of attack and space for teammates to run into.
By contrast, Sarri’s Chelsea are often ponderous and indecisive in the danger area, always choosing one more pass than having a crack at goal. The play is mostly channeled through congested central areas with the likes of Willian and Pedro used more as inside forwards than wingers. That would be fine if the full backs were hugging the touchline in advanced areas though with little protection being supplied by the midfield, their forays forward have diminished as the season has worn on.
Of course, Sarri’s task is very much a work in progress so it would be unfair to pass judgement prematurely. Perhaps with some unprecedented patience from the club hierarchy and a couple of decent transfer windows he will be able to hone the team into the type of outfit that is both stylish and productive.
In the short term, however, he could do with remembering that it is not a crime to be direct at times. That crosses are actually allowed. And that it’s better to start your attack slow and then quicken up rather than the other way round. Otherwise the grumbles are only going to get louder.