Mauricio Pochettino’s utilisation of Ben Chilwell in Chelsea’s opening four Premier League games has enraged and confused the club’s supporters. Has the manager turned his back on what worked in the off-season?
Chelsea’s underwhelming start under Mauricio Pochettino
In the first two league fixtures against Liverpool and partly West Ham United, the Blues responded amazingly to going behind. Conversely, they could not react to falling behind for a second time at the London Stadium and mustered little coherence after Nottingham Forest took the lead after the restart on Saturday.
The 1-0 loss at Stamford Bridge to Steve Cooper’s men was the worst showing in Pochettino’s embryonic time in charge.
18:58 - 02.09.2023
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Against Liverpool, they lacked coordination at the start but found the composure to control proceedings against Jurgen Klopp’s men to edge the game after levelling. At West Ham, they looked coherent in possession after conceding early and should have been 2-1 up at the interlude. After Michail Antonio sent the Hammers 2-1 ahead, they struggled.
Newly promoted Luton Town were dispatched with relative ease in the 3-0 win, even if a nit-picker would point to Chelsea’s fleeting superiority after Raheem Sterling opened the scoring with an individual effort. The visitors never mustered enough going forward, but the Blues did not look elegant until their second goal.
Having seen his side play admirably in spells over the opening three gameweeks, the performance at home to Forest was disappointing. Unsurprisingly, the reaction from a fanbase that endured abysmal performances and results last season was short-tempered.
The social media criticism was untold, but one routine Instagram post caught the eye, with Thiago Silva responding to a fan who feels Pochettino is utilising a back five — and not a four-player defence — to mitigate the Brazilian’s diminished mobility.
How are Chelsea lining up under Pochettino?
Much of the confusion around Chelsea’s formation has been an upshot of Ben Chilwell’s role and position.
The England international is a left-back or left wing-back but has been included in a team involving Reece James (Malo Gusto has deputised since the Chelsea captain’s latest injury), Axel Disasi, Thiago Silva and Levi Colwill. Even if it could be mistaken for a back five, it is not that simple.
To get a clearer understanding of Pochettino’s system, we must go back to the Blues’ approach in the off-season.
How did Pochettino’s Chelsea set up in pre-season?
Even though the Argentine’s Tottenham Hotspur side were renowned for both full-backs (typically Kyle Walker and Danny Rose) pushing forward, it was immediately evident in Chelsea’s preseason that the new boss would approach things differently.
In the West London club’s first preseason match with Wrexham, the starting back four comprised Gusto and Marc Cucurella in wide defence and Trevoh Chalobah and Bashir Humphreys at centre-back.
However, despite intermittently picking some moments to push into attacking areas, Gusto often stayed back in the build-up phase to form a back three, with Cucurella taking aggressive positions wide left.
After a series of half-time changes, the Chelsea TV commentators wrongly called a switch to a back three due to the introductions of Chilwell and Alfie Gilchrist.
However, it was a back four without the ball…
…and a back three in possession, with Chilwell allowed to join the attack either wide left or in the half-space.
In their next pre-season game with Brighton & Hove Albion, Pochettino started what many observers felt would be Chelsea’s starting quartet at the back — except Gusto, who started in James’ continued absence.
It was a back four comprising the former Olympique Lyon right-back and Chilwell, together with Silva and Colwill at centre-back.
This shape was evident whenever the two-time Champions League winners were not in possession…
…while their three-player build-up of Gusto, Silva and Colwill was evident, with Chilwell effectively acting as a left winger in possession.
Pochettino’s set-up for the club’s third off-season match saw James start for the first time. Interestingly, Chilwell was not included from the off. Instead, a back four of the Chelsea captain, Chalobah, Humphreys and Cucurella started.
It was unsurprisingly a back three in possession, with James given the license to take aggressive positions when the West Londoners attacked.
When Chelsea’s first-choice wide defenders were played from the off in the club’s final game in the off-season against Dortmund, the right-back was more involved in the build-up than Chilwell…
…and the left-back also seemed to join the attack more than James.
The Blues’ pre-season exhibited Pochettino’s preference for an asymmetrical 4-2-3-1 that broadly morphed into a 3-box midfield-three when the team had possession.
Chilwell was typically excused from the first phase of the team’s play whenever he started and occupied a winger’s position, with Colwill shifting to that side to be the left-sided centre-back.
What has changed since the season’s commencement that has enraged Chelsea supporters?
What has Pochettino altered at Chelsea since the Premier League began?
Including an additional defender — Disasi — for the club’s Premier League opener against Liverpool confused observers — this writer included — who questioned the manager’s rationale in shifting away from the approach utilised in the off-season.
It appeared to be a back three of Disasi, Silva and Colwill, with James and Chilwell at wing-back. However, it played out and has played out differently since the campaign began. Instead, Chelsea have remained in the back four they started preseason with, even if there have been a few tweaks.
Colwill still becomes the left-sided centre-back when the Blues have the ball but is primarily deployed at left-back when the five-time Premier League champions lose possession.
Chilwell, though, has had his position altered, even if the instruction somewhat remains the same. In the off-season, he was typically positioned high and wide-left — with the attacker on that side staying narrow — but has been utilised on the left wing since that Liverpool game.
The screen grab below shows Chelsea’s four-player defence without the ball against Liverpool and Forest…
…the Blues’ three-player backline when they have good possession…
…and Chilwell’s continued aggressive utilisation…only this time, the former Leicester City player is starting as one of the attackers.
Chelsea’s 4-2-3-1 formation against Forest morphed into the 3-box midfield-3 shape they broadly looked like throughout their preseason. However, including an extra defender since the season’s commencement has drawn supporters’ ire.
The seeming aversion to starting Mykhailo Mudryk wide-left has been the standout criticism of Pochettino, with fans unable to comprehend the unwillingness to play Chilwell at left-back.
However, it should be noted that the Chelsea head coach tended to pair the Ukrainian and Cucurella in the off-season — with the Spaniard utilised as the conservative full-back (and left-sided centre-back) and Mudryk playing wide-left when the Blues had possession .
Furthermore, giving Enzo Fernandez a liberated role to play in advanced midfield has caused a reduction in the quality of the West London side’s ball progression from their defensive third. There is a feeling Conor Gallagher should be advanced while the World Cup winner is paired with Moises Caicedo.
Be that as it may, the underlying numbers look encouraging: According to Fbref, Chelsea have the fifth-highest Expected Goals (xG) after four games and the third-lowest expected goals against (xGA).
Pochettino’s team rank joint-second for big chances created, and the major possession metrics indicate they do not fall below the top three for getting the ball into dangerous situations.
Only results will placate disgruntled fans and give Pochettino credibility. The numbers suggest Chelsea’s results are primed to improve, but no club has defied logic more than the West Londoners in the last 12 months under the new ownership.
Nothing is guaranteed at Stamford Bridge.