Chelsea has experienced a small revival recently, winning three consecutive matches on the bounce in all competitions for the first time since October 2022.
For a club that is desperate to get back to winning ways, they will hope that this shift in results will shine some light on the bleak atmosphere that has clouded West London for the past few seasons.
As Chelsea head into a strenuous period of fixtures for the remainder of October and November, which includes Arsenal, Tottenham, Manchester City, and Newcastle United, there is a critical aspect of their game that Mauricio Pochettino must pay heed to and perfect: the Blues’ pressing.
(Chelsea has undergone a poor start to the Premier League season)
How aggressively does Chelsea press?
Eight game weeks in, Chelsea ranks as one of the most aggressive pressing teams in the Premier League and statistically executing it to the highest level.
The ‘PPDA’ (passes per defensive action) is a reliable metric for measuring the aggressiveness of a high press, as it accounts for the number of touches the opposition takes before a team launches its press.
A low PPDA figure illustrates an aggressive press, while a high number indicates a tame press.
‘High turnovers’, as defined by data providers Opta Analyst, measures the number of possession regains in open play within 40 meters of the opposition goal – quantifying the effectiveness of a team’s press.
Therefore, a higher ranking in this criterion demonstrates a more successful press than the team’s competitors.
Furthermore, teams that press aggressively want to perform well here as it would signify an effective out-of-possession system.
The graph below is a scatter chart that plots teams based on their performance in these metrics.
Chelsea’s location illustrates that they are persistent pressers due to the low PPDA ranking and are effective executors since the Blues rank second for high turnovers.
However, there must be further context.
Of their eight league matches, five teams that Chelsea have played this season find themselves in the bottom half of the Premier League as things stand.
Moreover, these teams have an average league ranking of 16.
That gives you a picture of the quality of the teams Chelsea has faced.
Therefore, it is difficult to say whether the Blues will translate their pressing efficiency against higher-caliber sides.
What is Chelsea’s out-of-possession system?
Mauricio Pochettino was known for his team’s relentless and complex pressing systems at Southampton and Tottenham, which the Argentine has carried forward to Chelsea when looking at the early signs.
Although Pochettino has not yet developed the team’s pressing structure to the final form, let us break down the established foundations.
Essentially, Chelsea’s out-of-possession shape helps block passes through the center – forcing possession to the opposition’s wingers, who will be under pressure as soon as they receive that pass.
Otherwise, the opposition can choose to go long, but that will be a mismatch in most instances due to the physical advantage of Chelsea’s center-backs.
The striker is at the tip of Chlesea’s off-ball shape – occupying a central position when the goalkeeper is in possession – looking to press either of the center-backs depending on where the ball goes.
After the opposition’s keeper passes the ball, the Chelsea striker cuts out the safe passing options for the central defender by covering the goalkeeper and center-back partner.
Meanwhile, the other players have differing roles in the press.
The wide forwards are positioned between the opposition wide center-back and fullback – immediately charging at the central defender when he collects the pass from the ‘keeper. This movement also cuts the passing lane to the fullback – creating a trap.
Chelsea’s central midfielders back this press by tightly man-marking the opposition’s engine room.
The defenders mirror the same by staying close to the opposition’s front line.
The two screengrabs below from Chelsea’s league match against Fulham show the same.
(Chelsea’s pressing system)
(Chelsea’s shape as soon as the ‘keeper makes the trigger pass – all players marked in red are not in a position to collect a pass due to the Blues’ high man-marking press)
Furthermore, similar tactics are applied even when they form their mid-block structure.
(Chelsea’s mid-block defensive structure)
The small changes to the pressing triggers and shape depend on the opponent’s weaknesses.
But generally, the outlined principles are followed by Pochettino’s men.
Loopholes are concerning
Pressing is an aspect of football that takes considerable time for any coach to drill down into their team, especially to youngsters, who may be unfamiliar with the nuances of pressing triggers, angled runs, and more in the top flight of English football.
Therefore, there is only so much Mauricio Pochettino can do with a squad that he has only managed for less than three months in the current season.
Nevertheless, as the data chart illustrated, against the teams they have faced so far, Chelsea has delivered excellent performances in the off-ball metrics.
Take Chesea’s goal against Fulham as an instance where their high press paid off – Tim Ream commits a mistake initiated by Cole Palmer’s press, who lays the ball off for Armando Broja to score his first goal of the Premier League campaign.
However, glaring loopholes are evident in the system that can cause Chelsea trouble as they face superior opposition in the coming weeks.
In that match against Fulham, there were multiple situations where the home team pulled apart Chelsea’s man-oriented marking to create space and generate dangerous chances.
There were also scenarios like the one shown below where the lack of concentration by a single Chelsea player can undo their entire press.
As Fulham builds from the back, all Chelsea players maintain their positions.
However, Andreas Pereira finds himself free to collect a pass from the central defender since Moises Caicedo, who is out of frame, does not stay tight to his man.
In the following screenshot, we can see that when the Ecuadorian midfielder catches up, Pereira has already executed a pass to the Fulham left-back, Antonee Robinson – effortlessly bypassing Chelsea’s first line of pressure.
Caicedo’s momentary lapse in concentration causes a ripple effect as a pass later, his team finds itself in a 4v4.
Furthermore, Fulham players have cleverly positioned themselves between the lines (red) and the flanks (yellow), which can be tricky to defend.
After Robinson receives a pass from Willian, he completes a threatening cross to the back post, which Bobby De Cordova-Reid does not convert.
Chelsea finished the match with a clean sheet, but Pochettino would consider his team lucky to have gotten away with one.
Nevertheless, that fortune did not continue for Chelsea in the following week when they played against Burnley.
The men in Claret and Blue brought back their quick and incisive passing from their Championship-winning season last campaign as they tore apart Chelsea’s press, which unfolded as soon as the Burnley midfielder received a pass from the winger behind the Blues’s second line of pressure.
Chelsea should be cautious against teams like Arsenal, Manchester City, and Tottenham, which possess the technical know-how to cut through the opposition’s pressing structures.
Therefore, Mauricio Pochettino must find a short-term tactical solution for this delicate issue before it gets out of hand.
— Chelsea FC (@ChelseaFC) June 15, 2023
The coming fixtures will be the perfect litmus test for the fans and manager to assess where the team stands.
Although performances are usually more important than results for a developing team, Chelsea cannot afford that luxury as they already sit in 11th place – far from where they aspire to be.
Chelsea fans will hope that Pochettino can find a trick up his sleeve as he will need to perform a miracle to guide the Blues unscathed through the oncoming scary run of fixtures.