Soccer

Chelsea Premier League season preview, bold predictions for 2021-22: German attackers thrive, keeper questions

Fresh from his Champions League triumph in Porto expectations will be exceptionally high for Thomas Tuchel as he prepares for his first full season in charge of Chelsea. But what are we expecting from the European champions in the Premier League? Let’s find out below…

Chelsea push City closest

Even before they committed to splashing the Romelu Lukaku cash this summer, heading into the new season Chelsea have the look of serious contenders for the Premier League title. Of course that should not be a great surprise, they are the European champions after all. Even in a domestic environment as competitive as England’s they stand at the highest level. It is only the fact that City are shaping up to add top tier quality to an outstanding squad that keeps one from fully buying into Chelsea returning to the summit of English football. After all, City have the capability to see Chelsea’s Lukaku with a Jack Grealish, and perhaps raise them a Harry Kane.

Certainly the evidence of Tuchel’s tenure is that they have been the second best team in England under him, though that came with the caveat that the Liverpool who staggered over the finish line last season were hamstrung by defensive issues. Still between January 26 and the end of the season only City bettered their tally of 38 points from 19 games, not quite title form but better than it looks on paper as many of the games where they dropped points were late in the season while their focus was on the Champions League title chase. Their defense was by far the best in England over that stretch, conceding just 12 and allowing opponents shots worth a combined 12.05 expected goals (xG). No side was more effective at keeping the other team outside their penalty area, 13.5 touches in the box per game and just 1.4 shots on goal.

Shots from Premier League opponents in the Chelsea box from January 26 to the end of the 2020-21 season
TruMedia

The attack was not quite so effective but to an extent that was understandable. Frank Lampard had lost his job because Chelsea’s defense was too easily ripped to shreds by the best opponents; weeks before the change in the dugout the Blues had been chopped up by Manchester City, conceding three goals at Stamford Bridge in a match where the damage could have been so much worse. In the three matches those two teams played with Tuchel in charge City only scored once.

Adding Lukaku to a preseason’s worth of work for both Tuchel and his German attackers ought to give their attacking rhythm a fillip. Adding punch in front of goal was the Chelsea boss’ focus before last season was out, as he told CBS Sports in May. “It’s pretty much the question every week and after every match so far,” he said of the Blues’ relatively disappointing goal return “This is the story to put all our energy in to improve. It’s maybe the toughest one because in the end it’s about conversion.”

German strike duo step up in sophomore season

In part that profligacy laid with Kai Havertz and Timo Werner, their two major signings from Germany in the summer of 2020 who at best took their time to get going. That in itself should not have been quite the cause for debate and consternation that it was. After all, not only were the two saddled with the pressure that naturally comes with major transfer fees — a then club record $110 million in Havertz’s case — in a down market but they also had to adapt to a new city and culture at a time when there was little to do but be locked indoors or in the bubble environment of the Premier League. Indeed Havertz even had to battle with a COVID-19 case of his own.

Add to all that the more typical turbulence of new managers and an intense spotlight that comes with the job at Chelsea and a combined return of 21 goals and 24 assists is not all that bad for Werner and Havertz in down years. That they certainly were. Both players underperformed their xG, by a huge 8.17 in the case of Werner. Opta’s shooting goals added metric, which assesses how much the likelihood of any shot leading to a goal increases after the ball has been struck, placed Werner as the third worst finisher in the Premier League last season. Rather than add to the goalkeeper’s workload the German added -2.62 shooting goals.

Werner will probably always be a bit of a streaky finisher, perhaps even the sort with the collection of infuriating misses that the German developed for club and country last season. But over the course of his career he has done what all but the very, very best of strikers do and scored as many goals as his xG would suggest he should. His cold streak ought to be followed by, if not a hot one, at least an average stretch, and it is worth noting that he did average 0.4 xG per 90 minutes in the Premier League last season, comparable to the likes of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Gabriel Jesus and Anthony Martial. That is not at all shabby when he was often stationed on the wing. Imagine how much higher it would be if he were not such a consistent victim of the offside flag.

One might assume that Romelu Lukaku’s arrival would spoil the No.11’s chances. Certainly he might have to familiarize himself with the Stamford Bridge substitutes’ bench but it should be noted that at RB Leipzig Werner was invariably more effective with another striker alongside him. 

Is Lukaku the target man that would bring the best out of him? In discussing the need to add to his strike force Tuchel did say Chelsea could “use a player who is used to playing with his back towards the goal, whose strengths are to keep maybe possession from long balls, that we can add this direct style of play to our portfolio”. A player who plays like that, be it Lukaku or anyone else will certainly draw sufficient attention from defenders to allow Werner even more space to exploit.

If there is a need for projection where Werner is concerned there probably is not for Havertz. All he has to do is pick up from where he finished last season. As a roving center forward cum playmaker he saved his best performance for the Champions League final against City. A key part of Tuchel’s brief on joining Chelsea was to get the best out of the record signing. He did just that.

Havertz’s improvements under Tuchel

Stats from 2020-21 Premier League and Champions League

Goals

0.07

0.33

Assists

0.29

0.08

Shots

0.66

2.24

Expected goals

0.13

0.56

Expected assists

0.08

0.13

Final third touches

12.89

13.08

Take ons attempted 2.43 3.24

Continue that progress into a new season that won’t bring quite the same off field difficulties and Havertz could just be one of the stars of the 2021-22 season.

Chelsea revive goalkeeper pursuit

That Edouard Mendy was an outstanding signing given the circumstances Chelsea found themselves in early last season — with the world’s most expensive goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga so out of form as to be unplayable — is not up for debate. What may well be over the coming season, however, is whether he is quite at the level required if Tuchel’s side are to sweep all comers in England and abroad.

That might seem unreasonable. After all, more than half of Mendy’s games last season ended with a clean sheet. In the Champions League in particular his form was astonishing, 12 matches played and three goals conceded. Even in the Premier League he only conceded 25 goals in 29 games. Had he not missed seven matches, many of which were early in the season, he might have pipped Ederson to the Golden Glove award. 

And yet, no matter how impressive those numbers are, it is hard to remember that many truly exceptional performances from Mendy. He was often good but rarely great (not least because he did not always need to be). The same could be said of his statistical profile, though it should be noted that goalkeeper stats can be a little deceiving if not coupled with a good old fashioned eye test. His save rate of 69.1 percent was just about average for the Premier League last season whilst Opta’s goals prevented metric, which subtracts the goals conceded from the expected goals on target a goalkeeper has faced, ranked him rather low with -1.99 goals prevented. With the ball at his feet he is similarly solid if unspectacular and the same might be said of his ability to sweep in behind a high line should Tuchel opt to push the Chelsea defense higher up the pitch next season.

All this is to say that Mendy is a good goalkeeper. But Chelsea’s interest in Gianluigi Donnarumma before he went to Paris Saint-Germain would indicate that they know there are better options out there.

Perhaps that won’t matter. If Chelsea’s defense is as obdurate this season as it is last then we may not get an entirely convincing answer to the questions we have about Mendy. However, the indications so far are that if that backline should buckle the Blues do not quite have a presence between the sticks on a par with predecessors Petr Cech and Thibaut Courtois. Such are Roman Abramovich’s expectations for this team it would not be a shock to see them look for an upgrade to head into the 2022-23 season.

Bold predictions

  • Premier League finish: 2nd
  • Top scorer: Romelu Lukaku
  • Player of the season: N’Golo Kante
  • Something unexpected: Chelsea retain the Champions League, their defense-led brand of football proving to be a perfect fit for the competition.



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