Unravelling the Chelsea enigma – just how good are they?

Chelsea's players celebrate against Middlesbrough in their Carabao Cup semi-final
Are Chelsea better than people think or not quite as good as their data suggests? - PA/Zac Goodwin

Mauricio Pochettino’s Chelsea have struggled to convince even their own supporters this season, but have won five of six games since Christmas and scored 16 goals in the process.

They are also in a major final after thrashing Middlesbrough 6-1 in Tuesday’s Carabao Cup semi-final second leg, with the domestic cups offering a potential route into European competition.

Chelsea have been something of a running joke for almost two years, and once a club have been labelled as incompetent and calamity-prone it can take a long time and a heap of victories before trust is regained.

This is especially true for Chelsea’s radically reshaped squad, a rotating cast of names and faces with which fans are yet to form a strong emotional bond.

Pochettino and the club are still building that connection, but there are at least flickers of something worth persisting with.

Were Chelsea ever as bad as we thought?

On one level, yes. They finished 12th in the Premier League last season and are currently ninth, 12 points behind Aston Villa in fourth. Those bearish about their prospects will justifiably point to the fact their improved results have featured two home wins over Championship opposition, plus wins against Fulham, Crystal Palace and Luton Town. Against Fulham and Luton, Chelsea finished the game hanging on to narrow leads.

However, even while Chelsea were slumping to yet more defeats last autumn, they continued to show up reasonably well in the underlying data. Like it or not, these statistics (and those publicly available are just the tip of the iceberg) will inform decisions made by clubs.

Across the season, Chelsea have the fourth-best expected goal difference per 90 minutes in the Premier League, behind only Arsenal, Manchester City and Liverpool.

Chelsea’s attacking output is impressive, with an xG tally of 42.1 behind only Liverpool in the Premier League. An important caveat is that Chelsea have won eight penalties before the end of January, more than any side in the division. Teams earn penalties of course, and Chelsea’s battery of dexterous, tricky wide players could be a factor in winning them. Nevertheless, penalties won fluctuate significantly from season to season, so cannot be taken to the bank.

Removing penalties, Chelsea are fifth in the Premier League for xG with 35.79, still well above their league position and neck-and-neck with Arsenal. Interestingly, Chelsea have produced this while taking just 286 shots on goal, which is fewer than nine Premier League teams. This suggests Pochettino’s team have been adept at working the ball into high-value positions close to goal. There is certainly room for improvement defensively, with Chelsea sitting seventh for xG allowed with 30.15.

Three things Chelsea can take from Middlesbrough win


Chelsea scored six goals from just 13 shots on Tuesday night, with all six of their shots on target finding the back of the net. Unfortunately, cold snaps and hot streaks in front of goal are part of the vagaries of a low-scoring sport, so it can be fatuous to tell a team they need to do this more often. Arsenal drew a blank with 30 shots and eight on target against West Ham, and scored five against Crystal Palace from 21 shots and six on target. These things happen.

Across the season though, no Premier League team have been as profligate in front of goal as Chelsea, with Nicolas Jackson their worst offender. Chelsea’s non-penalty goal tally lags 7.79 behind their non-penalty xG, the biggest negative differential in the division with Everton in close attendance.

No team have missed more of what Opta defines as ‘Big Chances’ than Chelsea with 41. The team level with them? League leaders Liverpool, which is a cause for optimism and another indicator that they are doing a lot of things right.

Incisive forward passing

Granted, Middlesbrough’s hybrid back four/five and semi-high line offered Chelsea space to target with balls in behind, but Ben Chilwell’s through ball to Raheem Sterling for the opening goal was the type of pass Chelsea have lacked from central areas.

When opponents bank up behind the ball at Stamford Bridge, Chelsea can be short of guile and creativity in spells despite their solid attacking data overall. Other than Cole Palmer, Chelsea are not blessed with natural playmakers in the final third with Enzo Fernandez tending to operate in deeper areas.

Chelsea rank 12th in the Premier League for passes played into the penalty area. They also sit ninth in the Premier League for key passes, defined as passes that lead directly to a shot. If Chelsea can add a specialist at feeding passes into the box they should become a more potent force.

Winning the ball high

Chelsea won a whopping 18 high turnovers against Middlesbrough, with those regains ending in four shots and three goals.

Michael Carrick’s team will be accused of being callow and naïve, but this continued a theme of Chelsea’s season. When they get the chance to play against the ball, breaking at pace once they win it back, they are dangerous.

Chelsea’s best two performances of the season came against Arsenal and Manchester City, when they flooded midfield and disrupted the passing rhythm of last season’s top two. Jorginho and Rodri, the two holding midfielders facing Chelsea in those games, endured particularly rough outings as they found themselves overwhelmed by numbers and speed of play on a tight Stamford Bridge pitch. Chelsea also won plaudits for their performance against Liverpool on the opening day.

Pressing high was the calling card of Pochettino’s Tottenham team. While there are reasons to doubt the fit between Chelsea and Pochettino, they should have the young legs to be able to deliver this aspect of his footballing vision.

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