Attacking teams have one common problem when they face less adventurous teams. It is called "parking the bus." It something that Chelsea, like many other top Premier League sides, regularly faced this season. But whilst the likes of Manchester City, Liverpool, Tottenham and recently Manchester United are quite able to breakdown these artificial barriers, Chelsea have struggled badly since their flying start to the season began to meltdown. It started against West Ham – a 0-0 draw at the London Stadium on September 23 – and has deteriorated rapidly since Everton on November 11. Most teams in the Premier League had come to realise that taking on the Blues toe-to-toe was not a very productive venture. Your best bet, perhaps, was to sit back and defend, then try to hit them on the counter or through set pieces. A troubled West Ham, led by Manuel Pellegrini, deployed it to great effect and Everton’s Marco Silva did the same, sitting his side deep and shutting down Chelsea's blunt (as we have come to see) lubricant, Jorginho. In the end, both Everton and West Ham were closer to snatching a win than Maurizio Sarri's side.
Last night Southampton became the latest side to borrow that template, frustrating Chelsea at home, however the similarities between the two games went beyond the 0-0 scorelines or the fact that Morata had a goal disallowed for offside on each occasion. These games thoroughly re-inforced the feeling that Chelsea can be stopped by just simply sitting deep and marking with discipline.
Between Everton and Southampton, Chelsea have played 11 Premier League matches and managed only 12 goals. That is a huge indictment for a side that plays “attacking football” and boasts impressive attacking players. The bulk of the blame has fallen, understandably, on their lack of top class strikers. But is this the only problem, or even the main problem? It seems to me that there are fundamental issues with the way Chelsea plays that limits their goal scoring potential.
The reality is that Chelsea's play is often possession-obsessed (like Man City’s), yet (unlike City’s) is ponderous, pedestrian and predictable. This remains most fundamental to their inability to breakdown bus-parking teams. Sometimes it seems like possession just for the sake of possession. Possession without incision, possession without direction, and possession without penetration. It is more reminiscent of Luis Van Gaal (at Man United) than Pep Guardiola. And then there is no Plan B. At least so it seems.
Centre-forwards Olivier Giroud and Alvaro Morata are often slated for their inefficacy, most times deservedly so, but even they are not the only problem. In other words, merely signing a top-class centre-forward, as is being channeled by some, will not fix Chelsea's goal-scoring situation. Whoever plays upfront needs to be helped by the way the team plays. Attention needs to be drawn away from them by getting others closely involved. For instance, against Southampton, it would have been far more helpful to the largely-isolated Morata if substitute Ruben Loftus-Cheek, with his physical and technical attributes, was playing closer to him, rather than constantly out wide. That would have also given Caesar Azpilicueta more to aim at, as well as giving Eden Hazard more of opportunities to link-up in- and around- the penalty box. Moreover, why wasn't Ross Barkley getting in the box to support Morata or feeding off rebounds the way Frank Lampard used to? We know he can find the net. The irony is that it is N’Golo Kante who has the greater license to roam (that is when he isn't playing wide-midfielder) rather than Barkley who is obviously the more suitable option.
Where is the help around the striker, you wonder? Nobody runs into the box when the team is on the attack. Often, you see only the centre-forward in there surrounded by opposition shirts, while his teammates, led by the redundant Jorginho, shift the ball from side to side looking for spaces that do not exist. It is like Greeks massed around Trojan walls without ever getting behind them. Even Hazard, when he deploys as a false 9, has often found the space he vacates unoccupied by a Chelsea body. That's the kind of role that a Barkley or Loftus-Cheek should be licensed to perform. It is exactly what Kanté did to produce the winner in the penultimate game against Crystal Palace. While the Frenchman, Matteo Kovacic and the aforementioned Jorginho are not known for their goal-scoring prowess, perhaps it would help for one or two of them plus the wing-forwards to get in the box and caus chaos more often. You never know what may ricochet into your path or what David Luiz (or Cesc Fabregas) may slice in (never mind Jorginho).
Study Chelsea’s play closely and you’ll observe that they rarely play crosses into the box even though the team constantly shifts the ball sideways. This same with Giroud and Morata, despite them being the best at heading the ball anywhere. The message is clear: whilst focusing on signing your own Luiz Suarez or Sergio Aguero, don't forget to play to the strength of the player's at your disposal right now.
Crossing should not be antithetical to possession-based football. The records show that Manchester City – the masters of possession in English football, if not Europe - use crossing to good effect. E.g. out-swingers from Leroy Sané are complemented by in-swingers from Riyad Mahrez. Relatively small-sized players like Raheem Sterling, Gabriel Jesus and even Ilkay Gundogan have produced headed goals from such crosses. Guardiola, unlike Sarri, understands the importance of mixing your style. When you are one-dimensional you become easier to stop.
When Liverpool make forays into the opposition area, you see all three forwards involved. The likes of Wijnaldum and Shaqiri are also constantly in the box from midfield and make good use of crosses to disrupt the opposition. A brilliant way to overload the opposition area, United's Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is also trying to master it, and Spurs' fantastic four (Kane, Eriksen, Son and Alli, even Sissoko) are making great headway.
Another limitation is that Chelsea are not inclined to take shots from outside the area. Fans can only look back nostalgically at the days when Ballack, Lampard and Essien paraded the midfield. Park the bus all you want, they still had the potential to hit you from distance.
None of the preferred midfield trio of Jorginho, Kovacic and Kante can really muster good distance shots. Barkley and Loftus-Cheek can but rarely play, and even the likes of Willian and Pedro who can wrap their foot around a bullet seem too shy or shackled to do so. It seems the players are under strict instructions to pass it into the net. These are tactical inflexibility, not just personnel problems that make it easy to frustrate the team once the opposition parks the bus.
Too often Chelsea have had to rely on the individual brilliance of Eden Hazard to bail them out, and when he is unable to, there is barely anyone who steps up to the plate. The Belgian has had to do the jobs of Alli, Kane, Son and Eriksen combined (goals, assists, dribbling and play-making). Whilst it is doubtless that he will be helped by a change in the supporting cast, he will also be helped by the adaptation of a less passive style of play.
Credit to him, Maurizio Sarri has done a marvelous job of revamping Chelsea's style of play, but he now needs to show a bit more tactical flexibility by mixing things in terms of the way they approach the opposition box. Otherwise, the crowds at Stamford Bridge – some of whom remain skeptical about his “trophy-mentality” – will grow very impatient. Buying a new striker who is good at playing in small space is good, but that – without more – is not the solution. Chelsea’s issues are not just for the transfer window. They are inclusive of tactical issues which that must be sorted out on the training ground.