Graham Potter began his preparations for the two games that could define his career as Chelsea manager, but does the head coach know his best team?
With 31 first-team players listed on Chelsea’s website, Potter’s head must be spinning every time he sits down to try and write his side.
Every Chelsea fan and pundit will have their own opinion on who Potter should and shouldn’t pick as he struggles to keep the faith of Todd Boehly and Behdad Eghbali, the club’s co-owners, who are big fans of the data.
Rather than go with opinions, Telegraph Sport, along with Opta, decided to try and pick two of Potter’s best teams, each in a different formation, based on statistics taken from all 24 of Chelsea’s Premier League games this season.
Thiago Silva and Edouard Mendy, who are sidelined with injuries and unavailable for selection, have been dropped, while N’Golo Kante and Christian Pulisic have also been left out assuming they will not be fit to face Leeds United on Saturday.
Potter mostly switched between three at the back and small variations of the 4-2-3-1. There is not much to choose between Chelsea when they start with three at the back or four. Chelsea have lost one more game in their last four this season and have conceded two fewer goals and kept two fewer clean sheets.
Interestingly, the Blues attacked a bit better when they started with three central defenders, which might surprise those who see it as a more defensive line-up. With three at the back, Chelsea have scored three more goals, conceded more shots and have a higher expected goals rate (xG).
Mendy underwent surgery on a broken finger at the start of January and is yet to return, meaning Kepa Arrizbalaga must start as Potter’s goalkeeper this weekend. Even if the Senegalese star is fit, however, Kepa has the stronger stats this season, conceding a goal every 107 minutes, compared to Mendy’s 63 and scoring higher in save percentage, goals prevented and passing accuracy.
Kepa received some criticism for Tottenham’s first goal last Sundaybut Opta’s stats show that he didn’t make a mistake that directly led to the goal, while Mendy did.
Wing defenders/wing defenders
Unsurprisingly, Reece James is Chelsea’s best-performing full-back by some margin, so he occupies a spot on the right by some distance. It may surprise some of his critics that Marc Cucurella is not as far behind Ben Chilwell as some of them who booed him can believe it.
Cucurella has the second best tackle success rate among Chelsea full-backs behind James and has made far more tackles than his counterparts. But the £60m signing from Brighton has also gone far ahead of James, Chilwell, Cesar Azpilicueta and Lewis Hall. Chilwell proved to be a little more creative going forward than Cucurella, and the English international, statistically, only has an advantage on the left side.
Losing Silva to injury is a huge blow for Potter, and the stats highlight just how important the Brazilian has been to Chelsea. Wesley Fofana’s return from injury is undoubtedly a boost, but still, in his four league appearances so far, the Frenchman has not been among the club’s best players.
Trevoh Chalobah was left out of the squad for the trip to Spurs, yet his numbers suggest he is worthy of starting either in the back three or back four without Silva. Chelsea have conceded fewer goals with Chalobah in the side than with Fofana or Kalidou Koulibaly.
January signing Benoit Badiashile has been Chelsea’s best defender in the air and has a much better one-on-one success rate than Koulibaly, who can probably only make a statistical claim to start in the back three. Chalobah and Badiashile have better passing accuracy than Koulibaly and Fofana.
The fact that Enzo Fernandez already has the highest assist percentage, having scored one goal for Joao Felix in his four League appearances, suggests that Chelsea’s goalscoring problems are not just down to the club’s strikers. He may have been partly to blame for Tottenham’s second goal last week, but the Argentine has performed well so far and certainly deserves a place in Potter’s squad as a player who can be effective on both sides of the pitch.
Conor Gallagher can be considered unlucky not to have started more games, given that he created the most chances of Chelsea’s midfielders and played far more passes into the box than any of his colleagues. With the security of the back three, Gallagher could give Potter’s team more attacking impetus from the center of the pitch.
With a back four, Mateo Kovačić could be a safer pair of hands to play in the double center next to Fernandez, given that he has a good record in possession recovery and interception.
Chelsea spent £88m on Mykhail Mudryk in January, while Noni Madueke cost almost £30m, but neither winger, statistically at least, has done enough to earn a starting spot. Mudryk did not score, assist or create a chance, completing only two dribbles at an 18 percent success rate. Madueke fared little better, creating four chances, but loanee Joao Felix outplayed both.
The Portuguese has created four chances, scored once and has the best passing accuracy and xG rate of any Chelsea forward. Felix, Raheem Sterling and Mason Mount won possession in the final third of the pitch at the same pace, with Sterling making good points at all ends compared to his team-mates. Mount may not be enjoying a season to remember but, apart from Kai Havertz playing as a number nine, only Sterling has more goals.
It may be difficult for Potter to fit Felix, Sterling and Mount into the same side if he starts with a back three, but they have all earned the right to play as a back three in a 4-2-3-1.
Goals have been a huge problem for Chelsea and that is largely the fault of the club’s forwards, especially Havertz, who many would say is not a natural number nine. The German has only scored five times and assisted once in the league this season, yet the stats indicate that he is still Potter’s number one option.
Despite clamor, including from this correspondent, for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to start, Havertz recorded better goal contributions, xG and shot conversion rates, per Opti. The fact that Aubameyang scores slightly more points than Havertz for regaining possession in the final third of the pitch would cast doubt on accusations that he is not working hard for the team.
While the stats would argue in favor of Havertz starting, Aubameyang should arguably at least be in the squad to be a goal threat from the substitutes’ bench.
Chelsea (3-4-3): Cap; Chalobah, Koulibaly, Badiashile; James, Fernandez, Gallagher, Chilwell; Felix, Havertz, Sterling
Chelsea (4-2-3-1): Cap; James, Chalobah, Badiashile, Chilwell; Fernandez, Kovačić; Mount, Felix, Sterling; Havertz.