Improving the Attack: Recruitment & Philosophy

In the light of recent results, a lot of debate as to how we can improve our attack. The obvious discourse has been about Romelu Lukaku and his soon to become infamous seven touches v Crystal Palace. But it would be a huge mistake to attribute our attacking problems to one player. At its heart, this is a bigger issue than Lukaku or even personnel. It’s symptomatic of a club which doesn’t have a clear philosophy or team building strategy. 

Recruit & Play Better: The keys to improving Chelsea's attack. Credit | The Telegraph
Recruit & Play Better: The keys to improving Chelsea’s attack. Credit | The Telegraph

Recruitment: Getting It Right

In hindsight, Romelu Lukaku may well have been the wrong signing. Many, including myself, thought his overall game had developed at Inter and could adapt to manager Thomas Tuchel’s high press possession based style. However what we’ve seen is Lukaku used essentially as a target man, a reference point. And he’s not suited to the way we’ve played football under Tuchel. 

Without wishing to be too harsh, this is a mistake you’re unlikely to see the likes of Liverpool make. 

The difference? Their club have a clear footballing philosophy and way of playing. Everything is done with this in mind. Every scouting mission, every target, is carefully researched for specific qualities which fit into their profile – regardless of name or reputation. 

So when they sign attacking players, they fit with this philosophy. They have no need to really ‘adapt’ as they are signed with a philosophy in mind. This is more than just formation and tactics; it’s how the team play.

Philosophy: Chelsea Need One

Chelsea haven’t had anything like a philosophy for years. Ironically the closest we had to this was going from Jose to Conte – both managers, although formation wise very different, like a strong tactical setup and to play counter attacking football, and so it was a simple transition.

We ditched this after Conte left, for a more possession based style, and signed the midfield to make this transition easier. Whilst there have been benefits – improved performance and success in European competition – Chelsea haven’t competed for the Premier League in 5 years, 4 of those since we adopted this possession-based, positional style. Also in that time, we’ve not had one striker score 20 PL goals in one season. Diego Costa was the last Chelsea striker to do this, under Conte in 2016/17. 

Chelsea's Italian former manager Antonio Conte, right, with defender Cesar Azpilicueta at Stamford Bridge, London, England, December 11, 2016. Credit | ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP
Chelsea’s Italian former manager Antonio Conte, right, with defender Cesar Azpilicueta at Stamford Bridge, London, England, December 11, 2016. Credit | ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP

This controlled style works when you have creativity from midfield, and quality wing backs able to get further forward and get good crosses in. It works well at Manchester City who have been able to compete for and win PL titles without a recognised striker. 

It works quite well for us with both full backs fit and without a recognised striker too.

The eye test – and most likely the stats – have shown when we have both first choice full backs fit, and when we’re not playing with a target man (whether it’s Giroud or Lukaku) type striker, are the games we’ve played our best most fluid football under Tuchel, and scored the most goals.

The 4-0 win v Juventus – one of our best performances under Tuchel – we played with Christian Pulisic as a false 9. Wide players on both sides – Reece James and Callum Hudson-Odoi, both scored goals, with Timo Werner coming on and scoring toward the end in the 9 role. That game, and the run of games around it, were high intensity, fast paced, possession-based attacking football. 

We went through most of the Champions League campaign with a Kai Havertz-Timo Werner link up which worked well and created more chances, although the finishing itself wasn’t quite up to it.  But the football was certainly more fluid. 

The key was finding a natural finisher who could also contribute to our overall play – we all thought singing a Lukaku to finish those chances was the final piece. However, in hindisight the profile of player wasn’t quite correct. Ironically, Harry Kane, a player with good technique who likes to drop deep and can create from almost a 10 position sometimes, would have been a far better option. But of course, being a Spurs player, it was never going to happen.

It’s important to note the significance of our midfield to the attack. In our current style, with Jorginho in the midfield, we will more often than not dominate possession, but the pace of football will be slower and we don’t create much from midfield. The only 6 we have with creative chops is Mateo Kovacic. Other than this, we can be very risk averse, and rarely get balls in behind and without our wing backs, there’s no creativity out wide either. 

So when you have both wing backs out and a midfield is not creative, then your attack will struggle.

Improving the Attack: A Midfielder Needed

Improving the midfield will improve Chelsea’s attack. Adding a proper, physical defensive midfielder who can protect a back four, deal with counter attacks and transitions, gives more confidence to those alongside and ahead of him to take risks in the final third – knowing they’ll have the protection. Just as Makelele did back in 04/05 and 05/06, freeing up the likes of Lampard, Robben and Duff to really express themselves. 

The majority of our squad suits this possession based, high intensity style Tuchel wants to play. We saw a glimpse of what was possible without Lukaku and Jorginho against Liverpool. Balls in behind, chances created, high intensity, pacy, lots of energy. What we clearly missed in that game were quality wing backs/full backs with pace and solid defensively, and a proper physical DM to deal with transitions and counters. We conceded in that game largely due to those profile of players missing. Keep a clean sheet and be ruthless in our goalscoring, we win that game 4-0. 

Ultimately we have to decide what kind of football we want to play and recruit accordingly. Right now, the likes of Lukaku and the lack of a proper DM could arguably be the hold ups to playing more as Tuchel wants, especially if we’re looking at a 4 ATB formation. Not to mention the addition of another attacking midfielder who can help the transitions between defence and attack, and be more direct in their attacking – like Conor Gallagher. 

Keeping Lukaku and getting the best out of him requires a complete revamp in our style and a huge overhaul which we can’t afford. Evolving our style to one which suits how Tuchel seems to want us to play, and the way we’ve played best under him, means upgrading our midfield, and adding more quality depth at full back so we don’t miss the likes of Reece James and Ben Chilwell to the extent we do. 

The problem isn’t an individual problem, or even a philosophical one. We simply have to decide how we want to play, and recruit, recall and sell accordingly. 

Written by The Score (@TheScore01)

Edited by Dan Hill

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