There hasn’t been a great deal of cheer for Chelsea this season, but after a promising showing against Manchester City last week, there may be reason to believe they could get a result in Sunday’s EFL Cup final against Liverpool. We look at whether Mauricio Pochettino’s side perform best against the best.

Mauricio Pochettino’s Chelsea have been about as inconsistent as Premier League teams come.

Since the former Tottenham manager came in, the longest winning streak they have gone on in all competitions is three games – once in September and October and then again around the turn of the year – while they haven’t drawn successive games once, and they have only lost consecutive games twice. They have struggled to string a run of results together, and they also haven’t gone on any extended poor runs, either.

They have produced impressive performances to earn draws with title challengers Manchester City (twice), Arsenal and Liverpool, but have also lost to Wolves (twice), Everton and Middlesbrough. Then again, they have also lost to current-top-six sides Manchester United, Liverpool and Aston Villa, and comfortably won against many teams they would have been expected to beat. To say they have been unpredictable would be a gross understatement.

However, it’s probably fair to say that Chelsea come into this Sunday’s EFL Cup final against Liverpool with some reason to be confident. Or maybe just more reason to believe they can get a result than at any other time in Pochettino’s reign.

That is because they have bounced back – in typically unpredictable fashion – from 4-1 and 4-2 defeats to Liverpool and Wolves, respectively, with back-to-back 3-1 away wins at Aston Villa and Crystal Palace, and then most notably, a 1-1 draw at champions Manchester City last weekend.

That draw at the Etihad Stadium was the result of what was arguably Chelsea’s best performance of the Pochettino era, alongside the return game against City (a 4-4 draw in November) and the 2-2 draw with Arsenal.

They haven’t quite married up their most impressive performances with results, but they might well have felt they deserved to win each of those games, and should take a lot of heart from the display at City last week.

After the 4-4 draw at Stamford Bridge, City midfielder Rodri made a point of praising Chelsea for turning the game into one of transitions, a tactic that disrupted City’s passing game and meant the hosts were more often able to attack City when they were out of shape. It meant that when they did attack there was more space for them to exploit.

That was the case at the Etihad last week, too. Although City dominated the ball for long periods, ending the game with 70% possession, Chelsea transitioned effectively and efficiently. They ended the game with only nine shots to City’s 31, but in truth they looked dangerous every time they attacked while City toiled on the ball.

man city 1-1 chelsea stats

Chelsea had six shots on target to City’s five, and their chances were of much higher quality than the hosts. The average expected goals (xG) value of each of Chelsea’s chances was almost double that of City’s (0.16 xG per shot for Chelsea vs 0.087 xG for City).

That follows a trend for Pochettino’s side: in Premier League games against the current top six, Chelsea are creating better chances. The average xG of their shots in games against Liverpool, City, Arsenal, Aston Villa, Tottenham and Man Utd is 0.161, compared to 0.138 xG in games against the other 13 teams. They are averaging 3.8 big chances – chances that you’d expect the attacker to score – per game against top-six sides, compared to 2.8 against the teams outside the top six.

chelsea stats vs top 6 and bottom 14

Those numbers are skewed by the bizarre game at Tottenham, who were reduced to nine men early in the second half and then played with an astonishingly high line, which meant Chelsea created a few very high value chances in the second half.

But discounting that game still leaves Chelsea creating better quality chances against the rest of the big six (0.142 xG per shot) than against the Premier League’s lesser teams (0.138 xG). It isn’t much of a difference, but it is still telling that they are creating better chances against the best teams in England than when playing what should be easier games.

That tallies up with the eye test, too. They have often looked toothless and distinctly lacking in imagination in games where opponents sit back against them, but when they have space to attack, they generally look far more threatening.

They have fantastic ball-carriers and direct runners in the likes of Raheem Sterling and Nicolas Jackson; Conor Callagher causes chaos in midfield; Cole Palmer, Moisés Caicedo and Enzo Fernández are exceptionally talented passers who knit the team’s play together but also launch attacks with direct balls forward into the channels.

Only four teams this season – Liverpool (68), Man Utd (66), Aston Villa and Tottenham (both 59) – have had more ‘direct shots’ than Chelsea (54); defined as shots that come from open-play sequences that start inside their own half and involve at least 50% movement directly towards the opposition’s goal. Pochettino’s side have scored with 25% of their shots from counter-attacks against the current top six, compared to 12.5% when facing the other teams currently in the bottom 14, who are likely to leave more men back to guard against counters. This Chelsea side thrive when able to move upfield quickly.

However, some issues persist whoever the opposition. Chelsea have consistently underperformed their xG all campaign, with only Everton (-11.5) and Brentford (-7.3) posting a bigger negative differential between their non-penalty goals and non-penalty xG in the Premier League this season than Chelsea (-6.0). They underperform in front of goal whether they are playing the best or the not-so-good Premier League teams.

chelsea xg map 2023-24

Their biggest issues are at the other end of the pitch, though, and that could be a concern ahead of this weekend’s game. Chelsea concede far too many chances whoever they play, and both the quality and quantity go up when they face better opponents.

The average expected goals value of the shots they face against the current top six is 0.127 xG, compared to 0.107 xG against the rest of the Premier League. They also allow their opponents 16.6 shots per game when facing top-six sides, and that drops to 11.8 shots per game against teams in the bottom 14. When they recently conceded four goals in consecutive defeats to Liverpool and Wolves, they showed just how many different ways there are to hurt them.

That defeat to Liverpool will have knocked Chelsea’s confidence ahead of Sunday’s game, and Pochettino will have to make sure his team are rather more in control at Wembley than they were in the Anfield meeting last month.

Control in this game, however, might mean trying to restrict the opposition without having the ball. They had to come out and attack at Anfield having conceded early, but they arguably shouldn’t have done so quite as much as they did. They ended the game with 50% possession but only had four shots and shipped four goals as they left too much space for their opponents to attack into.

That is something they’ll have to bear in mind this weekend, because Liverpool are such a multi-faceted side. They have five different players who have got 10+ goals in all competitions this season, and are able to break down low blocks while also being the best transitional team in England.

They have had at least 28 more shots on transition (16) than any other team in the Premier League this season, also ranking well clear of anyone else for transitions reaching the final third (486) and transitions reaching the penalty area (223).

Liverpool aren’t Manchester City, and so Chelsea might not have the same kind of joy if they were to turn the EFL Cup final into the same kind of game of transitions that Rodri spoke of.

Sitting back and trying to hit their opponents on the break might in fact be their best bet, as long as they leave enough players behind the ball to deal with Liverpool’s own transitions.

Pochettino’s Chelsea have produced their best performances of the season against the Premier League’s best teams. Sunday would be a good time to throw up the best of the lot.

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