Whatever else happens to Chelsea this season, they did at least take part in possibly the strangest Premier League game ever on Monday night last.
Where do you start with their 4-1 win at Spurs? The two red cards? More VAR checks than your average summer tournament? Tottenham’s suicidally high defensive line? A hat-trick for Nicolas Jackson?
Unadulterated chaos. But now the dust has settled, it’s worth reflecting on it being Chelsea’s best result of the campaign. It was the Blues’ fifth game against a team which starts this weekend above them in the league table, and the first which they won.
But such a victory could’ve occurred sooner. Maurico Pochettino’s side squandered four Opta-defined big chances in their 1-1 draw with Liverpool – only Brentford have wasted more golden opportunities in total this season – then a goalkeeping error allowed Arsenal back in when 2-0 down at Stamford Bridge.
They’ll have an opportunity for a big home win on Sunday when Manchester City come calling. The visitors are odds-on favourites to win, and underlying data for 2023/24 suggests their price should be shorter. Regardless of their result this weekend, are Chelsea well set for an assault on the European qualification places?
A low starting point
The combined efforts of four managers delivered just 44 points for Chelsea last season. If we look at the previous decade of Premier League football, the team finishing fourth averaged 71 points, fifth got 68 and 64 were required for sixth. That’s a significant improvement to make.
An upturn of at least 20 points is not without precedent, though it is rare. There have been 13 examples since 1995, roughly one every other year. However, many of them were by already-strong sides who then kicked on – only five had no more than 44 points in the previous season.
Leaving aside the miracle of Leicester in 2015/16, the West Ham side of 2020/21 are Chelsea’s blueprint to follow. They finished 16th with 39 points the previous year, then rose to sixth with 65. Who knows, maybe Pochettino can emulate David Moyes and win the Europa Conference League in a couple of years?
Chelsea can be backed at 8/5 to finish in the top six this season. They’ve already made up six points on the corresponding fixtures from last season but there’s still a long way to go.
Of course, not every club looking to make a 20-point leap has done so with a squad assembled for more than the GDP of a small European nation.
And money tends to talk in football. Transfermarkt rated Chelsea’s roster as worth a collective 925.7m Euros on September 1st and it has (somehow?) risen since. If we look at that date for the past five years, there were a total of nine clubs whose squads were worth at least that much.
All five champions were among them, as were a runner-up and a third-place team. That leaves Manchester United in 2021/22 and Tottenham two years earlier as the outliers, both finishing in sixth place. Remind me, who was Spurs’ manager at the start of 2019/20?
While Pochettino’s time in north London ended early that season, he had taken a much cheaper Tottenham side into the top four for the four previous seasons, and fifth in his first campaign at the helm. His current employers are 3/1 to make the top five in 2023/24, though with their decision making, who even knows if he’ll still be there in May?
The underlying numbers
If there’s one thing Chelsea fans can pin their hopes on, it’s their team’s underlying data. The Blues’ expected goals have been far more impressive than their results.
Across their first 11 matches, their xG difference works out at 0.9 per game. Over the last six completed seasons, any team which averaged at least 0.65 finished in the top four, with only one side – Liverpool in 2017/18 – having a minimum of 0.9 and ending the campaign below second.
The match-by-match statistics for 2023/24 back this idea up. If games were decided by declaring one team the winner if it had at least 0.5 xG more than the other, then Chelsea would be third in the table with a win-draw-loss record of 7-4-0, rather than 10th with 4-3-4 which is their reality.
On this basis, Chelsea’s odds of 11/2 for a top four finish look worth considering, even allowing for them being nine points off the pace.
There are two problems here though. Firstly, the Blues have had a relatively kind start to the season in terms of fixture difficulty. Based on opposition points-per-game average only three teams have had it easier to this point, and Pochettino’s side has only been away to one side in the current top 11.
That was the visit to Tottenham and that game highlights the other issue: Chelsea can’t find a banjo, much less hit a cow’s arse with it. They scored four times on Monday night but it took them getting four expected goals to do so.
Only Everton have converted a lower proportion of their xG this season. Maybe Jackson’s hat-trick propels him to new heights, or perhaps the return from injury of Christopher Nkunku unlocks the Chelsea attack. It’d need some evidence of sustained improvement before anything above sixth feels realistic.
*All odds quoted are correct at time of publication but subject to change
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