Just when you thought this entire Premier League season was going to be complete torture, Claudio Ranieri brought a little respite this past weekend. The attack returned to its advertised best and, despite giving up two goals, the defense actually looked like it can put the workmanlike performance that is required. The whole squad still needs to improve tactically, but for one night at Craven Cottage, Fulham no longer looked like a complete laughing stock.
That might change as the club travel to Stamford Bridge and face their local rivals, Chelsea. Last weekend was a shocker for the Blues as they suffered their first loss of the season to Tottenham in convincing fashion. Even if it was their first defeat, that setback put them 10 points behind leaders Manchester City for the title and just one point ahead of Arsenal for the last qualifying spot in the Champions League. If they were to lose more points in the table on Sunday, than Chelsea will surely be in crisis mode.
That’s not to say it’s been all doom and gloom over on the other side of West London. Mauricio Sarri has brought back a more sensible formation that suits their more established players and their goal scoring has returned to elite levels as a result. Their 28 goals are joint second in the league and their shot rate, passing and time of possession are only bettered by Pep’s City squad. You would like to think that this level of improvement would be good enough for something that resembles more of a title race, but there are other flaws in this squad that just aren’t going to get solved over night. Enough of those flaws have turned some of their expected wins into draws and has put them in the unexpected gap they are in right now.
With regards to how this affects Fulham, there will be no denying that plenty of attacking pressure will be coming their way. Fortunately, Sergio Rico was mostly up for the task in their victory over Southampton, as were defenders Alfie Mawson and even Calum Chambers from the holding midfield role. It will be much harder for this team to replicate their performance against one of the best clubs in England, but if for anything else, they have already executed a game plan that will be similar to what they will throw out on Sunday. Even Joe Bryan could be back in the starting XI while André Schürrle returns to his old stomping grounds for the first time since he left in 2015. Plenty of motivation will be coming from the away side to put in a good performance, but it can only be done by executing the right game plan and exposing Chelsea’s greatest weaknesses.
On that note, here are three players to watch out for wearing the arch rival colors on this upcoming West London derby.
Only Sergio Aguero can match the Belgian International’s longevity as being one of the Premier League’s most elite players. Since arriving at Chelsea in 2012, he has guided the club to two Premier League titles, an FA Cup and a League cup title and has been the perfect piece to transition away from the Frank Lampard-John Terry-Didier Drogba era. This season could end up being Hazard’s best ever if he continues the same level of production as he did to start the campaign.
He already has matched his total for assists (4) as he did last season and is putting up a career-high average of 3.31 shots per contest and 3.51 key passes per 90 minutes. Even his goal conversion rate of 15.6% isn’t that far off from his career average of 15.2%. Now his dribbling rate has almost been cut in half (3.30 per 90 minutes) in comparison to his rate from 2017/18 (6.10 per 90 minutes), but that is more to do with relying on more of his teammates to progress the ball instead of him. Regardless, Hazard has been the real linchpin in Sarri’s system and he’s been orchestrating the attack to an absolute-T. Simply put, Cyrus Christie or Timothy Fosu-Mensah better have a good night sleep.
As stated previously, Chelsea is not a perfect football club in relation to what Sarri wants out of his team. In particular, his midfield is a collection of talent that just doesn’t seem to fit right at the moment. While Fulham have a Tom Cairney or Jean Michael Seri to be able to pick out passes or join the attack while they are at their best, Chelsea don’t really have that type of player. They do have Jorginho who can do that from the base of midfield and they have the best midfield destroyer in the world in N’Golo Kante. However, both like to sit deep and have struggled to gel together in midfield as a result.
That leave us with the 24-year old Real Madrid loanee who has been playing in top-tier European football since he was 18. Only Pedro has outperformed Kovacic’s 0.48 xG Buildup and if he were to keep this up, it will be the third straight season the Croation International has had an xG buildup over 0.45. His dribbling has always been sensational and with an expanded role, Koavicic’s 2.21 shots per contest are the highest they’ve been in his career. He is going toe-to-toe with Ross Barkley for the final midfield spot in Sarri’s 4-3-3 formation, but his defensive contributions are what makes him such a well-rounded midfielder and a valuable member to the Chelsea squad. Now if Roman Abramovich can fork over £22.5 million to make him a permanent transfer.
Lastly, I got to be blunt about this. For a club that expects to be in the Champions League every year, Chelsea have a terrible collection of center backs. David Luiz and Gary Cahill are at the wrong side of 30 and there’s nothing that convinces you why Antonio Rudiger is any good. Andreas Christensen should be starting week-in-week-out, but for some reason he’s not under Sarri. After him and 18-year old Welsh International Ethan Ampadu, that’s kind of it. That leaves us with Chelsea’s fullbacks to do all the hard work to shut down the opposition. As evidenced by the Tottenham defeat, if that can’t be done, Luiz or Rudiger are not the best in stopping the opposition all the time.
However, both Marcos Alonso and Azpilicueta have had to go through so many system changes throughout their careers that their ability to maintain their respective starting spots is an achievement within itself. And at 29, Azpilicueta has been there and done that for Chelsea that he can be counted upon performing any task that is required for them. This season in particular has been a fruitful one for the Spanish International as he is posting the highest key pass and crossing rates of his career since his transfer to Chelsea in 2013. He has truly been one of the unsung heroes of the Abramovich era and he will be missed once his time is over at Stamford Bridge.