In recent games, Sarriball has worked to frustrate rather than delight Chelsea fans. With the recent ‘Kepagate’ and other issues such as Callum Hudson-Odoi and the functioning of the system, Maurizio Sarri has had his fair share of critique. One of the critiques concerns the left-back role. For the majority of the season, Marcos Alonso has claimed the left-back role in the Chelsea side. In recent games, however, Emerson Palmieri has been introduced into the left-back role.
For many Chelsea fans, Palmieri deserves the position over Alonso. They cite their reasons on pace, dribbling, and tactical intelligence. However, Sarri must be starting Alonso over Palmieri for some reason, him being the head coach. Or, in a peculiar twist, are the fans correct in their reasoning? We look to answer those precise questions in this statistics-driven tactical analysis.
Some of the biggest concerns from Chelsea fans are that Alonso slows down Chelsea’s fluid attack. For a system that is dependent on the fluid interplay of the ball and pace, picking Alonso seems contradictory. Not only is Alonso slow, but he also tends to dwell on the ball and instead of making overlaps, makes central runs.
Perhaps it is his penchant for wanting to score goals but in terms of the actual roles, Alonso fails on metrics. The biggest failure for Alonso lies in the final third. Accompanying him is one of the most talented players in the world, Eden Hazard. Hazard is capable of sufficient magic yet due to Alonso’s inward runs and lethargic athleticism, the attacks on the left-hand side do not come to fruition.
In Sarri’s system, it is critical for the full-back to overlap. This draws another defender in, leaving the left winger in a one-v-one situation. Hazard is a master at such situations and thus every effort should be made to create those situations. Unfortunately, Alonso is almost never in these positions.
His overlaps are last minute, where the two-v-one has been created and even when early overlaps are made, Alonso’s crossing accuracy is the worst among the full-backs. Palmieri, on the other hand, accomplishes Alonso’s shortcomings. A good way to see this is by comparing both of their statistics. Specifically, we are going to analyse the 2016/17 season as it was the season where both players played an equal amount of games.
As we mentioned before, Alonso’s tendency to go central leads to an increase in goals and subsequent assists. While on paper, these contributions seem significant, they lead to a misleading narrative. By going central, the wingers are isolated and cannot impact the game as much. The isolationist effect increases on star players such as Hazard as Alonso’s absence gives encouragement for more than two players to surround Hazard.
On the other hand, Palmieri does most of the actions right. As we can see, Palmieri’s key passes, dribbles and fouled statistics are significantly better than Alonso’s. This is important as it tells us that Palmieri’s technical skills are more polished than Alonso’s. This means that Palmieri does not require a support man which allows the accompanying midfielders to attack as well.
With Alonso, a centre midfielder has to stay beside him and this reduces the numbers for Chelsea in the attack. This creates numerical inferiority leading to an insignificant attack. Another metric to analyse both of these players on is their passing statistics, statistics which should be very important, considering that Sarriball is based on possession.
As is evident, Palmieri trumps Alonso on most of the key statistics. Not only does Palmieri produce more passes and crosses, but he also does so at a much better success rate. Compared to Alonso, Palmieri has a passing success percentage of 88%, a ten per cent increase from Alonso. As anyone in the professional leagues will tell you, it is these small margins that make the difference.
As such, Palmieri is more suited to Sarriball than Alonso in the passing and attacking metrics. Palmieri’s style allows a centre midfielder to be freed up. Additionally, his overlaps allow for Hazard to finally get his one-v-one with the defender. Not only that, Palmieri’s technical skills allow for more creative expressions for players such as Hazard and Pedro.
While it is clear that Palmieri is better at Alonso in attacking, how do both of these players stack up in defending?
Yet again, Alonso is critiqued for his slow recovery pace and slow reaction times. Often, Alonso and Hazard find themselves in a two-v-two on the wings. While Hazard is bound to be poor defensively, Alonso needs to be better to prevent dangerous crosses and cutbacks. Unfortunately, his slow recovery pace means that the left wing of Chelsea is left with acres of space. Thus, it should be no surprise as to why in most top-opposition matches, the opposition targets that space. Additionally, Alonso’s lack of creative passes in the defence means that the build-up from Chelsea is often stifled. Coincidentally, Hazard is also on the left-hand side. Thus, due to Alonso, most of the build-up takes place without Chelsea’s magician.
Palmieri provides a stark contrast to Alonso. While he is not a defensive behemoth, Palmieri does the basics. The standard tracking, covering, and being aggressive in certain areas are some of Palmieri’s actions in defence. Most importantly, Palmieri allows Chelsea to build upon the left-hand side, allowing Hazard to drop deep.
Hazard’s deep drops are critical as they often attract three-to-four players. All the while runs from Kante, Kovacic, and Higuain are being made. Seeing no option, Hazard will have to pass out to Chelsea’s metronome, Jorginho. It is in this key area where Jorginho comes to life. His first-touch passes can find the respective runners and all of a sudden, you have a numerical superiority against the opposition.
By comparing both of the player’s statistics, we get even a better look as to who is better.
As we can see, not only does Palmieri provide Chelsea more interceptions, but he also provides them with fewer dribbled past instances. This leads to a more solid defence and less dangerous encounters in critical zones such as Zone 18. Palmieri is also bound to make fewer fouls, something that has come to hurt Chelsea in recent weeks.
Even then, the benefit of Palmieri in defence is magnified when one compares key performances. Alonso was the starter in the 6-0 drubbing of Chelsea. Alonso faced the likes of Bernardo Silva and Kyle Walker and often was left chasing shadows. In fact, the first goal came down the left-hand side. Palmieiri was the starter in the tight draw between Chelsea and City. In that game, Palmieri faced the same Silva and Walker and yet not a single attack came down that side. Chelsea silenced City and Palmieri’s effect was there to see.
Not only that, but he dealt with the pressure of City with ease, switching play and involving Hazard and Higuain in the build-up through curved balls. Conversely, Alonso’s attempts at dealing with City’s pressure involved passing to Luiz and Kepa. When Alonso plays, Chelsea’s play is stifled while with Palmieri, it flourishes.
As is evident from the statistics and the tactical analysis, Palmieri beats Alonso in almost all metrics. That is not to say that Palmieri is one of the best left-backs, but his services greatly improve Chelsea’s attempt at transitioning and reforming under Sarri. It seems like the fans are right, once again. With the danger of slipping outside of the top four breathing down his neck, Sarri needs to churn out wins. Anything else will guarantee that Chelsea do not play in the Champions League next season.
With both Arsenal and United picking up steam, Chelsea need to be pitch-perfect. For any club, the fans are the ones who stand by it and help it. They determine the resilience and identity of the club. With a crucial time ahead for Chelsea, the fans are standing strong and helping. For a club which has consistently overlooked its fans, its’ time that it listens to its fans’ voice. Now, more than ever, Chelsea and Sarri need to listen through the noise and pick out the signal.
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