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After big win, Chelsea still looks unimpressive

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After a very slow start to the season, coming off defeats to both Everton and Crystal Palace, Chelsea appears to right themselves last week against London rivals Arsenal.

With attacking midfielder Oscar back in the fold, Chelsea stymied the Gunners for 45 minutes. Arsenal had been averaging three or four big chances created per match, and Chelsea held them to just four shots in the first half. All four came from outside the danger zone, the region in the center of the 18-yard-box from which most goals are scored. The estimated expected goals for these chances, based on location, shot type and other factors, was just 0.1.

Then Diego Costa worked his magic and got Arsenal CB Gabriel Paulista sent off. With a man advantage, Chelsea controlled the action for most of the second half and won, 2-0.

So is Chelsea fine now? It was a big win, but it was also just 45 minutes of quality play at even strength.

The problem for the “everything is fine” narrative is that the aggregate performance of Chelsea still looks unimpressive. The Blues have outshot their opponents by 11, but they have conceded 13 big chances and conceded only 5. The combined expected goals map for the season tells a similarly troubling story. On this graphic, the size of the box marks the estimated expected goals value of chances.

The best defensive team in the EPL last season has this year allowed the sixth-most expected goals. It is true that this all happened with Oscar out of the lineup, and his pressing is clearly one of the keys to manager Jose Mourinho’s system. But Oscar also missed the final five matches of Chelsea’s season last year after being laid out by David Ospina. (Shockingly Ospina received no punishment at all for this dangerous play.) And in those matches, Chelsea outscored their opponents 8-6 with a +3.1 expected goals difference. It was a relatively slow finish but hardly anything that portended doom the next time Oscar was unavailable. It is difficult, at this moment, to pinpoint a cause of Chelsea’s problems—either from the optimistic angle that the problem has been solved by Oscar’s return, or from the pessimistic angle that Chelsea is somehow broken.

What we do know is that this is weird. Chelsea’s start, by expected goals, is the worst six-match opening to a season by a defending champion in the Opta era. This chart shows the expected goals difference through six matches for all defending title-winners from the big five leagues since 2010.

Only two defending champions in this time have failed to qualify for the Champions League in the following season. They are Montpellier in 2012-13, directly above Chelsea, and David Moyes’s Manchester United in 2013-14, another two up. Chelsea has started the season even more poorly than two of the biggest disappointments in European soccer of recent years.

But there is also a more hopeful example. Sandwiched between United and Montpellier is Borussia Dortmund in 2011-2012. Jürgen Klopp’s side, coming off an incredible season where BVB knocked off Bayern Munich, opened the season with just seven points from six matches and a negative expected goals difference. But Dortmund, unlike Montpellier and United, did recover. BVB won all of its next four matches, with a goal difference of 13-1, and went on to a second consecutive Bundesliga title.

Certainly, a title is unlikely. None of the other 12 teams at the bottom of the chart managed to defend their titles, while nine of the top 13 did. What the example of Dortmund shows is that if Chelsea is to recover, the next several matches are crucial. With an away contest at struggling Newcastle this weekend, the Blues have an excellent opportunity to continue their recovery.  Chelsea will need a run of good matches to salvage its profile and return to the top of the table.

All data provided by Opta unless otherwise noted.

Michael Caley writes for Cartilage Free Captain, where he analyzes fancy soccer statistics and bemoans Tottenham Hotspur’s most recent failures. You can follow him on twitter at @MC_of_A

Correction: A prior version mentioned Justin Gabriel when it should have been Gabriel Paulista. This has been fixed.