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Sunday, 16 December, 2018

Early strikes were key to Chelsea becoming champions

Advice from the industry insider

Chelsea celebrate after their Premier League match against Watford at Stamford Bridge
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After Leicester's mission to rewrite everything we thought we knew about English football last season, this year has returned to something much more like we’d expect a Premier League table to look like.

Everton have made a valiant attempt to keep pace with the top six, without ever really making any of us think they would finish higher than any of those six, let alone three of them, which they’d need to do to qualify for the Champions League.

If we ignore Everton for a second, the gap between Man Utd in sixth place and the rest is 20 points.

And that 20-point gap feels even larger when we remember Jose Mourinho pretty much tossed the league out of the window to concentrate on the Europa League from mid-April.

The six haves and 14 have-nots of the Premier League have returned to their expected positions.

Because of that returned belief that there are only six teams who can occupy the now all-important top four spots let alone win the title, it's natural for fans and the media to emphasise matches between those six, and understandably so.

But as important as that mini-league of fixtures is, it is only ten games each. All six sides have to play 28 of their 38 matches against the rest, and the sheer quantity of those fixtures makes them every bit as important as the games against their title- and top-four rivals.

After all, Liverpool have won that mini-league of ten games against their five main rivals quite comfortably but are 17 points behind Chelsea. If we were in any doubt as to how vital those 28 games against non-top six opponents are, that should spell it out.

Oriol Romeu of Southampton makes a challenge on James Milner of Liverpool

I've enjoyed watching the top six v non-top six battles this season almost as much as the big games between two giants, to a larger extent than I can remember being the case in the past.

I spent some time this week wondering why that has been, and concluded it revolves around the often cat-and-mouse tactical nature of those games.

Managers of non-top six sides will often set up to be hard to beat, not just away but also at home.

They'll ensure their players are well drilled tactically and positionally such that they don’t lose their shape and can't be carved open easily with a "If you want to beat us, you'll have to earn it" mantra.

Time and again I find myself watching these games with the stronger side controlling possession and territory in the first half-hour of a game but struggling to create strong goalscoring chances.

Get through that first 30 minutes and two things can happen. Sometimes the weaker side begin to lose their shape, energy levels drop and gaps start to appear.

But other times things get much tougher for the top side who are expected to win. Their opponents grow in confidence and go on to make their mark on the game, either putting up a real fight in defeat, or going on to take a point or even all three.

My sense from watching those games was that getting to the half-hour mark unscathed seemed important to those 14 sides, to the point where I'd be quite confident many managers see that as the first mini-goal in those matches.

So I took a look at the stats from top six v non-top six matches this season (figures don’t include Thursday's game between Leicester and Tottenham). Here’s what I found:

Led after 30 and won: 13
Didn't lead after 30 but won: 11
Didn't win: 3

Led after 30 and won: 8
Didn't lead after 30 but won: 12
Didn't win: 6

Man City 
Led after 30 and won: 10
Didn't lead after 30 but won: 10
Didn't win: 7

Led after 30 and won: 6
Didn't lead after 30 but won: 10
Didn't win: 11

Led after 30 and won: 6
Didn't lead after 30 but won: 14
Didn't win: 7

Man Utd 
Led after 30 and won: 4
Didn't lead after 30 but won: 11
Didn't win: 12

The results struck me as quite interesting. Of their 27 games this season against non-top six opponents, Chelsea have led after 30 minutes considerably more often than any of their rivals. On 13 of 27 occasions Chelsea have led early and gone on to complete the victory.

It's no wonder these games have often looked more routine for Chelsea than anyone else. They’ve spent far less time searching for the opening goal than any of their rivals, and the match dynamic changes at 1-0. Teams who have set out originally to frustrate have to come out and play more expansively to find an equaliser.

Liverpool and Man Utd have failed to win 11 and 12 of their 27 games against supposedly inferior opponents respectively. It’s fair to suggest their inability to open up teams early in games and take an lead is a big reason for that, being in front after half an hour on just four and six occasions.

Arsenal have fared best in terms of converting non-leads after 30 minutes into wins, doing so on 13 occasions, which is of credit to them and their ability to wear opponents down as games go on. But as in previous seasons they have undone all of that good work by routinely failing in the games against their biggest rivals.

Man City and Tottenham are second and third in the led-after-30-and-won metric, behind Chelsea but well ahead of the other three, and second and third is exactly where those two appear set to finish in the table.

There's no single reason why Chelsea won the title this season but I strongly believe that high on the list is something I've not really heard fans, the media or pundits discuss very much, that being their superior ability, compared to their rivals, to break down stubborn defences early in matches rather than feeling the pressure to do so when time starts to run out.

Something we all hear regularly from those frustrated about their team's inability to break down opponents they feel they should beat is "We don’t have a Plan B".

What I think these numbers prove is that what's most important is not having a Plan B, but having your Plan A work more effectively than anyone else's, and that – among many other things – is what Chelsea have done best this season.

My sense from watching those games was that getting to the half-hour mark unscathed seemed important
E.W. Terms
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