Chelsea are top of the table. Confusingly, though, Chelsea are also bottom of the table. Which, in a way, shows the improvement they have made.
The table is of Premier League goalkeepers and their save percentages. Edouard Mendy is at the summit, at 87.5. Willy Caballero props it up, with a rather ignominious 0.0: the Argentinian faced three shots on target at West Bromwich Albion, conceded to each and has not been seen in the division since. Rather nearer to Caballero, in terms of positions, is Kepa Arrizabalaga, whose 57.1 save percentage is only marginally better than last season’s 54.5 and explains why Mendy was signed.
But it is also a story of three defensive arrivals, in Thiago Silva, Ben Chilwell and Mendy, and the difference they have made. Chelsea have played five league games with at least two of the newcomers starting and conceded one goal. In their other 42 league games under Frank Lampard, they have conceded 63 goals, a ratio of 1.5 per game. By letting in 54 last season, they were breached more often than any top-four finisher since Graham Taylor’s Watford conceded 57 goals in 1982-83.
We explored Chelsea’s defensive issues in greater depth here; the subsequent change is dramatic. After the 3-3 draw against Southampton, which Mendy missed and when Arrizabalaga deputised, they have conceded the fewest goals in the league: just one. In all competitions, Mendy has conceded three goals in 10 games. His Champions League save percentage, of 91.7, is even higher than his Premier League numbers and comparable with Petr Cech’s Premier League seasonal record of 91.3, albeit from far fewer games.
It is not merely the number of saves, but their quality. Go by expected saves and Arrizabalaga has cost Chelsea 1.2 goals and Caballero 1.5 goals this season, whereas Mendy has saved them 1.0. Chelsea’s xGA in matches with Mendy has never been above 0.74 in a game; without him, it has never been below 0.91. Chelsea’s problem without Mendy was not just clear chances: their other goalkeepers conceded to Brighton’s Leandro Trossard, whose shot had an xG of 0.02, Southampton’s Jannik Vestergaard (0.02 with a header) and West Brom’s Callum Robinson (two shots both ranked at 0.07). The only goal he conceded, to Sheffield United’s David McGoldrick, had an xG of 0.57.
Certainly Mendy has added an extra element with his ability to act as a sweeper; he averages 1.0 defensive actions outside his box per match this season to Arrizabalaga’s 0.0 (and 0.64 last season). But it is also notable that Chelsea have only faced eight shots on target (1.6 per game) with Mendy in goal and 11 (2.75 per match) without him; perhaps that means a superior goalkeeper helps a defence defend better.
Silva is definitely a player with an indirect influence, the sort that statistics may not measure. For instance, he actually averages fewer tackles, interceptions and blocks per game than Andreas Christensen. Kurt Zouma is the Chelsea centre-back responsibly for most pressures on opponents; Silva’s 27 clearances puts him second only to Zouma. In some respects, he stands out for what he does not do: he has only committed one foul so far while, and though an error allowed Robinson to score for West Brom, a 94.4 percent pass completion rate means he does not give the ball away and puts him top of the league. His average of 99.8 passes per match makes him a runaway leader – Manchester City’s Rodri is a distant second on 80.5 – and helps Chelsea control matches.
In their different ways, Mendy and Silva have provided a platform for Chilwell to attack. The former Leicester left-back has two goals and arguably forced the own goal from Newcastle’s Federico Fernandez last week. He averages the most crosses per game in the Chelsea squad while only Timo Werner, Tammy Abraham and Mason Mount have had more shots on target. His 2.88 shot creating actions per 90 minutes puts him fifth in the division among defenders. Chilwell also ranks joint third among Lampard’s players for tackles, but while he has helped improve the defensive record, his are the numbers of an attack-minded player.
Sunday’s reunion with Jose Mourinho provides a reminder of the ultimate standard for a Chelsea defence. Mourinho’s 2004-05 champions only conceded 15 times; because of their start under their previous goalkeepers, Lampard’s side have already let in 10. Cech, who recommended Mendy, was only beaten 13 times in 35 league games in 2004-05 and only eight times in his first 27 appearances in the division.
That may be setting an impossibly high bar for Mendy and co but it is worth noting his five league games have all come against sides currently in the bottom 11 while Chelsea face four of the top nine in the next four weeks. If no one will beat their defensive record 16 years ago, that run – and Spurs’ equivalent fixtures with Arsenal, Liverpool and Leicester – should reveal if Lampard or Mourinho has constructed the more frugal rearguard now.