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Football Manager 2023: A new era at Stamford Bridge

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This piece originally featured on our sister site, chelseafcanalysis.com

The wait is over! Football Manager 2023 is finally out. Now two weeks into the game, players are well into their main saves. While I began a Manchester United save last week on manunitedanalysis.com, I will also be running a save with Chelsea parallel to it. Both clubs find themselves in distinct situations, but the objective is essentially the same. As with Man United, we will be looking to dominate England and consequently Europe. The road to glory, however, is much different.

Despite having won the UEFA Champions League in 2020/21, since Manchester City and Liverpool’s ascension to the top, Chelsea have struggled to consistently compete for the highest honours in England. Although they saw a tremendous increase in quality under Thomas Tuchel, this consistency quickly disappeared as the German manager was sacked early into this season. Similarly, after Roman Abramovich’s departure, there has a complete change in regime under new owner Todd Boehly.

To summarise, Chelsea’s recent years can be simply characterised as turbulent. With inconsistent projects from top to bottom, Stamford Bridge has struggled to find glory. In FM23, we aim to put an end to this. This will be a long project, as although there is quality in Chelsea’s squad, the age profile is far from ideal. In this save, we will attempt to rejuvenate Stamford Bridge with young and talented players.

Through this strategic rebuild, we will look to climb to the top of European football. First, we must constantly challenge every domestic competition. Once regular success is found on a domestic level, we will be constantly looking to challenge for the UEFA Champions League. Essentially, this save looks to combine Real Madrid’s continental success with Man City’s recent dominance in England.

We first begin with the preseason. In this first article of the series, we will cover everything that happened in preseason, from tactical developments to transfer activity. As we embark on this journey, this first preseason is crucial in getting off to a good start. Without further to do, let’s check out how it went.

Transfer activity

This first transfer window was on the quieter side, at least in the game. Obviously, in real life, the Blues signed expensive players such as Marc Cucurella, Kalidou Koulibaly, Raheem Sterling, and Wesley Fofana. Additionally, players like Denis Zakaria and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang also arrived at Stamford Bridge to strengthen Chelsea’s squad. Finally, young and promising players such as Cesare Casadei and Carney Chukwuemeka were signed with the future in mind.

Needless to say, Chelsea had a very active transfer window in real life. It is no surprise the Blues begin the game with a negative financial balance and a very small transfer budget. There was not much to work with, and not many areas to address in the squad either. Except for one. As I began developing my tactical plans, I often found myself leaning towards formations with three at the back. However, the Blues did not have a left-footed centre-backs in the senior team. Consequently, my only priority in this first transfer window was signing a left-footed defender.

With only around £13.5M to work with, I opted towards finding a young and promising player. After shortlisting and scouting a few targets, I made a move for Sporting Lisbon’s José Marsà. I was able to sign the 20-year-old defender for just £9.5M, a figure which may eventually rise to £11.75M. Nonetheless, considering Marsà’s current and potential ability, this will definitely prove to be a bargain.

After rising out of Barcelona’s La Masia, José Marsà has been at Sporting for just over a year. The youngster only has six appearances for the Portuguese side in real life, but in the game, he looks like an absolute gem. At just 20 years old, he has great technical ratings all around, with an incredible ball-playing ability for a centre-back. Additionally, mentally and physically, he has wonderful ratings to build from. His positional versatility will also prove key to my flexible tactical plans, as we will see later. Overall, Marsà fits us like a glove, and with time, he could certainly transform into a world-class centre-back.

As far as departures, no one left permanently. I immediately came to the conclusion that Ruben Loftus-Cheek would not be a part of my plans and tried to move him on. However, after numerous attempts, no one came forward to sign the English midfielder. The only resort was to loan him out, and after some offers came through, Man City were the ones to sign him. Decent revenue will be made there until the 26-year-old’s contract expires.

Another two players left on loan, but contrary to Loftus-Cheek, they are certainly a part of my plans. The first Cesare Casadei, a 19-year-old who joined from Inter in the summer. The Italian is not quite ready to perform for the first team, so rather than keeping him at the club, I decided to loan him out to Championship side Cardiff City. At the end of the season, we will have a hard look at his performances at Cardiff and decide what to do with him the following season. At any rate, I certainly expect the Italian to be in the first team after two or three years.

The other loan departure followed a similar strategy. Carney Chukwuemeka joined Chelsea from Aston Villa over the summer for a fee north of £15M. The investment is definitely justified as the 18-year-old has tremendous potential. However, the technical midfielder is not quite ready for the Premier League. Similar to Casadei, Chukwuemeka went to the Championship for regular football at Burnley. Slightly younger, it may take a little more time than Casadei for Chukwuemeka to perform for the first team. As seen with Conor Gallagher and Armando Broja in real life, loaning out youngsters until they are ready for the first team is certainly a viable strategy.

The experience matrix is a new tool in FM23, and it can be useful to analyse the age profile of your squad. With Chelsea, this matrix highlights a problem on the horizon. A significant part of the squad is under the Peak section as they reach the end of their respective careers, or at least their peak years. As the years go by, rejuvenating the squad and maintaining a balance between youth and experience will dictate our transfer activity. While there was not much room to work with in this first window, as contracts expire and seasons go by, this will be a priority.

Tactical plans

Tactically, there was a lot going on. With this current Chelsea squad, there is a lot of room for adaptation and flexibility. Rather than adopting a formation and building around it, as I did with Manchester United, I decided to go for a more versatile approach. The instructions throughout the four phases are rather consistent, with minimal tweaks here and there. Essentially, I want to play slightly more vertical and expansive football. With an attacking mind, I want players running into space and driving forward. This is a direct result of the type of players at my disposal.

The shape I found the most success with throughout the preseason was a 3-4-3. In this shape, we look to build through and overload the wide channels. Of course, little tweaks will be made depending on the level of the opposition. At any rate, this is what we are going for.

The two wide centre-backs are set as wide-centre-backs on attack. Out wide, both wing-backs are set on automatic while the wingers are inside-forwards on support and attack. Normally, Hakim Ziyech would be on the right wing with a more creative capacity. However, due to an injury against Barcelona in the preseason, the Moroccan is out for a few months. Centrally, one of the midfielders is set as a ball-winning midfielder on defend while the other is a central midfielder on support. If I select Jorginho, the CM role could change to a deep-lying playmaker on support.

The second variation shies away from such a wide-focused shape. The midfield two now becomes a midfield trio, and without wingers, there is now a centre-forward partnership up top. The roles can be seen below, but they essentially follow a similar balance to the previous shape. As there are currently not many wingers in the squad, this formation provides a useful alternative should injuries or suspensions play a role.

The final variation combines the best of both worlds, but now with a line of four at the back. This 4-3-3 is slightly asymmetric in its roles, again due to the characteristics of the players. On the left, Sterling is an inverted winger on attack while Cucurella is set as a fullback on attack. While I am still looking for overlaps on the wide channel, since Sterling will begin wider, they are not as significant. On the right, Ziyech is normally the winger as an inside forward on support. This will naturally see him drift inside more, and as a consequence, Reece James is set as a wing-back on attack.

The keywords here are adaptability and flexibility. Although the principles throughout the four phases are more or less the same, the structure is constantly changing. This Chelsea squad is incredibly versatile, and with these tactical plans, I aim to make the most of it. Additionally, opposition scouting will be crucial as I will be constantly looking to exploit and adapt to the opposition’s structure.

Results

Now that the direction we are heading in is clear, we are able to have a look at our results in the preseason. Preseason results do not hold much importance, however, losing games is far from ideal as it can have many negative effects. Our first preseason was inconsistent in results but consistent in performances. Of the six matches played, we won three, drew one, and lost two.

In our first match against Watford, we had an xG of 3.13 compared to their 0.41 xG. Additionally, the Hornets only had one shot on target compared to our nine. In total, we had 25 shots. Our ability to dominate and create chances was perfect, but unfortunately, we got FM’d.

After two solid results, our match against Sturm Graz was a four-goal fest where some clear defensive problems were exposed. Four days later, we lost to Premier League rivals Aston Villa after a completely ineffective performance all around. This match was a wake-up call, and further tweaks to the tactical systems were made. The last friendly was against none other than Barcelona, and after two poor results, we needed something.

We were able to defeat Barcelona with a 2-1 victory, but it was a game of two halves. We began the game in our 3-5-2 shape. The first half was extremely balanced, with both teams creating around 0.50 xG each. At any rate, we struggled to create with success, and at half-time, I completely changed my approach. We switched to a 3-4-3 and introduced wide players like Ziyech and Sterling. With our 3-4-3, we looked to exploit the wide areas which proved extremely successful. We were able to create almost 2.00 xG and climb back to victory. Debutant José Marsà also had an extremely exciting performance off the bench and assisted one of Sterling’s goals.

Season objectives

As we begin our FM23 save with Chelsea, we had an extremely productive preseason. From developing and refining our tactical systems to planning the squad, we have certainly got off to a good start in Stamford Bridge. With our first match against Crystal Palace on the horizon, it is time to get serious in the Premier League.

Domestically, we have big ambitions in this first season. In the Premier League, we will be looking to comfortably finish in the top four, with maybe a title challenge if possible. In the cups, reaching the semi-final in both competitions is expected. Finally, in the UEFA Champions League, the board expects us to reach the semi-final as well.

The expectations are extremely high heading into this first season with Chelsea, but as we aim to lead the Blues to the elite of world football, the standards must be kept high from the jump. There is a lot of work to get done, and it is time to get our hands dirty!

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