Chelsea’s ‘big’ problem: Too small, too weak – and two short signings instead of Declan Rice

Scott McTominay of Manchester United headers in their 2nd goal against Chelsea
Chelsea concede another headed goal, this time Scott McTominay's winner at Old Trafford on Wednesday

Chelsea will enter the land of the giants on Sunday when they visit Goodison Park to face Everton and Mauricio Pochettino has admitted that, in the Premier League, size does indeed matter.

Everton’s squad are, on average, the tallest in the league and are likely to feature at least five outfield players who measure 6ft or over, while Chelsea’s are among the shortest and have conceded headed goals in each of their last four games.

It should not be a surprise that while Everton have not conceded a single headed goal this season, six of the league goals Chelsea have let in have been from headers – the latest of which came from Manchester United midfielder Scott McTominay in their win over the London side at Old Trafford on Wednesday night.

McTominay would have scored twice with his head had it not been for a good save from goalkeeper Robert Sanchez and it is not hard to identify where Everton manager Sean Dyche, who was a spectator at Old Trafford, will try to gain an advantage at the weekend.

Before McTominay, Brighton’s Joao Pedro, Newcastle United defender Jamaal Lascelles, Manchester City’s Manuel Akanji, Brentford’s Ethan Pinnock and West Ham United’s Nayef Aguerd had all netted with their heads against Chelsea this season. Everton’s 6ft 2in striker Dominic Calvert-Lewin will be licking his lips.

Asked if the difference in size of the two squads is a problem for Chelsea on Sunday, Pochettino replied: “It can be a problem, yes. We need to be more aggressive and try to avoid conceding chances like corners or wide free-kicks. We need to be clever in the way we are going to work and try to stop them.

“In football, it’s the way you approach the game, the attitude and then being clever, trying to avoid giving the possibility to the opponents to use their strengths.”

Chelsea opted against trying to sign 6ft, 1in Declan Rice, who has proved effective in both boxes with his head, in favour of paying £115 million for Moises Caicedo to partner Enzo Fernandez in the centre of midfield.

Caicedo and Fernandez are both listed on Chelsea’s official website as measuring 5ft, 10in, while Conor Gallagher is only an inch taller, meaning Pochettino’s team often give up an aerial advantage in midfield.

Moises Caicedo in action against Man Utd
Chelsea's £115 million signing Moises Caicedo brings many things to their midfield, but not height - Getty Images

Arsenal’s signing of Rice was part of a conscious effort from head coach Mikel Arteta to increase the height of his squad and a tall and powerful spine is a feature of the Gunners, Manchester City and Liverpool squads.

Acknowledging that size is important when signing players, Pochettino said: “Yes of course when you create a team and build a team, yes you need to, in the Premier League, pay attention to this [the size of players]. It’s not that we will defend better if we have taller players, but I think the balance is important.”

Only Sheffield United, Brentford and Luton Town have conceded more headed goals than Chelsea this season and all of the four goals Pochettino’s side have conceded from set-pieces have been headers.

Identifying the problem is the easy part, while solving it is not so straightforward. Levi Colwill has won most aerial duels for Chelsea this season, but it was the England defender who was beaten to the high ball by McTominay at Old Trafford.

Colwill’s ability in the air and the vertically challenged nature of Chelsea’s squad may explain why he has often been used at left-back by Pochettino, who started with four centre-backs across his defence against Brighton.

When Pedro scored with his header in stoppage time, Chelsea had Colwill, Axel Disasi, Benoit Badiashile and Thiago Silva all on the pitch, which would have been a frustration for Pochettino, who was angry with the nature of McTominay’s goal.

“We need to improve,” said Pochettino. “Conceding in this way, maybe I am not showing too much emotion, but I am really upset. We need to work much, much better in these situations.

“It is both organisation and desire. For me, we need to stop the crosses. Because after if it is ‘Oh it’s not my problem because the opponent crossed’ then for the defensive line it is so difficult to defend these type of situations.”

The numbers suggest Caicedo and Fernandez prefer to duck out

Chelsea cannot be solely reliant on their defenders when trying to stop high balls into their box. Caicedo and Fernandez were standing somewhere around the edge of the penalty area when McTominay headed his goal in midweek.

Both of Chelsea’s £100million-plus midfielders have won more than half their aerial duels this season, but, combined, they have competed for nine fewer high balls than Rice has on his own. Where Rice puts his head where it hurts, the numbers would suggest that Caicedo and Fernandez prefer to duck out, along with many other members of Chelsea’s team.

Chelsea’s attacking trio of Raheem Sterling, Mykhailo Mudryk and Cole Palmer, despite being 6ft, 2in, have offered next to nothing in the air, competing for a combined 17 high balls, with striker Nicolas Jackson only managing a 38.2 per cent success rate from his 34 aerial duels.

Pochettino was unaware that Everton are yet to concede a headed goal in the league this season, but said: “No, not yet? I hope that we can [score with a header]. We are going to try.”