This season was supposed to be a write-off for Chelsea, so despite their recent form it’s actually gone much better than expected…
It felt almost routine at Leicester as Chelsea spurned a number of chances in front of goal. Leicester were able to come slowly into the game and it was only two towering headers from Antonio Rudiger that stopped Leicester walking away with all three points. Same old story when it comes to Chelsea.
Over the past couple of weeks, there have been rumblings of discontent about Chelsea’s performances. In the form table for the past five games, they sit 12th having managed only one win in that time period. Their transfer window was a frustrating disappointment with Frank Lampard getting progressively more angsty throughout January as it became clearer that the club would not make any signings. The story of their season has persisted in almost every game they have played: start brightly, create good opportunities, before switching off, conceding and dropping points.
Yet in the summer, there was little expectation. Few predicted they would make the Champions League places with many accepting that the loss of Eden Hazard and the transfer ban would leave them somewhere between fifth and eighth. It was generally concluded that this season would be a write-off. They were a team in transition and that was acceptable.
The lifting of the transfer ban to allow Chelsea to sign players in January opened up the perception that the setbacks they have faced would disappear. Even though Chelsea have been burnt enough times with poor January signings and their two high profile targets in Timo Werner and Jadon Sancho were never going to move during the window, there was a sense that the club must have forked out those legal fees in order to strengthen the squad in some way. Their statement on the lifting of the transfer ban, however, suggested that the club pursued it to make a point as to how they had been mistreated in comparison to Manchester City, as opposed to any burning desire to bring players in in January. Transfer ban or not, they did spend almost £100m on Christian Pulisic and Mateo Kovacic over the summer.
Meanwhile, Chelsea are seen to be both failing in attack and defence. There is a perception that Chelsea’s inability to score goals is costing them this season and whilst they have struggled to break teams down, Tammy Abraham is actually outperforming his own xG, having scored 13 when only expected to score 11.7. During the 2018/19 season when he played at Aston Villa, he averaged 0.57 goals per 90 minutes played (excluding penalties) and has averaged 0.6 goals this season. Not bad for a player who had previously made only 17 Premier League appearances as a 19-year-old with Swansea City. The lack of back-up to Abraham is problematic but finding a player talented enough to make a difference whilst being willing to play second fiddle to the precocious youngster is not an easy task.
Defensively, there seems to be more legitimate concern, in particular around personnel. Kepa Arrizabalaga’s save percentage of 53.4% is the lowest in the whole Premier League which moved Lampard to drop him in favour of Willy Caballero at the weekend. Chelsea missed their most accomplished centre-back, Rudiger, for the start of the season and Lampard has struggled to establish who his preferred partner is. Kurt Zouma offers physicality whilst Andreas Christensen is more natural with the ball at his feet. Fikayo Tomori combines both but his relative inexperience and injuries this season have stopped him from cementing the position. Still, this season was for Lampard to use to see what worked. The different defensive combinations have given him the opportunity to watch players develop the skills which will give the team the strongest foundations.
Part of both the defensive and attacking problems comes from a lingering ‘Sarri-ism’ that hangs over the midfield. Under Maurizio Sarri, there was a determination to fit Jorginho, N’Golo Kante and whichever one of Mateo Kovacic or Ross Barkley was preferred into a lacklustre midfield. Kante was pushed out of the position from which he was been instrumental in two league titles and one World Cup triumph. This attitude has persisted under Lampard who seems to believe he either has to fit them all into his team, or he makes mistakes over which ones should play.
Nowhere was this clearer than in the game at Arsenal where Lampard brought Jorginho on after 34 minutes to stem the tide of Arsenal attacks, ultimately changing the balance of the game in Chelsea’s favour. Yet when it came to the home match and Chelsea pushing for a winner against the ten-man Gunners, Kante was the player pressing the ball, which was about as effective as might be expected. It is a testament to Kante’s tenacity that he has had some impressive performances from more advanced positions – shrugging of Benjamin Mendy for Chelsea’s opening goal against Manchester City or slaloming past Jonny Evans in the Leicester penalty area this weekend – but it is a waste to put him there.
As easy as it is to point out the negative aspects of what is going on at a football club, there is still a lot going right at Stamford Bridge. Chelsea have handed a cumulative 86 starts in the Premier League to players who are 21 and under this season (Tammy Abraham, Mason Mount, Fikayo Tomori, Christian Pulisic, Reece James, Calum Hudson-Odoi). Ruben Loftus-Cheek is soon to return from the achilles injury which has kept him out since May, adding another young attacking threat to the squad. The team have a fifth round FA Cup tie and a Champions League knock-out match to contest, whilst the statistical modelling website FiveThirtyEight give them a 64% chance of qualifying for the Champions League. All of these are distinct positives from a season that was supposed to be forgotten before it had even begun.
Chelsea have arguably been too trigger happy when it comes to getting rid of their managers. Whether the result of disputes with the board or from a run of mediocre results, the club rarely gives anyone the opportunity to develop the team. Their position in the table might be inflated by the struggles of traditional contenders Manchester United, Arsenal or Tottenham, but that means there is no better opportunity for Lampard to mould this squad into a team that could offer a Chelsea a base to build off of for the next decade. This season might not have lived up to the high standards Chelsea are used to but then it was never supposed to.
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