Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich has returned to his old ways this season, spending money generously to reinforce the Chelsea squad, which was halted by the transfer embargo of the previous season. Unsurprisingly, Frank Lampard’s team has seen some highs and some lows, so as 2020 draws to a close, here’s a brief overview of their current predicament and the biggest challenge Lampard faces, predominantly in attack.
Frank Lampard’s appointment as Chelsea’s manager split opinions one and a half year ago. While many believe he hadn’t shown enough mettle to merit a high-profile job of Chelsea’s proportions, others pointed out that Chelsea’s then-impending transfer embargo demanded a change in the ways the club conducted its operations.
Very few players embody the legacy of Chelsea’s recent history, none more so than Frank Lampard himself. The 42-year old was brought in to steady the ship – flood in youngsters from the academy and establish a signature style of play reminiscing of his own glory days at the club. With a 4th place finish ensuring Champions League qualification and an appearance in the FA Cup final, it’s safe to say Lampard’s first season went as well as anyone could have hoped.
With the transfer ban lifted ahead of this season, Roman Abramovich returned to spending big to reinforce the squad. With seven major arrivals amounting to £222m, Abramovich returned the proverbial tennis ball to Lampard’s court, demanding him to cut the gap at the top of the League and challenge for silverware.
So far, Chelsea’s season have seen some highs. The Blues are through to the last 16 of the Champions League and some decent, free-flowing football has seen them temporarily sit at the top of the Premier League. However, performances have gotten average of late, as Chelsea’s forwards are going through a rough patch. Here, we take a look at different parts of Chelsea’s squads, most prominently their attack.
THE GOALKEEPING SITUATION
The £72 million Chelsea desperately committed to bring in Kepa Arrizabalaga to replace Thibaut Courtois seems like a massive waste now. After a promising debut season, the Spaniard’s form tanked hard last year, so much so that every time he featured, everyone (including his teammates!) anticipated Kepa to fumble one into his own net.
Chelsea not only went out and bought Senegalese goalkeeper Edouard Mendy, club legend and technical advisor Petr Čech also signed up as an emergency backup goalkeeper, just in case.
Despite a few recent hiccups, Edouard Mendy already looks like a solid upgrade over Kepa. In his first 18 matches for Chelsea, he has kept 10 clean sheets, providing some much-needed confidence to his defence line and manager.
Last season, Chelsea’s defence was crying out for a calming presence; someone who could just ooze class and confidence infectiously around him, so up stepped Thiago Silva. At 36, PSG definitely thought they were waving goodbye to a player long past his best. Even though he is naturally not as agile as he once was, Thiago Silva’s seamless arrival into the Chelsea backline is testament to his legacy as one of the finest centre backs of modern football. After a shockingly disastrous debut again West Brom, the Brazilian took no time to establish himself as the leading figure in the team. Despite his age, he has proved he has more than enough in the tank to continue playing at this level, as Chelsea have already expressed interest in extending his stay at the club.
Accompanying Silva in Chelsea’s backline are new arrivals Ben Chilwell at left-back and youngster Reece James on the right, who’s not only benefitting from César Azpilicueta’s experience, but also keeping him out of the team. Kurt Zouma has emerged as the first-choice centre back option alongside Thiago Silva, which also helps the Brazilian in communicating with the rest of his back line.
Sorting out the defence has been the biggest plus for Chelsea thus far. With 18 goals conceded in the league, they boast the fourth meanest defence, in a season which has already given some mad results.
Who knew putting N’Golo Kanté in a defensive mid position would be good decision, eh?
While it’s true that the Frenchman has a lot more in his locker than just interceptions, putting attacking and playmaking responsibilities on him really affected his ability to be able to thwart out the opposition under Maurizio Sarri and during Lampard’s debut season. This season, he has once again been tasked to focus on the defensive side of things and that has benefited everyone at Chelsea. He’s also serving as the ideal mentor for the 19-year old Scot Billy Gilmour, who gained a lot of plaudits last year.
Playing alongside Kanté as a shuttler is either Jorginho or Mateo Kovačić; the former being adept at picking out passes and regulating the flow of the game, while the latter is more mobile and a better dribbler, more suited for a quick-passing, counter-attacking setup. For attacking mid, Lampard puts a lot of trust in 21-year old Mason Mount, who blossomed under him during their time at Derby County. While Mount has a lot of room for improvement, his industry and set-piece abilities are unquestionable.
THE ATTACKING CONUNDRUM
Last summer, Chelsea were able to spend big despite the harsh implications of COVID not only because of their transfer embargo from the season before, but also because of the laxed Financial Fair Play regulations, giving them quite a leeway to go sign high-profile players while other big clubs decided to sit the summer out. While that helped them with issues all over the pitch, in attack it created a bit of a discrepancy for Lampard, who doesn’t quite seem to know who his favourite front three are, given he always chooses to line them as such. Let’s take a look at Chelsea’s attacking options, starting from the two new arrivals that have been getting a lot of stick of late – Germans Timo Werner and Kai Havertz.
At 24, Timo Werner is undoubtedly one of the most promising forwards in the world. With the ability to play down the middle and out wide, Werner adds a lot to the Chelsea attack. However, it is to be noted here that Chelsea were able to get Werner only after Jürgen Klopp made it clear to him that not only were Liverpool in no position to pay up front his £47.7m release clause to RB Leipzig, even if they could he could not be guaranteed a starting berth in front of Sadio Mané, Roberto Firmino or Mo Salah, who form arguably one of the deadliest attacking trios in world football right now. I wouldn’t be surprised if few years down the line Werner does go to Liverpool, but for now London is his home. In his first 23 appearances for Chelsea, he has scored 8 goals and made 6 assists.
The Kai Havertz transfer is a personal irritant of mine. Ever since he made his debut for Bayer Leverkusen aged 17, he has been tipped for greatness. Now 21, Havertz moved to Chelsea after making 78 goal contributions for Bayer in 150 games in all competitions (46 goals & 31 assists) for £72 million and a lot of promise. However, with the world at his feet and time on his side, this is not a move Havertz needed. This is not a move Chelsea needed either.
You see, despite his ability to play multiple positions, Havertz is best utilised in an “attacking mid/false 9” scenario – pertaining to positions Chelsea already boast a lot of quality in. For Bayer Leverkusen, no other big clubs were ready to move in for Kai last summer while Chelsea were, and fully aware of the fact that his career would inevitably take him to a “bigger” club, the Eternal Bridesmaids were happy to let him go.
Naturally, when you bring in a player that hyped for a price that high, you are almost forced to get him in the team, what with all the noise (pundits, critics, fans… you get the point) around you. Lampard has tried using Havertz on the right side of his front three, where while he can totally run the show on his best days, he’s unable to do much because these aren’t his best days. Moving countries for career is hard enough, let alone at that age and in a profession as unforgiveable as football, in a time ravaged by an unprecedented global pandemic. Everyone acclimatises at their own pace, and while I usually give players a pass for their debut season in a new club, it’s not a luxury afforded to footballers by everyone. Kai Havertz needs time and a lot of support, and while one can trust Lampard to help a player in that regard, his hands are also tied to a certain degree. Despite a mediocre start, Havertz has 4 goals and 4 assists in 20 appearances for Chelsea, including a hattrick in the Carabao Cup. He’s also had coronavirus, the effects of which he (and many other athletes who have had it) are still reeling from.
With things going slightly awry at Chelsea, it’s understandable how Havertz and Werner offer a soft corner to point fingers at. Both have come with a lot of promise and a lot of money and have also made some glaring mistakes. But both of them are opportunistic signings, making acclimatising them and getting them into the team a different challenge than someone who’d have been a long-term target. Then again, both have shown signs of brilliance in what has only been half a season. As fans we can get very impatient, but no matter how hard it gets, it doesn’t hurt to look at the human aspect every once in a while. Kai Havertz and Timo Werner have illustrious careers ahead of them, which might even see them bloom away from Stamford Bridge, but there’s no doubt they will get better, if given proper time, support, and chances.
Another player that I deem improperly used and not sufficiently regarded in Chelsea’s attack is Olivier Giroud. This 34-year-old late bloomer has been in the Premier League for nearly a decade, scoring 89 goals and assisting a further 28 during his time at Arsenal and Chelsea. He’s a World Cup winner with France, second in their all-time top scorers list by 7 goals behind Thierry Henry, who has been hailed unequivocally as one of the finest strikers to play with by the likes of Eden Hazard, Antoine Griezmann, and Kylian Mbappe because of his positional awareness and acute link-up abilities. Yet, he remains one of the most underappreciated players who hasn’t received the opportunities he deserves. Brought to Chelsea by Antonio Conte in January 2018, Giroud seemed seemingly out of Lampard’s plans last season, before a purple patch in the busy months of December and January saw him getting plaudits and an extended run in the team. This season, oblivion loomed once again for Olivier, but he forced his way back into the team; his best performance coming in a Champions League match away to Sevilla where he scored all four of Chelsea’s goals in their 4-0 win.
Coming back to new arrivals, 27-year-old Moroccan international Hakim Ziyech has been an absolute steal. A precocious attacking midfielder who honed his trade at Ajax, Ziyech was snapped up by Chelsea early last year for just £36 million. Capable of playing both as a winger and a central mid, Ziyech brings in not only experience but creativity. While he has struggled a bit with injuries, he has contributed to 5 goals (2 goals & 3 assists) in 12 appearances so far. Of all the signings, I’d make his success at the club the safest bet.
Completing Chelsea’s attacking options are Christian Pulisic, who arrived in 2019 and steadily got better over last season but has struggled with injuries so far in this one. Academy graduate Tammy Abraham has made himself a very reliable option up front under Lampard (8 goals, 6 assists in 21 apps this season), while fellow academy man Callum Hudson-Odoi, albeit looking electric every time he comes on the pitch, has not looked the same since his surprising transfer to Bayern Munich fell through.
Given Chelsea’s stature, most of the teams they play against would happily allow them to have the ball inviting them to break through their low defensive block, so granting everyone stays fit, based on current performances, for me Chelsea’s best front three should feature Timo Werner, Olivier Giroud and Hakim Ziyech (left to right) in a lop-sided formation that allows Werner a free run across the pitch. When playing against high-pressing teams, Werner’s pace can come in handy down the middle, with either one of Pulisic or Hudson-Odoi occupying the left space. Naturally, immediate results will dictate who gets more playing time, but Chelsea have a lot of really good, creative minds up front, and they need them to get them out of their current slump.
It’s easy at the moment to paint Chelsea’s current performances in a negative way, but when you play in the most cutthroat leagues in the world even the best teams slip up, and more frequently at that. At the time of writing, the top 10 in the league are separated by just seven points, so the perspectives are going to swing every two matchdays. Opportunistic or otherwise, Chelsea have made some brilliant signings this season, with the onus being on Lampard to make the best of them. Roman Abramovich does not hesitate to make quick-fire decisions, making Chelsea a very interesting watch.