It’s the 26th of October, 2019. Chelsea have played under a new manager for over three-and-a-half months. His name? Frank Lampard, and he is Chelsea’s all-time, top goalscorer and legend for both club and country.
Lampard took over in June 2019 from Maurizio Sarri, who left the club a couple of weeks prior for Juventus. His style of play is simple: the players need to be smart and have quick movement to create spaces; to get inside the box; to take control of the game (possession and pressure wise); and to be professional, committed and enthusiastic.
However, the Chelsea legend was faced with the difficult task of achieving UCL qualification by the end of the 2019/20 season, without signing players due to the Transfer Ban imposed by FIFA. While he reiterated his commitment to achieving the goals, fans were more accepting to not finishing in the top four by the end of the season, let alone qualifying for European competitions.
Fast forward to right after the Burnley away game, (which saw Chelsea win 4-2) and the Blues found themselves fourth in the Premier League, with 20 out of a total of 30 points (6W, 2D, 2L). That was five points behind league leaders Liverpool (who had a game in hand), two points behind the current Champions, Manchester City, and level on points with third place Leicester City. However, Chelsea’s goal difference (7) was staggeringly low compared to the others in the top four– Liverpool at 14, Man City at 23, Leicester at 17. The Blues were also on a seven-game winning streak in all competitions (four wins in the Premier League, two in the Champions League, one in the Carabao Cup)
So what on earth happened to Chelsea after the Burnley away game? How did they lose so much momentum in the Premier League?
Let’s start off by looking at the results since our 4-2 win against the Clarets, then analyze the team selection and tactics compared to the games prior.
The main thing we notice is that Chelsea have struggled with achieving consistent wins in all competitions. Back in January I decided to have a look at our win percentage between the Burnley away and home games, and I was shocked to see how inconsistent our performances have been: a 43.75% win percentage in all competitions (7W, 3D, 6L in those 16 fixtures).
If you add on top of that the games we’ve already played since Nottingham Forest at home (excluding the Man United game), that win percentage has decreased to 40.91% (2W, 2D, 2L in the following 6 fixtures).
Now if we were to focus only on the Premier League, things get worse for the Blues: Chelsea have gained 18 out of a total of 48 points in 16 matches (6W, 3D, 7L) – that’s a 37.5% win percentage since Burnley away.
Because of this, Chelsea are still in fourth place with 41 out of a total of 78 points in 26 matches (12W, 5D, 9L). That’s 25 points behind league leaders Liverpool (25W, 1D, 0L), 10 points behind the current Champions Manchester City (16W, 3D, 6L), and nine points behind third place Leicester City (15W, 5D, 6L). Again, the Blues’ goal difference (7) is staggeringly low compared to the others in the top four– Liverpool at 46, Man City at 36, Leicester at 28.
So what do these results show? They show that Chelsea have struggled to win games and to win convincingly, both on a consistent basis.
Now it’s time we start analysing the team selection and the tactical changes imposed on players. This will lend and understanding of where it all went wrong.
TEAM SELECTION & TACTICS
The first main difference started when Frank Lampard first arrived, but became more apparent after Burnley away: Kepa Arrizabalaga. Last season the Spanish goalkeeper signed for the Blues from Athletic Bilbao for £72m, a record amount spent on a goalkeeper. His debut season was solid, with 14 clean sheets under his belt, third behind Ederson (20) and Alisson (21). Many Chelsea fans were surprised with his shot-stopping acrobatics, that kept the Blues in the game countless times. Back then, Chelsea had two goalkeeping coaches: Massimo Nenci (head) and Henrique Hilário (assistant). Following the departure of Maurizio Sarri and Massimo Nenci to Juventus, (and the arrival of Frank Lampard to Chelsea) Hilário was promoted to Head Goalkeeping Coach. Unfortunately for the Portuguese coach, Kepa’s performances have taken a hit: he’s been rather shaky in games, and unfortunately seen a fair amount of bad luck. His shot-stopping acrobatics are not as visible as they used to be. Despite rumours from the Daily Mirror stating Kepa’s poor form is due to his breakup with his long-term girlfriend, the Spaniard’s poor performances started well before Burnley away. This can only mean one thing: Henrique Hilário, a man with no pedigree as a goalkeeper, and trusted by the club to carry on Massimo Nenci’s work, may be at fault for the Spaniard’s poor form. Not only that, I find it quite ironic how Petr Cech, a Chelsea goalkeeper legend, was deemed more suitable as the club’s technical director instead of Head Goalkeeper Coach.
However, that isn’t the only problem Chelsea have. Indeed, Frank Lampard has struggled to pick a first choice centre-back (CB) pairing, especially after constantly rotating the backline this season. He’s used ten different CB partnerships, with Christensen starting in 13 games, Rüdiger in 11 games, Tomori in 14 games, and Zouma in 18 games (plus three from the bench). While injuries may have played a small part, Chelsea have been constantly rotating for more than five months now, and our best CB partnership prior to Burnley away was Tomori-Zouma. With every centre-back fit, it’s time for Lampard to pick a consistent CB pairing. So let’s go over each player one by one.
Andreas Christensen has been given ample opportunities to prove himself, but hasn’t been able to maintain a regular starting spot. He started the season alongside Kurt Zouma, before losing his spot to Fikayo Tomori after the September international break. He then returned to the Main Squad for Aston Villa home, but was dropped again following the return of Antonio Rüdiger. He returned in 2020 for Burnley home but he hasn’t been convincing. While the Dane is technically better than his counterparts, especially with his long range passing, his lack of physicality and speed to take on the opposition forwards (especially in 1v1 situations) led to him being dropped.
Antonio Rüdiger was Chelsea’s best and most talented defender last season, especially with his aerial duels, pace, and his physicality. However, he has barely featured for the club due to injuries: he suffered a knee injury against Man United in April 2019 which required surgery; he returned against Wolves in September, but again suffered a groin injury. He returned to full fitness against Lille in December, and since then he hasn’t missed a single Premier League match. This clearly shows that Frank values him as a player, and given his abilities and his impressive performance against Leicester, it’s hard not to see why.
Fikayo Tomori stepped up to the plate when opportunity presented itself in September so much that he developed into Chelsea’s best CB in Rüdiger’s absence. However, lapses in concentration against Man City and West Ham saw him dropped to the bench for Aston Villa and Everton, before being injured for the following two games prior to Spurs away. He was then played in a back three versus Spurs, but was dropped again to the backup role following his poor performances against Southampton and Arsenal. This is likely why he has only played in the FA Cup in 2020.
Kurt Zouma impressed at Everton last season, especially given his injury back in 2015/16 which made him lose several yards of pace. This season, he’s started the most out of the CBs and has impressed in September and October. However, he has struggled to perform in key moments for the Blues after Burnley away, largely due to his pace. Those poor performances were overshadowed by Tomori’s in November and then Christensen’s in December. However, following the return of Antonio Rüdiger, Lampard started to realise how much Zouma was struggling, and so he was dropped after Brighton away.
It’s clear that while Fikayo Tomori has been Chelsea’s best CB in Antonio Rüdiger’s absence, the German has also stepped up his performances following his return from injury. Therefore, it’s time that Frank Lampard gives Tomori a chance alongside Rudiger, as they are Chelsea’s best defenders.
Then, there lies the issues of finding the right full-back (FB) pairing, which have been constantly rotating as well. Unlike the CB partnerships, there have been four full-back/wing-back partnerships, with Alonso starting in six games (plus two from the bench), Emerson in 13 games (plus one), Reece James in eight games (plus five) and Azpilicueta in 23 games. Chelsea have been constantly rotating for more than five months now, so it’s time we figured out what our best FB partnership is.
Marcos Alonso is an odd player to mention as a FB. He was signed in summer 2016 as a left-midfielder and over the following two seasons he has been shifted to the left-back (LB) position. I’ve been an outspoken critic of Marcos Alonso throughout this and last season, especially because he behaves more like a winger and his pace and stamina are very questionable. However, while his defending is at a mild level, his passing and offensive contributions are exactly what we’ve been missing these past few weeks, and I was shocked to see that his absence kickstarted our poor form.
Emerson Palmieri has struggled over these past few months. He started the season quite well, but his hamstring injury during the September International Break kept him out for a month. Since then he hasn’t been the same.
Reece James has really made a name for himself this season. After a successful loan spell at Wigan, he returned with an ankle injury which kept him out until the end of the September International Break. He started his first game against Grimsby Town and became a backup option until the Ajax home game. He came of the bench at half-time, and his incredible performance earned him a regular starting spot at right-back (forcing Azpilicueta to LB to play more regularly). Despite team performances and the odd blip, he’s been crucial for the Blues with his crossing abilities. If only he could telepathically connect with Tammy… the amount of goals we would have scored by now would be breath-taking.
Cesar Azpilicueta, Chelsea’s captain, has been a tough player to judge. On the one hand, his defensive skills are so crucially important. On the other, his offensive skills are not as effective as they used to be. He started the season at right-back (RB), but then he was shifted to LB as Reece James was performing quite well and the Blues didn’t have a natural LB performing to Lampard’s expectations. The England manager hoped that the 30-year-old defender would do better in that position. But, the Spaniard has struggled even more in the offense, especially while having to cross with a right foot and struggling to beat the first man.
Therefore, it’s clear that Reece James has to be our first choice RB. But the real problem lies with who to have on the other side. Because a new attacking LB, with similar attacking output as Reece James and defensive output as Azpilicueta, is not easy to find, we must make do with what we have – especially since we’ll have to wait until the summer for a replacement. Therefore, to solve these problems, Lampard might have to play Marcos Alonso at LB.
Now to move further up the pitch into the midfield positions. While Chelsea have controlled the midfield prior to Burnley away, it is now the most problematic area on the pitch. They seem to have lost balance due to constant rotations in formations: the 4-2-3-1, 4-3-3, and 3-4-3 formations have all been used this season, as well as the 4-2-4 and 4-1-3-2 formations following in-game substitutions. With Frank Lampard favouring a 4-2-3-1 formation, the double pivot is constantly contested by N’Golo Kanté, Mateo Kovacic and Jorginho. Kanté has been a world class ball-winning midfielder, but consistent injuries this season have made it more difficult for him to maintain his World-Class status. Mateo Kovacic has really impressed this season with his box-to-box midfielder abilities, especially by carrying the ball to the forwards and opening up spaces for others to exploit. But his defensive side has been shaky since Man City away in November. Jorginho’s leadership and passing skills have been more evident and influential for the Blues, but his lack of pace has made it hard to cope against fast counterattacks.
Quick side note: N’Golo Kanté came off 12 minutes into the Manchester United game last Monday, and Frank told the press after the game: “It’s an adductor injury” (meaning Kanté has a groin strain). Given the pain the Frenchman was in, either it’s a Grade-two injury (pain, tenderness, weakness, bruising) putting him out for at least 3-6 weeks, or it’s a Grade-three injury (severe muscle tear, bruising, lots of pain) and he’s out for at least 3-4 months. This means that Jorginho and Kovacic will be playing as a double pivot for the next few weeks, though I expect the issues to re-emerge once Kanté is fully fit again.
In a 4-2-3-1 formation, the attacking midfield position has been most often used by Mason Mount. The 21-year old English playmaker had been a favourite of Lampard while on loan at Derby. His direct play to the forwards and goal threat have been very crucial for the Blues prior to Burnley away. However, since then he has lacked dynamism and drive at times, qualities that we used to see in Ruben Loftus-Cheek. Mount’s current backup, Ross Barkley, hasn’t exactly stepped up to the plate when given the opportunity. Therefore, Mount has had much more game time than anticipated due to the absence of Loftus-Cheek, who suffered an injury back in May 2019 following a club friendly with New England Revolution. The 24-year-old all-round midfielder has yet to feature for the Blues this season, but he has started to develop his match fitness a few days ago with appearances in the U23s. However, given past injuries to Callum Hudson-Odoi and Antonio Rüdiger, we might have to wait a couple of months to see the old Loftus-Cheek come back again. But once he is, expect him to jump into the Starting XI and offer the missing creativity. And should that not work, there’s still the creativity of Hakim Ziyech, who will join the Blues in the summer following a £38m transfer agreement with Ajax.
Now onto the forwards, and let us start off with the wingers. Callum Hudson-Odoi is a talented player. The 19-year-old English winger plays with flair and is flexible between either exploiting the wings or cutting inside. He suffered an Achilles tendon rupture in April 2019 against Burnley, which led him to having surgery and being out for more than five months. He returned for the Brighton home game by the end of September 2019 and featured in 25 games this season for the Blues. He was mainly on the bench until the Nottingham Forest game after which his game time drastically increased. However, he did not feature against Manchester United due to a hamstring injury. Christian Pulisic signed for Chelsea in January 2019, from BVB Dortmund for £57m, before being immediately loaned back to the German club until the 2019/20 season. His flair and versatility were revered the moment he was signed, but he does lack a selfish streak which would have helped get his team the win. He’s also suffered an adductor muscle tear on January 3rd in training, but he has come back to train with the U23s five weeks later. Match fitness seems to be the only concern right now for the American. Pedro is 32 and has yet to perform in the Premier League. Willian, at 31, does offer consistent threat from the wings. But his end-product is concerning and explains why the Blues and the Brazilian’s camp have yet to reach a new deal. Current reports suggest both players are definitely on their way out, with Willian leaving for Barcelona.
As for the striker position, Tammy Abraham has performed very well for the Blues prior to Burnley away, and it seemed as though “The No. 9 Curse” would finally be lifted. But since that game he has lacked close support from forward counterparts. This had made his game much more difficult as he is the only player on the shoulders of the last defender, while the wingers are positioned further down the pitch and exploiting the wings. In addition, when Tammy struggles due to poor performances or injury, Lampard is weary to drop him as Michy Batshuayi doesn’t perform when given a chance, and Olivier Giroud doesn’t suit his style of play.
Therefore, Lampard must search for the right player in the summer to solve the problem at hand: either a winger who can get the goals when required (like Jadon Sancho from Borussia Dortmund), or a proven goalscoring striker with European – preferably UCL and in the Top 5 leagues – pedigree (like Timo Werner from RB Leipzig).
So, what really happened? On one hand, there is the lack of balance in defence and central midfield that has caused so many issues in terms of defence, passing and communication. On the other, there is the constant use of the same players in forward positions (due to not having good enough backup options, or even due to current injuries).
And that concludes my article! If you’ve enjoyed it, don’t forget to like and share!
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