Chelsea’s season has been one defined by unpredictability.
If the last four games have demonstrated anything, it is how erratic Frank Lampard’s Blues can (and have) been over the last seven months. Tuesday night’s victory over Liverpool in the FA Cup proved this theory further, as days removed from a frantic afternoon on the South Coast at The Vitality, Chelsea stood up to the Premier Champions-elect, (A.K.A the Unequivocal Greatest Team Ever to Walk onto a Football Pitch and Kick a Ball For Ninety Minutes) and put in one of their most complete performances of the season.
The defensive fragility of Chelsea has cost them dearly this season, lost them valuable leads and made supporters heart rates fluctuate as frequently as the English weather. However, following the 31st minute, the hosts kept Jurgen Klopp’s rampant Reds at bay restricting any shots at Kepa Arrizabalaga’s goal. This was a night of defensive resilience which would have put a massive smile across the face of Frank Lampard, who despite all of his frustrations with a lack of clinical edge, will know how valuable a clean sheet is in the current climate.
Whilst simulatonsely looking sharp at the back, Chelsea looked equally sharp moving forward.
Lampard demands his attacking players are direct and have to confidence to get into dangerous positions, and that is what they did brilliantly.
Late runs into the box, penetrating the gaps between Joe Gomez and Virgil van Dijk which Watford exploited heavily at the weekend. Aggressively hounding Liverpool’s midfield into mistakes and then accelerating with speed down the pitch. This was the expressive and pace-filled Chelsea that enthralled so many in the early months of the season.
A harsh winter has curbed some of that energy and vibrant play, but it is about time it returns as we reach the climatic months of Lampard’s first season.
Chelsea went out to press Liverpool high and that’s exactly what they did. The opening goal executed Lampard’s plan to perfection as Olivier Giroud, Marcus Alonso, Pedro and Ross Barkley all pressured the visitors following a quick goal-kick by Adrian. Fabinho bowed to the press as his weak pass found another blue shirt in Willian, whose fierce strike was too hot the handle for the Spaniard in goal.
Many questions have arisen as to what Chelsea’s Head Coach Plan A is, but as earlier matches in the season proved, it is clear a high press will feature heavily moving forward – it is the challenge of maintaining that level of energy more consistently. Lampard speaks consistently of his desire for flexibility, but it is undeniable the most exhilarating occasions have arisen thanks to high pressing.
Apart from tactics and philosophy, standout individual performances were as crucial to inflicting a second defeat in four days to Liverpool.
Billy Gilmour was the standout on a night which firmly introduced the teenager to the football world. His elegance on the ball was a joy to witness, gliding across the Stamford Bridge turf like an experienced veteran making his 200th appearance. This was only the Scot’s eighth for Chelsea and only his third senior start.
A combination of flair and fire helped to win the midfield battle, being the metronome to play and connecting well with all of his teammates. Nothing seemed to phase the 18-year-old. Sadio Mane breathing down his neck whilst defending his own box – no problem. The stature and physicality of Fabinho trying to bring him down – easy. Nutmegging the Brazilian and calmly slotting Giroud through.
“What an incredible performance from a young player against the best team…people might look at him and see he’s quite slight (but) he’s huge in personality.” Frank Lampard glowing appraisal after the game perfectly encapsulated the youngsters big night in one sentence.
Ross Barkley too – a player who is prone to equal brilliance and error – shone under the lights and took the moment to score his best goal in a difficult career in West London. Driving from his own into the opponents and blasting a shot almost breaking the net epitomised a younger Barkley which attracted interest and praise.
A Barkley we have not seen enough at Chelsea – replaced by an over-thinker who appears to lack the confidence to make definitive decisions on the pitch. This though, was his most definitive in Blue.
The third best performer was the returning Arrizabalaga in goal whose focus and drive put all on notice that the Spaniard is not going to allow his Chelsea career to die without a fight. In reference to Kepa, Lampard spoke pre-match about how every player is in “control of their destiny” and it felt those words rung loudest in the 25-year-old’s ears after weeks of toying on the sidelines.
Denying Sadio Mane twice and the highlight of a triple save which ended with him pumping his fist emphatically in a burst of raw emotion.
Not only can this be a sign of smart man-management by Lampard to take Kepa out of the firing line when needed, challenging him to refocus. It is also a testament to the character of Arrizabalaga, who looked like a man on a mission to prove his harshest critics wrong.
The stats – which have not been kind to Chelsea’s No.1 this season – showed that the five saves he made against Liverpool were more that he’s made in any of his 24 Premier League games this season.
It is hard to know if Tuesday night’s victory will transform Chelsea’s fortunes moving forward –there is a sense this squad plays with more freedom on the biggest of occasions, whilst looking restricted and nullified when faced with inferior opposition.
The second to this Merseyside double on Sunday at home to Everton in the Premier League will only truly tell us if this night will be looked back upon as one where Lampard’s Blues rediscovered their mojo – but it will sure be an evening that speaks to where Chelsea can go under Lampard’s vision if fully backed.