“Football is Back, The Premier League is back!”
I assume many of you were as excited to hear or see those words as I was. Typically those words appear in early August and signal the start of a new Premier League season, and thanks to the 5 hour time difference between London and Florida, the end of my ability to sleep in on the weekends. But this wasn’t August, this was late May, the time of year that the season is typically coming to an end, and my ability to sleep as late as I want on Saturday morning returns.
Once I began to get past the initial excitement of having football back, I began to remember just how much of a rollercoaster ride the season had been before being so abruptly cut off, and the battle that Chelsea were in to hold on to the coveted Top-4 position they had occupied for so long. My attention turned from the incessant, and at times absolutely ludicrous, transfer rumors that had tried to fill the football void for the last 2 months, back to actual football. It didn’t take long to realize that Chelsea were looking at 9 matches that could carry the weight of the season, completely overriding the previous 29 matches. This mini-season that was on the horizon could either justify or destroy their position in 4th place, and determine their place in next seasons Champions League.
So what has to happen for Chelsea to ensure they finish this 9 game mini-season where, or better then where, they start it?
One thing that the early return of the German Bundesliga has shown is that fitness levels will be crucial factors in how games play out for the remainder of the season. Like my weekend sleep schedule, Premier League footballers are somewhat conditioned to a calendar that begins with pre-season in July, and winds down at the end of the season in May, leading into the summer holiday or summer International schedules. However, an abrupt and unexpected 2 month break, at a time when their year should have been coming to an end, will have wreaked havoc with even the fittest players. The at home training routines the players were given are certainly better then the “Netflix and whatever is still in the kitchen” routines that many adopted over quarantine, but even the best individual fitness and training plans cannot simulate Premier League match fitness levels. How quickly Chelsea are able to get back to their match fitness levels, both through training and likely through the first few games of the re-start, could have a major impact on how their season finishes.
One of the biggest talking points of the pre-lockdown season, was the form, and frankly inconsistency of Kepa Arrizabalaga in goal for Chelsea. Extremely alarming statistics and an extended spell on the bench fueled the narrative that Frank Lampard did not believe Kepa was the goalkeeper to lead his team where he wanted to take them. However, two impressive performances in the two games prior to lockdown, shutouts against Liverpool in the FA Cup and Everton in the league, provided renewed hope that Kepa might be able to be the goalkeeper Chelsea need to assure them a Top-4 finish.
The question remains, which Kepa are Chelsea going to get post re-start? The error prone, negative xGA Kepa that we saw until his benching, or the triple save, back to back shut-out Kepa that we saw just before the shutdown? The answer to that question will go a long way to determining Chelsea’s final position in the 19/20 PL table.
3) Tammy Abraham
There may not have been a player who started the league better then Tammy Abraham, scoring two braces and a hat-trick in his first 5 PL matches. However, eventually injuries and a drop in form began to catch up to Abraham, keeping him to only 2 goals after the first week of December. His extended period on the sidelines allowed Olivier Giroud to return to the first XI and put in some impressive performances of his own. Abraham was on the comeback trail prior to the stoppage, and Frank Lampard would have had some big choices to make had the season continued as planned. Post shutdown, and with Abraham now back healthy, it is expected that he will replace Giroud and lead the line for Chelsea as the main man up front. For Chelsea to finish the season strongly, they will need early season Abraham back firing the goals in for fun. Of course those around him will be expected to create the chances for him, and add goals of their own when they can, but the main responsibility will be back on the shoulders of Abraham, just where he likes it.
Maybe Chelsea’s biggest issue pre-shutdown was their consistency, or lack thereof. Not helped in the least by the quite impressive injury list that Frank Lampard seemed to have to deal with every week, Chelsea’s form was far too inconsistent over the first 29 matches. From the highs of an early season 7 match win streak, dominating Spurs (twice), beating Arsenal at the Emirates, and advancing to the Quarterfinals of the FA Cup; to the lows of losing to Manchester United 3 times, being shut out at home by West Ham, Newcastle, Southampton, and Bournemouth, and being played off the park by Bayern Munich, Chelsea have pretty much covered it all this season. However, Chelsea face a difficult run-in, with key games against Manchester City, Sheffield United, Wolves, and Liverpool still to come. Chelsea will have to find consistency, and fast, and they certainly cannot afford to drop points against the sides they will be expected to beat in Norwich, West Ham, Watford, Palace, and Villa.
When you also consider the complication that you will be playing games every 3 days for 5 straight weeks in order to finish the season, you realize that Frank Lampard may be forced to rotate the squad more than would have been expected should things have gone to their normal plan. Add that onto the new “9 players on the bench, 5 substitutions” rule that was announced this week, and Chelsea’s depth and quality in depth, will be tested. The more consistency that the squad can find, not just 1-11, but throughout the entire 20+ man squad we will likely see utilized, the better Chelsea’s season will finish.
There are a lot of unknowns in walking into this 9 game sprint to the finish for Chelsea, but it absolutely promises to be a fun ride.