“The gaffer said that the first-half was simply not good enough to wear the Chelsea badge. We needed to fix up.”
The words of match winner Ross Barkley summarised the dissatisfaction of Frank Lampard following Chelsea’s poor first half display which the 42-year-old Head Coach labelled “the worst” since taking over nearly 12 months ago following the FA Cup Quarter-Final victory over Leicester City.
Although his words were harsh, they were required. Chelsea had looked sluggish and disconnected throughout the opening period. Stray balls, lack of incisive movement and space for the Foxes to run into could have seen the tie out of sight by half-time. Lampard rotated heavily for the afternoon, making six alterations to the eleven that so impressively beat Manchester City on Thursday evening.
Willy Caballero, Reece James, Kurt Zouma, Emerson, Billy Gilmour and Tammy Abraham all made their first starts since the restart.
Although there naturally could be leeway given for the fact football had just taken an unprecedented three-month hiatus due to a global pandemic, the drop in standards by some in the changed white strip was concerning.
In Lampard’s bold move to make three changes at half-time, James, Mason Mount and Gilmour all made way for the older heads of Captain Cesar Azpilicueta, Mateo Kovacic and Barkley – who went on to net the decisive winner.
All three had failed to impress and add the dynamism needed to get Chelsea into the game. Mount had started and performed well against both Aston Villa and Manchester City, whilst for Gilmour and James their first minutes back were poor for different reasons.
Three months ago, 19-year-old Gilmour was basking in vast praise he received following two standout performances against Liverpool and Everton in which the starlet looked mature, decisive and calm in everything he did. Yesterday, he was the complete opposite. Under 20 seconds after kick off, the Scotsman had gifted the ball cheaply to Harvey Barnes to start a quick Leicester attack. Sadly, it didn’t get much better for the midfielder from there.
The hosts fierce press on Chelsea shirts swarmed over Gilmour and he could not cope.
Several times either being disposed swiftly or more concerning playing several stray balls across the park to an opponent, which could have led to a Leicester goal on another day. Gilmour looked his age and months after nutmegging Fabinho at the Bridge, this was a rude awakening to the intensity of playing in Chelsea’s midfield consistently.
There were many murmurs after Gilmour’s displays in March that the regularly favoured Jorginho should be quickly shunned for the youngster, though as the second half proved with Kovacic’s influence, the intelligence of older heads to deal with an intense press still is valuable to Lampard and Gilmour will have much to learn to overtake his senior peers.
In similar ways, Reece James who has been labelled as the club’s next Right-Back for the foreseeable future had his most muted outing. Unlike the encounter in February at the King Power where James’s brilliant threat from wide and natural talent to execute a deadly cross was on full display, the 20-year-old was unable to make an impact to feed Chelsea’s attackers. Instead James was caught out several times going the other way, which let in both Ayoze Perez and Harvey Barnes, both unable to capitalise.
It is in this area where James will have to work to displace stalwart Azpilicueta who has been faultless since the resumption. On his day, there aren’t many natural defenders better than the Spaniard and despite a poor start to the campaign, it only adds to his professionalism and high standards that he’s remained a consistent starter under Lampard even with an exciting talent behind him looking to breakthrough.
James looks fully capable of helping to transform the Blues threat from wide areas moving forward and modernising the team’s fullback play. However, to match the intelligence, tenacity and tackling of Azpilicueta will need time and hard work to fully earn the starting place in Lampard’s back four.
The action of Lampard, explained fully after the final whistle, sent a strong message to his squad of the high standards demanded at Chelsea.
“We haven’t played that badly since I came back here, I could have made nine subs! We had no urgency. We were jogging. We had too many touches and were too slow.
“The first rules of football are urgency and getting close to people, and running and recovering and sprinting across and backwards, that was not, we were jogging, if you don’t do that you can’t compete in any way shape or form.
“The players that came off are young lads they’re going to be top players for this club and top players in their own careers.
“If we turn up like that in games to come, no chance. We got lucky today.”
The move to make a triple sub after the interval backed up the words Lampard had expressed only a week ago when referring the competition Timo Werner and Hakim Ziyech will bring to the squad. Even though one of the biggest positives of this season for supporters has been Lampard’s belief in regular opportunities for younger talent, that opportunity will not be handed out cheaply. To play for Lampard, you need to earn it – no matter you age, stature or outside hype.
No longer will minutes be guaranteed for anyone in the squad and as Chelsea look close the gap between the Blues and title contenders Manchester City and Liverpool, Lampard will need to be ruthless to learn who he can trust to consistently perform on the pitch.
There is no doubting the mentality of the squad’s next generation who all in their own ways have performed brilliantly on occasion to show how bright the future can be at Stamford Bridge with their influence. Though complacency is something Lampard and his staff will be looking to avoid as the pressure ramps up next season.
In his time playing at the heart of midfield, Lampard knew to maintain his place as he needed to prove himself on a weekly basis to beat out regular competition. Known to be one of the best professionals ever to play the game, Lampard will expect no different from his younger players who hope to make a career in SW6.