What have we learnt from Frank Lampard’s Chelsea this season?
Chelsea can beat the best teams in England, and produce some outstanding performances when it matters. The injection of youth players has paid off, proving that after all, the kids are alright. This squad has huge potential among its ranks, and can challenge at the top within years.
But for all of their quality and potential, Chelsea cannot defend set pieces.
It is a flaw that has been exposed time and time again this season, but Wednesday’s embarrassing defeat to West Ham was the final nail in the coffin. The 3-2 loss at the London Stadium brought an end to a superb run of five consecutive wins, stretching all the way back to March.
Yet, the winning streak was broken in embarrassing fashion.
Chelsea have now conceded 44 goals in the Premier League – their worst tally at this stage of the season for 23 years – and one goal for every 1.3 goals they have scored. In stark comparison, Manchester City have conceded a goal per 2.3 goals scored, a tighter defence to complement their brilliant attack.
The set piece statistics are even more concerning. The Blues have conceded 12 goals from set pieces in the league, 27% of all goals conceded. Over a third (38%) of goals shipped at Stamford Bridge have been from set pieces, the exact same amount for open play.
Chelsea sent a reminder of just how costly their set piece defending can be, in a dire first half performance at the back. They were extremely fortunate to see West Ham’s first goal disallowed for offside, VAR for once coming to their rescue. Although Tomáš Souček was initially denied his goal, it was far too easy.
César Azpilicueta was the only player on Souček, while six players stood watching in and around the six-yard box. In the four seconds before the ball went in, not one player went to support Azpilicueta, block Souček or even move towards goal, shifting the blame onto the hapless Kepa Arrizabalaga instead.
It was a defensive disasterclass, with the blushes only spared by a ridiculous VAR call. Chelsea should have learnt their lesson, until they did the exact same 13 minutes later.
This time, rather than a collective failure at the back, it was a series of individual errors which allowed West Ham to score. Azpilicueta lost the aerial battle – though in his defence, Souček is six inches taller – Arrizabalaga was positioned poorly on his goal line, and Tammy Abraham completely failed in clearing the ball to safety.
Chelsea’s defensive inabilities saw them concede a soft goal, have it disallowed before conceding anyway seconds before half-time. It set the tone for an underwhelming evening in east London, as more errors and defensive mishaps allowed the Hammers to earn a 3-2 win – their first league double over Chelsea since May 2003.
The Blues’ struggle to defend set pieces is an outstanding flaw of Lampard’s side, one that is far from secret and blatantly evident. From Leicester’s equaliser in August to Liverpool’s brace in September, Set piece goals have impacted Chelsea all season long.
It has cost them throughout the season, and could cost them Champions League football for next season. The race for a top four finish is tight, and every goal conceded from a free-kick or corner could be one less point, or worse still, a lesser goal difference. If Chelsea are edged out on goal difference, they only have themselves to blame.
The defeat to West Ham needs to be a wakeup call, as much as it was a reminder that Chelsea simply cannot cope with set pieces. Lampard himself said that they were aware of it, stating that the players “have to deal with it on the pitch.” It is a problem they recognise, but one that needs to be worked on as soon as possible.
It cost them three points on Wednesday, but if Chelsea do not improve their set piece defending soon, they may have to pay an even steeper price.
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