Yesterdays humbling 3-0 defeat at the hands of Sheffield United was a not so welcome reminder of just how much work needs to be done for Frank Lampard’s Chelsea. From start to finish we were completely bossed in every area of the pitch; never looking like scoring, whilst gifting the Blades countless opportunities to do so themselves. The score line almost flattered us.
What concerned me was the manner of the defeat. How many times this year have we dominated teams and snatched at chances, only to concede late and throw the game away. Frustrating as it is, a ‘get out of jail free card’ often presented itself in the form of ‘we were unlucky’ or ‘it just wasn’t our day’. Yesterday was different. For the first time since Bayern Munich in the Champions League, we weren’t even remotely in the game at all.
Watching Sheffield United play hammered home a piercing realisation of just how important a shape or a system is for a successful team. Don’t get me wrong, I love the flexible nature of Frank’s management. After a year of watching Sarri not changing shape at all, even in moments when it was painstakingly obvious to do so, it’s refreshing to see someone who is not afraid to mix it up when necessary. But yesterday was a disaster tactically, and whilst recently we have been playing well, (scoring goals, creating chances) it just didn’t look like we had any sort of structure in the way we were trying to play. Comparatively to Sheffield United, who are masters in the system they practice, and have reaped the rewards in a quite simply astounding Premier League season.
The clear take away from that is that no matter the personnel, a system can be performed and perfected to such great extent if worked on enough, and universally understood. Sheffield United’s back five are the same five who got them to where they are from the Championship. They sit 6th in the Premier League after 35 games and boast the joint third best defensive record behind two established and exciting teams – Liverpool and Leicester. Yet no-one is even mentioning a name from that United team who we should sign.
Why? Because individually there would be near to no impact made at all from signing John Egan to replace Antonio Rudiger. We’d still concede goals for fun. But you give Chris Wilder the opportunity to take any of our four centre-halves, and I bet he snaps your hand off.
To me, the difference is tactical nuance and defensive discipline, which stems from the work done on the training ground. Wilder has been managing for almost twenty years in contrast to Lampard’s two. I’m not at all dismissing the fact that Lampard needs time to improve as a coach, but merely stating how there is clearly a disconnect between performance on the pitch, and performance on the training ground – otherwise surely more would have been done to rectify it.
We have a young, exciting array of players and backroom staff, and there have been more signs of good than bad this year. But our defensive set piece record alone suggests that there is a naivety in how we prepare for defensive situations and highlights how our defenders are not comfortable or confident in the system they are playing in.
I’m not saying I don’t think we should sign defensively. Of course we should. I just think that the expectation of a new central defender having a ‘Van dijk’ effect is unrealistic, as our defensive problems are rooted deeper than just player selection and individual error – proven by Sheffield United’s schooling of us yesterday evening. Perhaps it would be beneficial for Frank to also look for signings of a different nature, in the form of defensive coaches and backroom staff because at the moment, they seem quite frankly out of their depth.
Yesterday was a bad day, yes. Work needs to be done and signings need to be made, yes. Frank Lampard had a bad day too, yes. But in no way does this change the fact that we are having a superb season in the circumstances Frank was hired into and I have no doubt he will have learnt just as much as we did after last night’s calamitous defeat. Onwards and upwards.