“The fans shouldn’t be excited if we’re going to play 10 balls across the back four, they shouldn’t be. And that’s not the team I want to manage. I’m a Chelsea man and everyone knows that, and I would be the first to say if the fans were flat. But today I’m never going to say that, because if I was a fan sitting there today I’d also be saying ‘too slow, too slow, centre-back to centre-back, centre-back to full-back, back to centre-back, back to full-back’. And I don’t want to come and see that. We need more urgency in our play, if you’re transferring the ball, transfer it quickly.”
The words of a frustrated Frank Lampard perfectly illustrated the picture that was a passive, unconvincing and unexciting Chelsea performance which ended in defeat. The issue is this quote is nearly 12 months old, taken from the Blues home defeat to Bournemouth pre-Christmas 2019.
I could’ve easily swindled you by claiming this was his reaction following the Blues limp exit to bitter rivals Tottenham in the Fourth Round of the Carabao Cup on Tuesday evening on penalties. Even though Mason Mount’s deciding miss will make the headlines, the game should have never resorted to the high stakes twisting pendulum of fate that is a penalty shootout. This was an evening in which the Blues had almost been handed the initiative to take control by a Spurs side without a recognised striker and a low block out to frustrate.
The game for 45 minutes was heading towards a comfortable Chelsea victory who looked the only side bothered to attack in what was a pretty flat opening period. The joy in the ruthlessness of Timo Werner’s right footed strike within 20 minutes offered a glimpse into the brave new era many fans have been dreaming of following the club’s extravagant £200m Summer spending spree.
For Chelsea’s attacking fluidity, this was the high point of the evening. For all of Chelsea’s possession in a dominant first half which took it up to 70%, the Blues had still lacked a sharp bite, tamely playing safe balls across the middle with the comfort of Jorginho and Mateo Kovacic. Both did enough to keep the ball ticking over, but little to add any further threat that Chelsea would attempt to go for Spurs throats.
The second half instantly shifted Chelsea out of their comfort zone as Mourinho’s side pressed higher, forcing Kovacic and Jorginho deeper and leading to more mistakes as the hosts began to find their route to goal. Though supporters watching on would’ve hoped this overcommitting of bodies by Spurs would open up more space for the speed of Werner and Hudson-Odoi to penetrate, but instead Chelsea’s attackers became mere passengers to a half quickly spiralling out of Chelsea’s control. Even the introduction of Harry Kane and Lucas Moura only further instilled the momentum swing that had already begun.
Eric Lamela’s 83rd minute equaliser was soul-crushingly predictable, added to the irritation was the ease at which Chelsea’s backline was found wanting once more with substitute Emerson floundering at the back post and out of position – something which seems to be his default setting in his time for the club.
A lot of discussion surrounding Chelsea’s weakness has been solely aimed at the defence – or the lack of defending of any decent level since Lampard’s arrival in the Summer of 2019. The constantly changing backline, disorganisation at set pieces and easily overrun in transitions. These debates have already been worn out and well-trodden by the Chelsea commentariat so instead let’s take a different angle – Chelsea have become bland in front of goal.
The uninspiring second half against Spurs was less about poor defending and more about a lack of vision, identity or expression to play to our strengths. Chelsea are no longer a team with the nous, ingredients or structural organisation to sit deep and soak up pressure. The Portuguese in the opposing dugout would have relished the scenario of a 1-0 lead away to a Top Six rival at half time. The Mourinho Playbook would have seen a second half of time wasting, smart fouls, effective counter attacking and more than likely – a John Obi Mikel sub with 25 minutes to go.
That was the old reactive Chelsea and this should be the new proactive Chelsea. Whatever your personal doubts about Lampard’s Chelsea are, there is no denying that the best moments of 2019-20 came when the Blues let loose their attacking urges and were daring in possession, fast in attack and energetic in pressing. Against Spurs there was a complete lack of infectious energy on show and broadening out wider a lack of it in any meaningful way so far this season.
Lampard has rightly expressed the troubles of a lack of pre-season with a lot of new players to integrate but as each game passes that explanation will become an excuse, and that excuse will become tiresome and more irrelevant.
‘too slow, too slow, centre-back to centre-back, centre-back to full-back, back to centre-back, back to full-back’.
The words of Lampard in 2019 ring strongly in the Autumn of 2020 as a below par Chelsea allowed a tie in their hands to drift away from their grasp and with that the most realistic chance of silverware this campaign.
The biggest frustration above all else watching that insipid second half was clinging onto the ambition that this Chelsea can, should and MUST be one of the best attacking outfits we’ve seen in SW6 since the free scoring Carlo Ancelotti title triumph of 2010.
If Frank Lampard wants to play high-risk football, high-octane football then brilliant, let’s see it in all its swagger and extravagance. This bland non-committal halfway unhappy marriage between a mediocre high-press and a bit of Sarriball, a bit of lump it won’t do. It will leave Chelsea looking equally uncertain and underwhelming. The sight of Chelsea safely passing the ball to no effect across the centre-circle saps all the life out of every supporter watching on.
There is no denying that the continued absence of the most exhilarating presence of last season in Christian Pulisic is hampering this side’s daring instinct, along with the added creativity of Hakim Ziyech still to introduce to English Football. Though even without them, I expect more. I expect more movement and confidence, I expect midfielders with the vision of Jorginho to play riskier balls than the safe option of an open fullback. I expect fullbacks and wingers to play balls faster into the box at the earliest opportunity rather than cutting back to safety. I expect Lampard to field a team that appreciates balance, but also has the tools of invention and flair to elevate their greatest qualities rather than exploit their greatest weaknesses.
Am I expecting too much? Probably – but given the wealth of extroverted attacking talent available Lampard has all the tools to create a devastating attacking machine which can slice and dice the best defence. That sort of fluidity and cohesiveness takes time, but time at a top club like Chelsea is earned not guaranteed. Supporters are desperate to see Lampard succeed but more limp performances like the one on Tuesday night will trigger deeper concerns.