Chelsea’s ‘revolutionary’ season hit another setback as an underwhelming second-half display against Southampton led to the spoils being shared at Stamford Bridge. It looks as if this has all happened before; almost like “different game, same old story”. Having made a fantastic start against the Saints, Chelsea took their foot off the gas in the second half and even though they did end up leading courtesy of some brilliant play between Kai Havertz and Timo Werner, the second-half showing was as rusty as they come. The phrase “masters of their own downfall” has probably never made more sense.
Who’s to blame? How did Chelsea, after making the start that they did, somehow manage to throw this one away? Why do Chelsea seem disinterested in putting the game to bed when they are leading? Tom Overend, owner of All Things Chelsea, summed it up perfectly while presenting his post-match thoughts. He said: “For not the first time this season, Chelsea just don’t look the same team in the second half. We can only play well one half of football at a time. It was the same against West Bromwich Albion, arguably against Crystal Palace and definitely today(against Southampton).” Can it be explained? Can one pinpoint where Chelsea lack and lay it all out in layman’s terms? If only it were that easy
If the Southampton game is placed under the microscope, we have the first half, where Chelsea were utterly dominant and led by two goals within 30 minutes with Timo Werner finally getting off the mark in the Premier League with two expertly-taken finishes. Chelsea had more-than-decent chances to make it three or four in the first half and with the firepower they now have up front, perhaps they should have. Instead, Havertz gets caught in possession, Walcott plays a simple ball into Danny Ings who rounds Kepa to make it 2-1 and from that moment, it’s game on. When it should’ve been 3-0 or 4-0, it was 2-1 going into the break.
And no disrespect to Southampton, but Chelsea were by far the better team in the first half and on a different day, they would’ve run rampant against The Saints. What went wrong? Was it a one-off that led to the opposition getting back into the game? Is it the manager who just isn’t competent enough to get the best out of the group of players at his disposal? Is it the lacklustre defence that simply cannot go for 90 minutes without gifting a goal to the opposition? Should all eyes be on Kepa, who regardless of his displays for Spain, simply cannot be in goal for Chelsea ever again? There are a lot of questions about the side this early into the season, and they better get answered soon.
It is more than a one-off. This is a pattern. Away at West Bromwich Albion, Chelsea got slaughtered in the first half and went into the break three goals down. The futile excuse that may be presented shouting that Chelsea didn’t have their best XI at The Hawthorns is just tiresome and frankly, ridiculous. Forgive me, but Chelsea shouldn’t need a fully-fit squad to comfortably beat West Brom. A lot has been made of Chelsea’s defence since the start of the season, and whether Kurt Zouma and Andreas Christensen are reliable enough for Chelsea to mount a sustained title challenge this term. You can cart off Thiago Silva for his blunder against Slaven Bilic’s side, it was his first game and even for someone like him, who’s got a mountain of experience, just goes to show what complacency in the Premier League gets you. With Malang Sarr still on loan till the end of the campaign, Lampard will have it on his mind to figure out a way to play to his team’s strengths so as to not expose their weaknesses. Kurt Zouma was shambolic against Southampton and despite his attacking prowess from set-pieces, it remains to be seen whether he is the one to partner Silva when, if at all, Lampard does resort to a set starting XI.
The left-back issue is arguably resolved now, with Ben Chilwell having come in and shun during his first few appearances for the London outfit. We won’t be seeing a lot of Kepa during the course of the league campaign and one’d hope that Edouard Mendy can rub off Petr Cech and bring some confidence to the backline. On paper, the midfield duo/trio(which in itself is a whole other conundrum) is possibly as good on paper as they come in the league, with Lampard having Kante, Kovacic and Jorginho at his disposal. The attacking line speaks for itself, and the introduction of the brilliant Hakim Ziyech down the right-wing will make it stronger anyway.
What do Chelsea need to do to go from ‘almost’ to ‘complete’? If the very recent record-breaking sides of Manchester City and Liverpool are studied, under the beautiful football that we all revel in and appreciate, there is probably the most undervalued part of a system, ‘the tactical foul’. The odd tackle committed by Fernandinho or Fabinho, which may result in them getting a yellow, but successfully stopping the opposition from countering. While N’Golo Kante can be seen making such fouls early in a game, you need the collective effort of the entire squad to help prevent the opposition from coming back into the game. The dirty side of football, as it can be put, is probably more important than the elegant one as Jose Mourinho might elude upon, when he explained that when a team is high up the pitch and trying to attack, they have to attack keeping in mind a plan for when they eventually lose the ball to stop the counter. Nice guys don’t win trophies. Nice guys allow the opposition to come back into the game. What separates the great Premier League sides from the ‘potentially great’ ones is that the former could grab a 3-1 victory when they were far from their best. Great sides have the belief that they can knock their opponents off their perch even when they’re facing an injury crisis.
One doesn’t need to look beyond the 99′ treble-winning side of Manchester United. Would Roy Keane accept a drop in standard or work-ethic? Would Roy Keane allow United’s opposition to come back from three goals down? He’d be ripping people open. That is exactly the sort of character missing in the Chelsea dressing room. A character who is fearless, doesn’t accept mediocrity in any way, shape or form who brought out the best in his teammates and did not settle for anything less than a hundred percent from each member of the squad. With all the attacking riches, Chelsea require that leader who is willing to have a go at individuals, to give them stick when required to get the absolute best out of them while attacking and defending. Maybe it will be Thiago Silva, maybe not. What about Cezar Azpilicueta, who is fighting for a place in the first-team with the emergence of young Reece James? Speaking to the press before the Sevilla tie, he said: “What is clear is that if we want to fight for everything we have to improve defensively. This is a problem we have to fix collectively and individually. Sometimes you can get away with it but you cannot rely every game on having to score three goals.”
“You have to dig in and get a clean sheet. It’s very important for the confidence of the team to have this solidity. We have to start getting this consistency of not conceding goals. When you have the solidity defensively, it gives a boost to the whole team, to the attacking players to create chances. When you are defensively weak sometimes we feel like we have to score three or four goals every game. As a defender, I feel bad when you concede so many goals. We have to improve our personal mistakes and collectively take better decisions. Through the season you are not going to be playing beautiful football and winning three or four-nil every game. When you don’t you have to get results.” You can sense the despair in the club captain’s voice as he was struggling to explain why Chelsea haven’t set the bar high enough since the start of the season. With James offering much more going forward, Azpilicueta is a more complete defender but the English international will certainly limit the captain’s minutes. Will this go against Chelsea too?
Last but not the least, we have to ponder upon whether Frank Lampard can truly be the man to lead from the front. This question is swirling around ever since he was handed the job and make no mistake, if we compare his CV to his predecessors, Frank just isn’t experienced enough to take on such a huge challenge and to deal with the constant pressure at a club like Chelsea, where the marriage between the board and a manager usually lasts for a few years. He recently pointed to a statistic that says Chelsea have conceded the second-fewest shots in the Premier League under him, behind Manchester City. He added: “I keep talking about the need for work and how things take time. We’re playing with new players coming into the squad and it’s understandable at this stage of the season where there are moments in games when I talk about game management and the need to go longer, mix our game up.”
“It’s something that obviously has to be worked on with time. Things Southampton at the weekend are a lesson to be learnt in real-time. We don’t have so much time with the players so far this season and that will come. We need to make sure the lessons are learnt quickly and the players are very aware of that.” Frank, you’re at the wrong club if you think time is on your side. If Roberto Di Matteo can be replaced after winning a Champions League, Frank can be too.
Nizaar Kinsella, Chelsea correspondent for Goal, reported that Lampard’s instructions to his players to go long in order to break Southampton’s press fell on deaf ears as Chelsea seemed to build from the back for almost the entire game. Is it the lack of communication? Is it that the fact that Frank, being a young manager, doesn’t stimulate his players like maybe Jose Mourinho would?
IS HE GOOD ENOUGH? It’s a difficult one because the fact that he’s an icon at the club will always back him up, even during tough times but is it worth taking the risk if results don’t start showing? With the likes Mauricio Pochettino still available, one’d think that there are proven coaches out there who could maybe get the best out of this group of players. But, the vast majority of the club’s fanbase believe in Frank and his vision. It is still very early into the season, but with every squandered lead or loss, there comes an ocean of criticism and Lampard is an easier target in general because of his inexperience. He’s going have to deal with it and keep the ship sailing because this season is probably going to be like none other and there is no shortage of hurdles that will follow. The big question, the final problem will be answered as time rolls on.