If Chelsea finish in the top four this season, Frank Lampard will consider it to be a success and he should be warmly congratulated for his work. With a transfer ban dominating their summer and their best player sold, Champions League qualification was the natural ceiling of their ambition. With 13 games remaining, Chelsea are on course to meet those ambitions.
But that does not mean that Lampard’s Chelsea deserve to be absolved of criticism. Antonio Rudiger saved their blushes at the King Power Stadium with his first goals since October 2018, but Lampard was left thankful that Jonny Evans and Harvey Barnes both missed chances to give Leicester victory.
Chelsea have now taken 15 points from their last 13 league games, only slightly better than relegation form. Their two problems are a defensive vulnerability and Tammy Abraham’s slump in form. If Lampard was angry that the club failed to sign another striker in January, he ignored both Michy Batshuayi and Olivier Giroud on Saturday. One stayed on the bench, with Willian deployed as a false nine, while Giroud can’t even get in the matchday squad.
Much will now depend on Abraham’s form, but Lampard must get over his frustration at a lack of striker. Not least because Manchester United and Tottenham, two likely contenders to pip them for fourth place, are both in worse positions.
This was not another Manchester United farce or tragedy. Wolves are a good team with a better manager and were kept largely at arm’s length but Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s team couldn’t hurt them. At least there was evidence that Bruno Fernandes will be a valuable addition — he demanded the ball and was not afraid to try and make things happen.
But this was another backwards step. To repeat, Chelsea have taken 15 points from 13 games and yet United still sit six points outside the top four. This is not a normal season. No club is required to hit the usual heights or achieve typical consistency to make the top four. Solskjaer is highly fortunate that Manchester United have a chance of Champions League qualification, and that in itself is a disgrace.
What will — or should — decide Solskjaer’s fate is Manchester United’s forthcoming run of matches. Solskjaer will take his team to Chelsea, Everton, and Tottenham and play Manchester City in the next six weeks, and we can have little faith that they will use those fixtures to bridge the gap to Chelsea.
There was an interesting contrast between two managers on Saturday afternoon. At the London Stadium, David Moyes brought off an attacker for a defender when West Ham were 3-1 up against Brighton. That invited pressure from the opposition, and Brighton eventually scored twice and threatened to win the game 4-3.
At Vicarage Road, Carlo Ancelotti’s Everton were drawing 2-2 with Watford and had been reduced to 10 men. They made an immediate substitution, but did not sit back and try and defend their one point. In the final minutes of the match, Everton scored the winner that probably secures their survival. When Ancelotti joined, that was far from guaranteed.
For Moyes, serious questions about his aptitude for this task that do not feel misplaced so early in his tenure. West Ham have already decided once that Moyes was not the man to take them into a glorious new tomorrow. Now we will find out if he is even the right firefighter to keep them up.
There is a train of thought — and it’s perfectly valid — that if Steve Bruce keeps Newcastle United in the Premier League, then he has done all that was asked of him.
But ask those who attended Newcastle’s 0-0 draw with Norwich City if that is enough to sate them.
The performance was dreadful, Norwich had 20 shots and dominated possession and Newcastle were lucky to take a point. There was a photo that surfaced on social media of two home supporters that had fallen asleep in the stands. At least they spent the match doing something worthwhile.
Bruce cannot claim he doesn’t have attacking potential at his disposal, but he seems happy to sacrifice possession and territory against every opponent and grind out grim points. It is not his fault Mike Ashley has suffocated all joy out of a club with great potential, but he is a symptom of the disease.
Eddie Howe can breathe again. Three weeks ago, Bournemouth’s form was dismal and the mood looked forlorn during every performance. There have been moments of danger in their two successive victories, not least Jefferson Lerma’s red card on Saturday against Aston Villa, but here was proof that the players have not accepted their fate.
In truth, Bournemouth had no choice but to keep the faith. They are a provincial club who already have the best manager in their history. They were suffering a dreadful slump, but Howe has repeatedly proven himself capable of addressing these runs of poor form. There was far more to be said for sticking rather than twisting to appoint a typical firefighter like Sam Allardyce or Tony Pulis. The last two results have proven that.