When the floodlights went out all over Europe on March 13 Frank Lampard’s young and flaky Chelsea team were just emerging from a period of introspection and self-doubt with some swaggering results.
January and February had seen a last-minute defeat at Newcastle; a failure to despatch Arsenal despite David Luiz helpfully getting himself sent off on his return to Stamford Bridge; a hugely frustrating defeat to Man Utd in a VAR-blighted game; points dropped at Bournemouth and, most significantly, a humbling 0-3 home defeat to a Serge Gnabry-inspired Bayern Munich in the first leg of the Champions League round of 16.
The characteristics of these stuttering performances were depressingly similar. No cutting edge; no killer instinct; vacillation at the heart of the defence with no marked improvement being achieved by the substitution in goal of the expensive Arrizabalaga by the experienced Willy Caballero.
And yet, there are reasons to be cheerful about the progress of the team and to be optimistic about the future for Frank Lampard.
“When in doubt, beat Tottenham” has long been a Chelsea truism. Antonio Conte forgot that during a benighted 2018, but Lampard made no such mistake, recalling the scandalously underused Olivier Giroud and Marcus Alonso to deliver the goods in February.
Liverpool were convincingly knocked out of the FA Cup in what became a showreel game for the burgeoning talent of the 19-year-old Bremneresque talent in midfield that is Billy Gilmour and the Blues now face an intriguing trip to Leicester to win a place in the semi-finals. Chelsea emerge now into this strange netherworld delicately poised. They are three points ahead of Manchester United in the Champions League qualification position of fourth (although fifth may be good enough this year depending on long-overdue penalties on Manchester City for financial doping).
Their run-in does not look particularly arduous and they are unlikely to have to endure the mental headbanging of facing a match which Liverpool need to win to secure their first title of the Premier League era, it being likely that Klopp and co will be over the finish line by then. While Lampard was disappointed not to be able to strengthen his squad in January, Chelsea have emerged, once more, as competitors for world-class talent in a transfer market which may find time to settle.
Their one-window transfer ban (halved by the Court of Arbitration for Sport) has left them sitting on an Eden Hazard cash pile and they could easily raise substantially more through judicious transfers which could include both Jorginho and N’golo Kante. The wage bill will be lightened and redistributed with the departure of Pedro and Willian. While Giroud has signed a 12-month extension Michy Batshuayi is more likely to move to more natural environs such as Selhurst Park or the Olympic Stadium.
Which brings us to the targets. Hakim Ziyech, the Ajax playmaker, is already secured and will be a highly creative influence from wide positions next season. Timo Werner’s signing has not yet been announced although is heavily trailed and supporters will be hoping that he fits into the Hasselbaink/Drogba category of successful striker rather than the long list of failures at Stamford Bridge dating back to the days of Tony Hateley. He certainly has pace which might provide a useful counterpoint to Tammy Abraham.
That Chelsea are now linked with Kai Havertz of Bayer Leverkusen and are declared admirers of Jadon Sancho of Borussia Dortmund indicates ambition to change the style of play in midfield and introduce even more youthful brio. It would, however, be surprising to see either of those players rocking up in the Fulham Road this summer.
It is behind midfield that Chelsea need to invest. Their interest in 23-year-old left-back Ben Chilwell has been flagged for months although he comes at an eye-watering price premium. They look frail at centre back where the rugged Antonio Rudiger can be injury-prone; Andreas Christensen can be bullied and the promising Fikayo Tomori needs more experience. A high calibre centre-half could have the same impact on Chelsea’s 2020/21 silverware prospects as Virgil Van Dijk did at Anfield.
Then there is the Kepa conundrum. Many supporters point to his antics in the February 2019 Carabao Cup Final against Manchester City when he refused to be substituted as a sign of mental fragility. “It would have been all right” the argument goes “if he had saved the penalties. But he didn’t.” Others point to his flailing performances in the six-yard box throughout the season and most memorably in a madcap 4-4 Champions League draw with Ajax. Chelsea may be prepared to give him a final chance but there are other, if expensive, alternatives including the Cameroon international, Andre Onana of Ajax, and Gianluigi Donnarumma of AC Milan, a long-term target whom it might be more difficult to capture.
Chelsea have made a habit of moving decisively in the transfer window when they need to. In 2014 they signed Cesc Fabregas, Diego Costa and Luis Felipe and laid the foundations for a Premier League title. That potential exists for them again. Two other factors will have weighed in Lampard’s favour during the shutdown. It has given him time to work with what is now a predominantly young squad, and bring injured players Ruben Loftus Cheek, Christian Pulisic, Callum Hudson-Odoi, Matteo Kovacic, Ngolo Kante back to fitness.
He has also been able to add to his squad from long-time Chelsea scholars. The impressive U18 captain Tino Anjorin, one of eight Academy graduates given their debut this season by Lampard, has just signed a five-year deal and free-scoring Albanian Armando Broja is also coming off the production line.
Less obviously, but more importantly, Lampard and his management team are getting time to mature. The multi-lingual Petr Cech, the technical and performance advisor at Stamford Bridge, has been closely involved in the Timo Werner negotiations. Jody Morris, Lampard’s right-hand man, has had all the youth players now coming through under his guidance. Ashley Cole is a youth trainer at Cobham. Tore Andre Flo, Paolo Ferreira and Carlo Cudicini oversee the loan players. Claude Makelele is technical mentor. This is a substantial management team in a coronavirus world. Emma Hayes, the highly-rated manager of the league-winning Chelsea Women’s team said that, despite winning seven trophies in eight years, she always fears the sack.
Frank Lampard doesn’t have silverware in the cupboard this season, although the FA Cup is still possible. But Champions League qualification is a tenable target and, after that, he will be seeking top spot in the next campaign.