Bye Sarriball, hi Frankieball. Same formation, but different roles. Who will keep their place, who will get dropped and even sold, and who will return from loan? Get ready for the full Chelsea FC squad assessment in Frank Lampard’s first season as Chelsea manager.
Before you read this, I recommend you read “Part 1 — Style and Tactics” first, to better understand how he wants his team to play and what he needs from his players. In the article below, I describe what each role requires, assess the different players from both a general and role perspective, and try my best to conclude on who is in and who is out.
It is an easy start. Other than being a good shot-stopper, a Lampard goalkeeper needs to be capable playing a short passing game. No worries there. Kepa Arrizabalaga and Willy Caballero are excellent fits, and we can even claim to have one of the best ball-playing goalkeepers in the world, as well as the best number two. With Lampard’s narrow playing style, there will be crosses to defend, and this may be a weakness the opposition can target, as both goalkeepers can improve aerially. But of course that does not affect who will be our number one next season.
Die-hard fans would find it more exciting to guess who will be our GK3, and with both Green and Eduardo out, it will have to be either Jamie Cumming or Jamal Blackman. But given we have not used a GK3 since the 11/12 season, I am not going to spend more time speculating.
Verdict: This is a problem-free area, and one that likely won’t need much investment for quite some time. The acquisition of Kepa has proved to be a very good one, and I expect him to get even better next season. 4.5/5.
In the squad: Kepa, Caballero, Blackman/Cumming
The full backs’ main role is to defend as part of a tight, narrow and flat back four. Their role in possession is to help build play from deep with triangular passing from the back, and when we are in advanced positions, spot and execute crossing opportunities from deep. Even if we need “complete full backs” who can both defend and attack, the requirements are not as tough as that of a wing-back in Conte’s back five; they are not expected to bomb up and down, but instead roam from the back line when space and opportunity arise. This makes it easier to find good fits for the role than what has been the case under Sarri and Conte, where the full back’s contribution in the final third were critical to succeed.
I have summed up what I see as the most important requirements:
- Good, all-round defending
- Aggressive marking 1v1 (and even 1v2, given the role of the IF)
- Pace and recovery (capable of playing a high line)
- Ball control and passing (capable of playing short, triangular passes)
- Accurate crossing from deep
With Ola Aina and Todd Kane gone, we have four left backs and three right backs to choose from:
Current club captain Cesar Azpilicueta will be the main man. Having missed only 1 PL match the last three seasons, and been Mourinho, Conte and Sarri’s most trusted player, there is no reason to think Lampard will go and shake things up — at least not from the beginning. He received a lot of criticism this season, unwarranted in my opinion, but whether you agree with me or not, he is an even better fit in the role described above. He is first and foremost a great defender, even if he perhaps lacks a little bit of pace and may be under pressure in a high line. Under both Sarri and Conte, we saw his ability to play short, triangular passes, and we know he can deliver good crosses as well (16 assists last two seasons).
Davide Zappacosta has played back up to Azpilicueta for two years and will never win that battle. Even if he is a good player, we will sell him this window.
He won’t be missed thanks to Reece James, whose extremely successful loan at Wigan will give him a deserved place in the squad. He is not too dissimilar from Azpilicueta — very tough to meet 1v1, good ball control in tight spaces, but also lacks that little bit of pace over longer distances. He is not up there with Azpilicueta as an all-round defender yet. But his crossing is superior, it is in fact so good that it may be one of his biggest assets as a full back. He has even spoken of how it was Jody Morris who told him to practice crosses to help him get a competitive advantage over other full backs. That certainly worked. He starts the season injured, but will be one of the players Lampard and Morris will take pride in playing and improving. And while James turns 20 this year, and Azpilicueta 30, we are set for a generational change at right back with James slowly but steadily getting more and more starts. Here’s hoping he can make the most of it and ensure we have that position locked up for the next decade. Oh, and he is captain material also!
Emerson Palmieri is probably the definition of a good, but not great player. I find it hard to describe him in other words than that — no real weaknesses, no stand-out qualities, and ranks “good but not great” on all five role requirements. He started as a back-up, but fought hard and deserved to become Chelsea’s first choice left back as the season went on, proving his worth by delivering that brilliant cross to Giroud to open the scoring in Baku, which ironically was a very typical Derby/Lampard goal. He is only 24, broke through quite late, and is someone who can potentially improve a lot going forward. He will be starting next season as our number one, and if things go his way and he can raise his game further, he may be talked of as one of the league’s best left backs.
Marcos Alonso is not happy reading this. And he has probably been furious reading Chelsea fans’ tweets for the past months. I think the criticism is a little over the top. He is professional, tries his best, plays for Chelsea, scored several important goals – he simply doesn’t deserve it. But does he fit the role requirements? Not very much. He lacks a little to defend well in a back four, is not particularly good 1v1 and his pace will be a problem. Going forward and playing out from the back he is great, but I am still surprised by his inability to cross when he is so good at taking free kicks. We are entertaining bids from Atletico Madrid, and the only reason not to sell is if Lampard and Morris don’t consider the two other left backs good enough to be back-ups.
Jay Dasilva seems to have it all, except being tall. That is the narrative that is costing him deserved recognition and consideration as one for the future. Hell, I have myself bought into this theory before. But I have been more worried about his failure to be a clear number one both at Charlton in L1 and Bristol City in the CH. While he has potential, I don’t think it is unfair to question whether the step up from last season’s 50/50 role in the Championship to Chelsea is too steep. But there are these games where you just feel like: wow, I was wrong. When England’s u21s faced France with Dembele and Aouar this week, Dasilva played on the other side of £50m rated Wan-Bissaka. For me, if there was one £50m full back on that pitch, it was little Jay. His close control is special, he has bags of pace, is aggressive and a decent defender. His crossing varies a lot I think, but overall is a very good fit for the role. My money is on him now.
Baba Rahman is the other option to be Emerson’s back-up. He is the club’s third most expensive left-back ever, but has struggled with injuries, confidence and form, and even if he probably could be a decent back-up, just finds himself on the fringes of everything. Lampard will likely focus on giving these back up roles to someone it will mean the world for — they are easier to motivate, and it will receive more positive attention from fans, owner and media if it was a local London lad and not a big-money already-written-off foreigner he managed to galvanize.
Verdict: We are (seemingly) all set at right back for years to come with Azpilicueta and James, they are both excellent fits for the role, and it will be fascinating to follow the master against the trainee next season. But is one too raw and the other on the decline? Competition is definitely on, and I think Lampard and Morris will be very happy with what they have. At left back, I am slightly worried. The “good” Emerson starts as #1 and may be great, but what happens if that responsibility is too much to handle? The question marks on whoever is #2 is even bigger, and while Azpilicueta can move to the left with James on the right, I would not be surprised if we went out and spent big on a new LB next summer. 3.5/5.
In the squad: Azpilicueta, James, Emerson, Dasilva
Sell: Marcos Alonso, Davide Zappacosta, Baba Rahman
Looking at Derby last season, Lampard used the CB duo of Fikayo Tomori and Richard Keogh so often that third choice CB Curtis Davies only played 273 minutes. Astonishing! And tells you everything you need to know about Lampard looking for consistency at the heart of defence. Both of them won more aerial duels (2.8 and 3.8 respectively) than all of City, Spurs’ and Chelsea’s CBs, while Liverpool’s CBs won 4.8 (van Dijk), 4.0 and 3.8. If you are looking for center back roles to compare Lampard’s with, Liverpool’s might be a good place to start. And don’t be surprised to find it has more than a lot of John Terry in it as well.
I have summed up what I see as the most important requirements:
- Strong in the air, especially in the box (with a narrow width there will be crosses to defend)
- Intelligently aggressive defending (playing with a high line it is essential that forward players won’t be allowed time on the ball to play in behind)
- Pace and recovery (capable of playing a high line)
- Ball control and “dribbling-ability” to advance with ball into midfield
- Vision and ability to play crisp medium/long forward passes
And there are no shortage of CBs to choose from:
Even if Omeruo, Hector, Kalas and Miazga are hoping for a chance, it is so slim that I won’t spend time consider them here. Of the four CBs likely to be included in the squad, I will be evaluating the following five, and also consider who I think will be Chelsea’s Tomori/Keogh next season.
(Please note that I consider Ampadu a CM, and will discuss him in the next part.)
The safest bet is to say 32-year old David Luiz will be the leader in defense. He gets full score on 4 of the 5 requirements, and it is only his lack of pace to play in a high line that makes him a question mark for the role. Other than that, he is as tailor made for the role as they come. But if much-slower Richard Keogh could excel there, David Luiz should be able to as well, right? The counter-argument would be to say having to defend the high line against Mohamed Salah and Raheem Sterling instead of your average Championship CF is not the same. But with the other CBs being 26, 24, 23 and 21, there is the experience and leadership argument that will count in Luiz’ favour. What should be mentioned though, is that Lampard, while being a pundit, has been unusually reserved when talking about his former team-mate. All in all, Luiz is in many ways a standout player for the role, and with Lampard likely going into next season with a young and inexperienced squad, Luiz will likely start the season as first choice. But there is still enough to suggest that can change quickly, if his weaknesses are exposed.
The forgotten man, Kurt Zouma, has suddenly come to life again: Seemingly the entire Chelsea fan base are calling for him on Twitter to star under Lampard. And rightly so. He is just a fantastic fit for the role. A monster in the air and probably the best recovering defender in the world, his physical attributes alone make sure he is guaranteed a return to Chelsea this summer. On the ball, Zouma is not the slickest, which is probably why Sarri thought he did not match his playing out of the back style. But under Lampard that is less of a problem — his CBs will have more time on the ball, and you do not need to have vivid imagination to picture Zouma advancing with the ball through midfield like a warm knife in butter. His ball control and forward passing could probably need some polishing, but it is more than good enough for him to play. What does someone like Kalidou Koulibaly have that Zouma hasn’t? My money is on Zouma being the main man in defense at the end of the season. And beyond.
Antonio Rüdiger misses pre-season and the first games with his second serious knee injury, sustained at Old Trafford in April. He will be watching from the sidelines as Frank Lampard starts building his defensive unit, and with the other quality CBs getting a head start, he is the underdog. He does fit the profile very well though — physically almost on par with Zouma, comfortable on the ball, and someone who could pick out a glorious pass. My only concern with him is his “defensive elegance”, and I will try to explain what I mean by that: The best defenders in the world are for me the ones who know exactly when to tackle, when to just stay tight and when to drop off. Nesta, Cannavaro, Puyol, Terry and Ferdinand. Rüdiger for me is an all-in or nothing defender, and even if he can still perform well given all his other assets, I think someone like Lampard will fancy the more intelligent CBs. Playing with a high line, timing is everything, and my fear is Rüdiger can be exposed there. Maybe I am being harsh now, because Rüdiger has it all, almost. His attitude is unquestionable, and is often named “the funniest” by his teammates. But at 26, as a CB, should you be referred to as a dressing room clown or a leader? I could be horribly wrong on this, and I hope I am, but CB competition is hard, so Rüdiger may end up on the losing side — even if he doesn’t deserve it.
Not too long ago, Andreas Christensen was the talk of town. So what went wrong? Other than beig shockwaved by that Barcelona back-pass, hard to say. He seems to struggle with nerves, and that is not something a CB can afford. Last season did not start too well, but as playing time increased, so did his performance levels. And ending the season with a quality display in the Europa League final, ensures he goes into pre-season with momentum and confidence. He is a decent fit for the role, especially if partnered with a more physical CB, because that is the only area he may be lacking. But whatever he lacks in muscles, he can make up for with intelligent positioning. Definitely more of a Nesta than a Terry, to put it that way. And that doesn’t have to be a bad thing, even if Lampard needs his CBs to command the air space. I don’t see him being first choice from the get-go, but if he patiently challenges both himself and the other CBs, I think we can go into next season with him and Zouma as our reborn Terry+Carvalho. Even if that is being “a tad” optimistic.
Fikayo Tomori was Derby’s player of the season, so there is not much point debating whether he fits the requirements or not. He does. Personally, he is one of two youth players I have watched and had to pinch myself in disbelief, he looked like a man playing against kids. The other one was Reece James. I have always thought he would make it here, and do so even more now, but he is 21, will be error-prone, is in demand by Premier League clubs, and has four superior CBs in front of him. Loan is the only right answer for me. Aston Villa under John Terry, thank you very much.
Verdict: We have four very good CBs, and neither of them are guaranteed a starting place. Lampard showed last season how he preferred to not rotate at all at CB, and it is hard to guess which two will be our main men when the season ends. Good competition is a plus, but not if it comes at the expense of consistency. It will be an interesting battle to follow, and my guess is we start the season with Luiz+Zouma and end it with Christensen+Zouma. But I am not putting money on it. Anything can happen, and errors may be costly. Lampard needs to find his partnership quickly, and all four won’t stay beyond next season. They are all too good not to play. 4/5
In the squad: Luiz, Zouma, Christensen, Rüdiger
Loan: Tomori, Miazga
Sell: Hector, Omeruo, Kalas
In Part 3, I will continue assessing midfield and forward roles. As for now, our squad and first eleven look like this … Do you agree?
Stay tuned for more from me @balance_bridge on Twitter!