The Premier League table going into the international break prompted many scratching of heads and rubbing of eyes.
Chelsea find themselves in third place, one point ahead of Manchester City (Who they face next). Its a position that appears slightly staggering after the pre-season expectations which appeared relatively low as Frank Lampard walked into a Chelsea side who’d lost their best player, had a transfer embargo and a crop of untested youth talent to choose from.
The results the 42-year-old has been able to produce with all of those variables thrown in is an impressive feat.
Labelling the campaign a complete write-off in the summer feels slightly premature when the same concept is now being floated around North London, with both Arsenal and Tottenham stumbling out the gates, doubting their head coaches leadership.
However, there might be a cautious sense of pessimism creeping into the back of Chelsea supporters minds about now.
It might be linked to the fact their side have shipped 28 goals already this season. It might be linked to the group of burgeoning young talent who are still in their maiden years of Premier League football and a natural dip in form at some point is expected. Or the third option, which sticks in the back of my mind – which has to do with the cruel winter months that have frozen over west London and seeped the joy out of the previous two campaigns.
Both Antonio Conte and Maurizio Sarri experienced similarly horrendous turns once the nights drew in and temperatures dropped.
Curses and hoodoos in football mostly feel illogical, irrational. In our more digital world of in-depth stats, performance data and xG, it seems preposterous to lay down an assertion that there is an invisible hand from the football Gods dooming the Blues fortunes.
Cast your mind back to the final day of 2017, Chelsea had just put five past a sorry Stoke City. They sat 2nd in the league, albeit a distant second to an imperious Manchester City – but still 2nd. It appeared the west Londoners would see out the campaign, fighting with the red half of Manchester to secure the “best of the rest” tag, but domestically – that day would prove as good as it got for Chelsea.
From January to early March, form plummeted dramatically! There would only be three victories in the league from January to mid-March. One away at Brighton, the other two at home to West Brom and Crystal Palace. Conte’s very public spat with the club’s hierarchy seemed to seep onto the pitch as a passive Chelsea seemed to sleepwalk their way into 5th place come May.
Shipping three at home to Bournemouth and four away to Watford appeared to put the Italian on the brink of a dismissal. It felt apt the end of winter and the start of spring presented Chelsea fans with one of the most hopeless away displays in the club’s history – when the Blues travelled up to the Etihad to just surrender in a glorified training session for Pep Guardiola’s title chasers.
Conte had spent all of the January transfer window campaigning for the club to acquire another striker as Alvaro Morata’s confidence evaporated and goals seemed to shortly vanish from a Chelsea match day as three consecutive 0-0 draws at start to 2018 against Norwich, Arsenal and Leicester respectively didn’t leave to a lot to admire.
The Italian’s starting eleven against City would not include a recognised striker, as both Morata and the recently signed Olivier Giroud would be on the bench, Eden Hazard the focal point of a mostly toothless attack on the day.
The season will be regarded as quite a joyless one, only heightened by the jubilation of an FA Cup triumph against Manchester United in May, which would be Conte’s farewell. Though it was hard to forget the slump that caused irreparable damage to the Premier League season which cost the club Champions League qualification.
Fast forward to November of 2018, heading into the final international break before Christmas. Maurizio Sarri had overseen an impressive start to his first couple of months in the Capital.
Chelsea were third, with 28 points. 2 behind Liverpool, 4 behind Manchester City – but ahead of Tottenham and Arsenal. Sarri’s possession based side had yet to lose a competitive game and a summer that appeared to prepare the club for slog to reclaim their Champions League status, looked more promising, even having the most optimistic of fans dreaming of a title challenge.
All of those dreams were given an extremely harsh reality check when Chelsea travelled to Wembley and were easily dismantled by a rampant Tottenham side out to prove a point. This night would bring an end to Sarri’s honeymoon period as boss and would quickly bring out the worst in fan hyperbole.
Defeats to Wolves, Leicester and Arsenal crashed fans expectations down to earth as Manchester City and Liverpool left the rest of the league in their wake. Chelsea’s second half of the season would once again revolve around the battle for top four.
The pretty soulless defeat at The Emirates had made many in the away end come to the conclusion Sarri wasn’t the right appointment and needed to be shown the door. And if some more were on the fence, a second year calamity at the end of January to Bournemouth would truly turn many match-going fans against the Italian.
Strangely in addition to sense of Déjà vu in a repeat disaster against the Cherries, the dreaded trip to face Guardiola’s Citizens would again prove fatal as Chelsea suffered their worst defeat since 1991. Torn to pieces in a 6-0 thrasing, sent back down the M6 with all semblance of pride tarnished.
Soon the fan vitriol would intensify and a toxic divide would cast a shadow over the rest of Chelsea’s season.
Unlike Conte, Sarri would recover – his side reclaiming the position they held in November by the end of May, returning the club to Europe’s elite and the glory of another European title in Baku – ramping to a historic 4-1 victory over Arsenal.
Though the parallels are stark with were Chelsea stand today. Like Sarri, the Blues sit in third (two points worse off) but ironically face the fourth place side away from home next, who they are one point ahead of. Last season it was Spurs, this time its that dreaded trip to Manchester City where the lowest points of the previous two campaigns have taken place.
There are clear distinctions to both of those starts, Chelsea have a crop of young players determined to impress. They have a manager that is adored by all who pass through the turnstiles on a match-day. A coaching staff that has worked successfully within the club’s system for a number of years and helped to nurture the likes of Tammy Abraham, Mason Mount, Callum Hudson-Odoi, Reece James and Fikayo Tomori and more.
There is not the same level of stagnancy felt with players who feel their places are guaranteed. Lampard has made it one of his main priorities to embed a true meritocracy to intensify competition for places, benefiting not only the younger talents but older ones, like Willian and César Azpilicueta.
It is also noteworthy to put a spotlight on the feeling around SW6 that this is a journey fans are genuinely ready to see given longer to mature. It might be an easy statement to make given the current form of the team, but even in the harsher moments so far, it seems for once patience might not be a myth on the Fulham Road.
After the trip to the Etihad, the most notable fixtures are London derbies away to Tottenham and Arsenal on both sides of Christmas, wedged before that is a trip to Goodison Park where the Blues have failed to win in their last two visits. The conclusion of the Champions League group stage which pits three sides all on seven points, heading into the last two games. The first seeing Chelsea head to The Mestalla to face Valencia in what looks like a winner-takes-all affair.
In the New Year, visits to the King Power Stadium await – along with return fixtures with Arsenal, Tottenham and Manchester United. It seems all too ironic that winter will end with our old friends Bournemouth at the Vitality.
The pressure in many ways has appeared off for Lampard’s squad. Internally standards are still set high, but with a clear understanding and appreciation for the harsh lessons that naturally come with blooding academy graduates. A top four finish would appear an outstanding achievement for the club’s greatest ever player only in his second year of management.
Winter is here and its during the months of November to February a squad’s abilities are truly tested, stretched and questioned. In the previous two years, the answers have been unpleasant, can Lampard’s progressive project finally break the cold weather curse that has plagued Chelsea? We’re about to find out.
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