Hector Bellerin cutting inside and executing the perfect strike to creep into Chelsea’s net caused a raucous eruption of frustration and bemusement from the Stamford Bridge faithful.
How has this happened? 2-1 up with five minutes to go against 10-men at home – not only at home, but at home to Arsenal – a side who have collapsed regularly at Stamford Bridge.
Soft-centred is an adjective associated with the North London club and for good reason. Even as recent as last month against the Blues did we witness the Gunners remarkable ability to find new ways to inflict self-harm – allowing Chelsea to snatch the three points. But all of those elements feel perfectly suited to describe Chelsea at the moment.
Frank Lampard’s squad are capable of equally spontaneous combustion. A footballing team who have the flair and skill to rip teams apart, look energetic and expressive, but in the same ninety-minute period appear aimless, toothless and inept in all facets of the game.
The defeat to Newcastle United and the draw with Arsenal both showcased in monumental fashion the worst aspects of this Chelsea team. Against the Magpies it more resembled a recent disappointing home encounter.
Lampard still has yet the find the answers to solve the low-block conundrum. Groundhog Day feels like an overused cliche, but there is no other way to describe what fans have been feeling over the winter months watching their team huff and puff to no avail against inferior opposition.
West Ham, Bournemouth, Southampton and Newcastle all feel like the same story played out over and over again. The only solace or dark humour you can find out of the ruins of Issac Hayden’s last minute winner is that St. James Park has been the kryptonite to even the best in Blue over recent years.
Arsenal showed the more chaotic nature of Chelsea, two goals were scored and the hosts looked dangerous in flashes but seemed to shudder at the pressure that came once David Luiz saw red and Jorginho converted the penalty to make it 1-0. In previous years this would have sparked a rout by the Blues, another soul-destroying defeat for Arsenal at the hands of one of their closest rivals. Instead, the game turned on an N’Golo Kante slip and the naive nature of Chelsea once reclaiming the lead to not put the ball out of play for an injured Tammy Abraham was beyond parody.
However, once the raw emotion had died down following full-time this was not a surprise. Even as far back as pre-season the warning signs were there that this was going to prove to be the most uncertain Chelsea in recent memory.
Being one of 900 supporters in the corner of Borussia Park for the final pre-season friendly against Monchengladbach foreshadowed a chaotic campaign.
In the first half the Blues were fractured, outrun and outfought – finding themselves 2-0 down before the break and rightly so, there was a fear it could have gotten worse.
In the second though, Chelsea got on the ball, moved it quickly and started to find space to create chances. Passing combinations, fast switches of play and intense pressing all contributed to a comeback through two penalties. Dismiss pre-season as an exercise in fitness, but it is hard to look past those games which are eerily similar to what has unfolded once business turned serious.
There are many varying factors as to why Chelsea have struggled for consistency.
A transfer ban, a crop of young players and an inexperienced coach all have been discussed widely and all have their merits in contributing to a flawed squad.
Though team selection and style of play are two topics that are only now rearing their heads as a point of contention.
It was at a similar point last season when these two elements were coming under major fire under Maurizio Sarri. His predictable starting eleven and substitutions were rapidly irritating fans as results continued to dip. The style of play too had also started to look formulaic and tired, easily worked out by opposition.
This season, it’s in reverse.
Lampard’s team selections and style are anything but predictable and in the early months that suited fans cravings who had grown tired of a style reliant solely on ball retention. However as form has steadily declined more questions have been asked over what the plan is.
Apart from being a fly on the wall inside meetings with Lampard and Jody Morris, no-one can name Chelsea’s best starting eleven. Every position on the pitch is up for debate.
Kepa’s xG stats have been a major cause for concern and criticism and sparked doubts over the Spaniard’s long-term future as the club’s No.1.
There is an equal uncertainty about the full-backs with Chelsea desperately needing a solution at Left-back with Lampard trying Emerson, Marcus Alonso and César Azpilicueta on the left of his back four, all showing flaws in different ways.
What is the best back-two? We started with Andreas Christensen and Kurt Zouma, then turned to Zouma and Fikayo Tomori during the winning run, then back to Christensen and Zouma. Once Antonio Rudiger returned from injury it was Zouma and the German. Now Christensen has returned to favour alongside Rudiger with Zouma and Tomori left to the subs bench. Chelsea have looked weak in defence, but the constant switching week to week surely has not aided harmony in that area.
Despite Chelsea’s most talented area of the pitch being midfield, it is as equally problematic with a struggle to find the right balance. Whilst at times the midfield trio of Jorginho, Mateo Kovacic and N’Golo Kante has appeared most suitable to retain control – it started on Tuesday and did not prove that theory. Mason Mount’s best position still seems to be up for debate as the 21-year-old has struggled to maintain his bright start to the season and has looked impactful when fielded as an inverted winger in one of Chelsea’s best performances against Spurs in December.
Ross Barkley has blown hot and cold in form and like Christensen has suddenly found his way back into minutes. Ruben Loftus-Cheek’s return from a ruptured Achilles tendon has been delayed further and further, a player who Lampard would have been chomping at the bit to work with.
The front three is where the most consistency has been found with Willian and Tammy Abraham as regulars in the starting eleven. Willian has earned his position with his customary work-rate and some big goals whilst Abraham – with 15 goals – has proved he’s capable of leading the line.
Callum Hudson-Odoi and Christian Pulisic have gained substantial time too with bright moments.
Michy Batshuayi still remains a firm plan-b in the last 10 minutes of games and Olivier Giroud is certain to be off to Inter in the coming days.
In regards to philosophy, Chelsea started the season looking like a team heavy on pressing and rapid movement. Lampard spoke widely about how he wanted his players to move the ball as quickly as possible from defence to attack, aiming for more direct play over slow build up from the back.
Demonstrated in Chelsea’s winner against Norwich in August where the ball took 11 seconds to go from Kepa’s hands to Tammy Abraham’s feet to strike the winner. Abraham’s winner against Arsenal also highlighted this belief but these fast breaks have become less prevalent as teams have sat deeper against Chelsea.
Although there was pressing Lampard appeared to not abandon all the principles of Sarriball, fielding Kante ahead of Jorginho – allowing the Italian to retain a deep-lying midfield position. Kante’s future which has come under speculation once again has suffered from a lack of clarity.
When watching Kante under Lampard, the Frenchman appears in a middle ground between an attacking and defensive midfielder. Even through all the scrutiny Sarri was put under, Kante’s role was much clearer and he added to Chelsea’s attacking output.
Once again this seems to be a strange combination between implementing a mixture of Guardiola and Klopp – a nice utopian compromise but has in reality brought muddled results.
This is all guessing and our assertions on Lampard’s style may be well off the mark and look ludicrous comparisons in a year’s time. Though this uncertainty all leads to confusion and chaos which seems inevitable with a coach still learning on the job.
Sarri, Antonio, Conte, Jose Mourinho, Rafael Benitez and Carlo Ancelotti – some illustrious names but all were clear in their methodology and way of working when arriving at Chelsea. Lampard is not that coach yet and that was the risk when appointing him in the summer.
3-4-3, 4-3-3, 4-2-3-1 have all been tried and all shown positive and negative aspects. With the summer window getting closer, you would hope a clarity of Lampard’s preferred formation would inform recruitment, though in his own words Lampard wants his team to be flexible.
Being flexible and showing signs of pragmatism should not be shunned but considering the state of the modern game, the best coaches are ones that have a defined style and work tirelessly to perfect it. This clarity in coaching also suits the modern player too. Jose Mourinho’s recent struggles tell us that approaching games solely based on the upcoming opponent might not have the same galvanising effect it once did.
There is still a lot in the air this season and moving forward.
All of the questions I have outlined need answers but in context they cannot be expected after 24 league games. Not only are all the permutations there, but losing Eden Hazard’s genius and having one of the worst injury records in recent years has not aided Lampard when picking a consistent eleven.
For those fearful now, should gaze back to that winning run and some of Chelsea’s best victories and performances where Lampard has show tactical intelligence and a craved clarity which shows with time, the club legend can create something special at Stamford Bridge.
The wins in particular against Wolves, Ajax, Spurs and Arsenal (plus some others) have caught the imagination of supporters. A side that looks capable to play in an aggressive way filled with flair. To deny these high points completely would be disingenuous, though the path to make those high’s more consistent remains unclear.
It is going to take a mixture of good recruitment in the right areas, a continued faith in the young players and trust in Lampard to be the man to turn Chelsea from flakey to formidable once again.
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