It felt like it was lining up for Chelsea today. After some disappointing results around Christmas, they were getting Manchester City at home after the latter’s training facility had been closed for days, had its last game postponed, and certainly hadn’t had the best preparation for such a big game. For a team like Chelsea, looking like it will have to scrap for a Champions League place, this match might have been a good launching point. Chelsea even had its first-choice frontline back in the starting lineup, with Christian Pulisic, Timo Werner, and Hakim Ziyech all starting together.
If this sounds like exactly what was being said a week ago when Chelsea faced Arsenal, it’s because it basically is. Arsenal were winless in four, looked like a complete dumpster fire, and almost a gimme for Chelsea. While City will never be a gimme, this was as optimal a spot as you could find them in.
And in both matches, Chelsea were thwacked to the tune of 3-1 losses that could have, and should have, been much worse. Which makes anyone wonder if Roman Abramovich’s trigger finger is starting to pulsate just a bit when it comes to manager Frank Lampard.
Lampard got something no Chelsea manager has gotten in a decade or more, which was a runway last year. Chelsea were under a transfer ban, meaning Pulisic was basically the only addition from outside the club. Others like Tammy Abraham and Mason Mount returned from loan spells elsewhere, but were always Chelsea players. So with a collection of youth products and holdovers, Lampard had a cushion of low expectations and no massive expenditures to mold his team.
And he did. Chelsea’s fourth-place finish with that collection of players was a terrific result, and seemed a platform for moving onto bigger and better.
Certainly the financial outlay proved that the Chelsea boardroom thought so, with Werner, Ziyech, Ben Chillwell, and Kai Havertz arriving at the club for a combined £223 million. Needless to say, with Chelsea in 7th — level on points with Aston Villa, Southampton, and West Ham — the board can’t think they’re getting bang for their buck.
Chelsea have won one of their last five, with dispiriting losses to Everton, Arsenal, and City in that time. And perhaps worst of all in those games is that with all the expensive toys, Chelsea have looked so toothless.
To be fair to Lampard, he’s rarely had his favored attackers all healthy together. Pulisic has done his normal in-and-out-of-the-lineup thing thanks to hamstrings that are more theoretical than physical, and Ziyech has barely played at all. Callum Hudson-Odoi hasn’t earned Lampard’s esteem, which means that Werner has had to play out wide more than anyone would have liked. When that happens it’s Olivier Giroud or Abraham in the middle, and both can flash but both can go missing too.
Still, Werner and Havertz have spent most of the season looking like they’ve only been recently introduced to the sport. Havertz, the most expensive of the buys, has played himself out of the first 11. At only 21 there is plenty of time on Havertz’s side, but this isn’t how it was designed. He’s suffered from a lack of defined position, as Chelsea don’t play with a traditional #10, and he’s not really made to be on the right or as a false #9 either. When played as a straight midfielder, the pace of the Premier League has left him bewildered at times.
Chelsea seemed to have shored up their defense with the signings of keeper Edouard Mendy and central defender Thiago Silva earlier in the season, but only have managed one clean sheet in their last six. Silva looked every bit of 36 today against City’s doomsday attack.
And perhaps most worrying for Chelsea is just how easily their midfield was simply passed by like the I-Pass lane today and lately. N’Golo Kante has been running pretty cold this season, and while not yet 30, he is already showing the mileage of a game based on covering an inhuman amount of ground. He’s been a dervish for six seasons now and it’s starting to creak. And there’s no alternative. Jorginho has the mobility of a garage. Billy Gilmour is just 19 and only just back from serious injury. Teams get an unfettered run at Chelsea’s defense when they want one without much more of a raised finger in resistance.
Perhaps saving Lampard is that the best free agent manager, Mauricio Pochettino, just came off the market. Thomas Tuchel is out there, but doesn’t have the pedigree that Chelsea usually seek. An up-and-comer like Julian Nagelsmann at Leipzig isn’t going to leave midseason for the job. Massimiliano Allegri, formerly of Juventus, is out there, but that’s just about the only name worthy of the job.
The underlying numbers are still kind to Lampard, as their expected goal stats both for and against still have them among the best in the league both offensively and defensively. And at some point, Werner will lose his goal-related agoraphobia. What Lampard may be finding now is what Antonio Conte and Maurizio Sarri found before getting shoved out the door. And that’s that Chelsea lack an on-field leader to arrest things on the field when they start to go wrong. Silva was brought with that in mind, but he doesn’t speak the language yet. Everyone else is either new, or quiet, or young. Everyone is looking at each other instead of at one figure to find the right path when things start to pear-shaped, and no one arrests the slide.
Lampard is a club legend, and that might buy him a little more leeway than any other manager would get. But he might find, if he can’t turn things around soon, that doesn’t add up to all that much.