The obvious retort when Frank Lampard talks down Chelsea’s Premier League title chances is to scoff and point at the summer’s extravagant spending. With the Covid-19 pandemic hitting transfer budgets elsewhere, they stood out as they attacked the market relentlessly, securing targets while rivals adopted a more austere approach. Expectations rose as each signing arrived; it seemed that everything was in place for Chelsea to let rip.
All along, though, the man tasked with fitting the pieces together has called for patience. While it is fashionable to knock him, to focus on the luck he enjoyed in landing the job in the first place, Lampard does have a point. Spending money does not guarantee success, and any analysis of Chelsea’s performances needs to acknowledge clear obstacles in a campaign like no other: a truncated pre-season leaving little room to bed in new players, a packed schedule lessening training time and a workload that has unsurprisingly led to injuries.
Time to bring out the world’s tiniest violin? Lampard will not find much sympathy, particularly after consecutive defeats on the road to Everton and Wolves, and there is concern over some choked displays in the tougher games this season. Their record against the top 10 is unimpressive – three draws, three defeats, four goals scored – and the pressure will increase if they stumble against West Ham at home on Monday night. They are a point above David Moyes’s side, who beat them twice last season.
But context elevates the debate. Critics can focus on Chelsea’s riches. Lampard is entitled to point out that Hakim Ziyech, the player who knits their attacks together, has been injured. Christian Pulisic has barely played. Kai Havertz, signed from Bayer Leverkusen to much fanfare, is regaining fitness after recovering from Covid-19.
That is why Lampard could take minor satisfaction from his foresight when, having seen his side’s level gradually improve as they settled into a slick 4-3-3 system and went 14 games unbeaten, bad habits returned against Everton and Wolves. The 42-year-old was prepared. Rival coaches can talk Chelsea up; it will not stop Lampard from viewing his players as talented but immature, short of the consistency required to become a winning machine.
Although Chelsea were swatting weaker opponents aside not so long ago, weaknesses linger. Everton caught them out with a long ball last Saturday, earning the winning penalty when Édouard Mendy fouled Dominic Calvert-Lewin.
Three days later Wolves frustrated them by sitting deep. Chelsea allowed the game to drift after Olivier Giroud’s opener and were naive after being pegged back, leaving themselves exposed as they chased a late winner, allowing Pedro Neto to finish off a Wolves counterattack.
“It’s going to be a test of the players, a test of myself, because it’s my job to pick the players up,” Lampard said. “You could say we were in great form and we just dropped off a level in two games. We dropped our level 15 or 20%. It’s not as if we were doing things terribly. The second goal against Wolves, we’re four against two, so you have to make sure you don’t allow the player to turn.”
Perhaps Declan Rice, who will patrol midfield for West Ham, would have stopped Neto’s dart. Rice has been outstanding this season and Lampard would love to have him at Chelsea, who would benefit from the 21-year-old’s positional sense and leadership.
But it is not just about anticipating danger. Finding attacking cohesion against top sides is a problem. Freewheeling against easier prey, Chelsea have been conservative in the big games. Spooked by defensive concerns after a 3-3 draw with Southampton in October, they played it safe in goalless draws with Manchester United and Sevilla. Wary of Tottenham’s counterattack last month, caution reigned in a grim stalemate.
Lampard deserved credit for dodging Mourinho’s trap. Against Everton and Wolves, though, Chelsea lacked creativity without Ziyech, who injured a hamstring in the recent win over Leeds. It turned into a muddle. Deprived of natural width because Callum Hudson-Odoi was also hamstrung, Chelsea were one-paced against Everton, with Havertz subdued and Timo Werner ineffective on the flanks.
Wolves also found them easy to contain. Pulisic returned and caused problems when he ran at Nélson Semedo on the left. But Chelsea’s threat decreased after Lampard asked the American to swap wings with Werner, who looks low on confidence after missing some glaring chances during an eight-game goalless run. Havertz struggled again and Chelsea ended up crossing aimlessly, playing into Wolves’s hands.
All the same, these are early days. Werner has scored eight times since joining from RB Leipzig. Havertz, only 21, has shown promising glimpses next to Mason Mount in attacking midfield. Ziyech could return against West Ham. A once neurotic defence has improved.
With an inexperienced manager leading a young team, it will take time. While Lampard continues to quash the title talk, he does have to show Chelsea are capable of staying in the picture. He has the tools at his disposal and although the gap to the top has closed that is largely down to Liverpool experiencing a dip because of injuries to Virgil van Dijk and Thiago Alcântara.
The argument works both ways and if this season is about building towards a glorious future, it will take a few more commanding performances to prove Chelsea are moving in the right direction.