By J Hutcherson (Jan 5, 2021) US Soccer Players – Depending on your loyalties, it might be easy to forget how much money, transfers, and managers it took to turn Chelsea into one of the best clubs in the Premier League. Improving from 11th in 1995-96 to 6th in 1996-97, the club has finished no lower. That includes winning the Premier League five times. The expectation of top-six is fundamental to the club at this point, something that becomes expectation rather than achievement. A bad season for Chelsea is a 6th-place finish. They’re currently 9th, three points behind 6th-place Southampton, who are now in a three-way tie with the 5th and 4th-place teams.
That’s the upside for Chelsea, a clear and quick way of moving past this season’s problems. At Fulham on January 15, they could travel to Leicester City on the 19 back in the European picture. That’s partly due to the kind of seasons teams across the Premier League are having. It’s tough to take a fully available squad as a given in the coronavirus era, much less that the schedule will stay the same.
Frank Lampard has yet to experience a normal season as manager of the club. Taking over in advance of the 2019-20 season, Chelsea ended up finishing 4th, tied on points with 3rd-place Manchester United. Good enough, considering the circumstances. Chelsea ran into trouble in November and December with back-to-back losses in both months. Playing itself back from that, Chelsea was in 4th-place when the league shut down due to the pandemic. 5th-place at the time Manchester United passing them downplays Chelsea making up the five-point difference between themselves and 3rd-place Leicester City. Chelsea only lost three games once the season resumed, pointing to an understanding of how to play in the lockdown era.
That showed early this season. Losing their second game to defending champions Liverpool was understandable. Chelsea didn’t lose again until December 12, 1-0 at Everton immediately followed by a 2-1 loss at Wolverhampton. It wasn’t last season’s turn in form in November, but losses at Arsenal on December 26 and home to Manchester City on January 3 created a similar hole. Rather than seeing a replay of last season with the same potential to play their way into contention, some began calling for a change in manager. That included the kind of journalistic creativity that has Lampard building this squad for the next guy, whomever that may be. Add in creative solutions for a lack of goals, also known as blaming a forward, and that kind of thing writes itself.
Liverpool losing to Southampton and opening up an opportunity for Manchester United to pass them at the top of the table may already be resetting expectations. It should, pointing to the unpredictable nature of this strange season and how close teams really are in the top half of the table. That certainly includes Lampard’s Chelsea, a team of emerging superstars that’s still under development.
Chelsea spent a massive amount over the summer transfer window, a total of just over $300m. Four of the five transfers that cost them over $49m each were on the field in the loss to Manchester City, an indication of how much reworking Lampard has done. Chelsea remains an organization dedicated to the loan model, with a squad’s worth currently with other clubs. That creates an internal pressure for spots that hasn’t caught on across the Premier League. It may be an advantage in theory, but in practice it’s just as easily a management problem.
That makes it tougher for anybody in the role. Chelsea has gone through enough elite managers to suggest a trend. All of that money, all of players, but someone has to turn that into a first team squad. At least Lampard knows what he’s working with and towards.
“I said to the players at half-time, I sat there and had those days,” Lampard said following the loss to Manchester City. “I sat there and had those days and lifted a trophy at the end of the year…. “We’re in a different period now, but any player in football is going to have moments like that. Some of the results we’ve seen this season for other teams, Man City, Liverpool and others, have been harsh for them. Now, because we’re in a bit of a period, it becomes even harsher for us. I don’t want to hide away from that, but the players, myself, have to take it on the chin and react.”
Lampard has shown he gets the club he used to play for in a way some of his predecessors didn’t. His version of Chelsea is that elite talent still has to earn their place while buying into a system. It’s easy to point to his positional choices as problematic until they start working.
“We had to go back out and show character,” Chelsea midfielder Christian Pulisic said. “We’re never going to give up, we know we have talented guys and a good team. We just need to show it.”
It’s too early in the season to talk about statement games. Liverpool probably thought they had one with their 7-0 win at Crystal Palace. They followed that with a 1-1 home draw with West Brom, 0-0 at Newcastle, and Monday’s 1-0 loss at Southampton. Whatever fear that lopsided win at Palace may have instilled in other clubs, it’s a safe assumption they now feel differently.
For Chelsea, they have to be looking at their schedule between now and when the Champions League resumes for them on February 23 as an open opportunity. With all due respect to the clubs giving Liverpool games and the uncertainty of this season, there’s a clear path for Chelsea to get back to where they’re comfortable. That may not have them in contention for the title or a match for Atletico Madrid in the Champions League, but it would look like progress in a season that seems to have already stalled. It’s also confirmation that Lampard’s project is moving forward.
J Hutcherson started covering soccer in 1999 and has worked as the general manager of the US National Soccer Team Players Association since 2002. Contact him at email@example.com.
More from J Hutcherson:
- Concacaf presses on with the Champions League
- Toronto resets without Greg Vanney
- The situation in the Eastern Conference
- The Red Bulls way forward
Photo by Ian Walton – PA Wire via ZUMA Press – ISIPhotos.com