When Frank Lampard landed the Chelsea job he was tasked with sweeping aside the dull tactics instilled by his predecessor and retaining the club’s place in the Champions League – despite losing Eden Hazard and during a transfer ban. The assignment looked almost impossible.
The 2019/20 season has brought plenty of ignoble defeats, plenty of clumsy tactical decisions, and plenty of delayed reactions to poor performances. But the circumstances under which Lampard inherited the job should not be forgotten, and the fact his side are nine points worse off this year than at the same stage under Maurizio Sarri is irrelevant.
Chelsea remain in the driving seat for a top-four finish. That is a superb achievement.
Season so far
Lampard began the campaign by radically altering the club’s playbook. Investing in Tammy Abraham and Mason Mount paid off instantly as the manager’s retro 4-2-3-1 – complete with inverted wingers and crowding of the number ten space – saw Chelsea race through the first few months of the season, riding on the exuberance of youth.
He showed flexibility, too, shifting at times to a three-man defence to cram yet more academy graduates into the team. First it was Fikayo Tomori, then Reece James, and more recently Billy Gilmore. And the kids played like kids, too: bursts of high energy attacking mixed with a headless naivety.
A succinct summary of Chelsea’s season is excellent on the ball, poor off it. Their consistent inability to re-compress after the ball was lost has led to serious problems in the transition, highlighting the lack of in-depth tactical coaching going on at the club. Chelsea fan out expansively, wildly, in order to create chances. It is great fun to watch when it works, but deeply concerning when it doesn’t.
And so the flurry of wins in autumn turned to cold, stale defeats in winter, a combination of the young players tiring and Lampard’s lack of detail being exposed. Without clear direction in attack, the improvisations stuttered as confidence drained.
But just when Lampard looked to be in trouble Chelsea came roaring back. He changed formation, brought back some of the older players – most notably Olivier Giroud – and the electricity returned. Flexibility and problem-solving are signs of a top manager in the making.
The crowning glory of the first portion of the season was a 5-2 win at Wolves in September, a rampant win defined by Abraham’s hat-trick, Tomori’s wonder-goal, and an intelligent tactical switch to a 3-4-2-1. Things clicked perfectly at Molineaux, even if the defending remained suspect.
The 1-0 victory at Ajax in the Champions League, then, is arguably more impressive. It was an astute and mature performance in Amsterdam that put many of Lampard’s doubters in their place – as did a brilliant 2-0 win over Jose Mourinho’s Tottenham in December. At the time, that performance looked like a coming-of-age moment for the manager, who – with a clear game-plan executed to perfection – outMourinho-ed Mourinho.
Not everyone has taken to the assertive attacking football, and among those who struggled N’Golo Kante stands out the most. The Frenchman has endured a difficult campaign, and with Chelsea performing notably better during his absence through injury many are predicting Kante will leave in the summer.
On the pitch, the three-month period between December and February has been a troubled time for the club, the occasional standout display punctuating an otherwise lacklustre string of games. Goalless defeats at Stamford Bridge to West Ham, Southampton and Bournemouth deserve special mention.
What they can achieve in 19/20
If the season gets back underway Chelsea should be backed to finish in the top four, priced at [1.63] with Betfair Exchange, because of the renewed vigour Gilmore and Giroud have given the club.
Lampard’s side were on an upswing before the suspension, and with a relatively easy fixture list they should maintain form. The Blues have only one ‘Big Six’ away game left, at Liverpool, and are due to play four of the relegation candidates. They ought to pick up the points needed.
An away tie against Leicester City in the FA Cup quarter-final puts Lampard in with a shot of silverware in his debut season. Chelsea are second favourites at [9.0] to win the tournament, and with those odds it’s probably worth a small punt. The fearlessness of youth is a valuable commodity in the latter stages.
In the Champions League, a 3-0 first-leg defeat to Bayern Munich gives Chelsea no hope.
What next: Summer transfers & 2020/21
The 2020/21 season could be special. For starters, they can hope to be luckier with injuries: Callum Hudson-Odoi, Christian Pulisic, and Antonio Rudiger have all been available for fewer than half of Chelsea’s matches this season. Add these three to a set of young players developing rapidly, the quality of the squad will leap up next year – and that’s before they dip into the transfer market.
It will be a busy summer. Lampard ought to be looking for a new left-back, a goalkeeper, a striker, and at least one new winger/playmaker to replace Hazard’s influence. Most of the circulating rumours are for big-name players like Philippe Coutinho, Lautaro Martinez, and Gianluigi Donnarumma, suggesting Roman Abramovich is prepared to spend big.
That could mean a title challenge, should Liverpool dip slightly and Man City fail to adequately refresh the squad.
Performances have been so erratic at Chelsea (reflecting the chaos that comes from a sprightly, inexperienced manager with sprightly, inexperienced players) that it has sometimes been difficult to take a step back and look at the campaign as a whole. On balance, things have gone well.
Chelsea are in the top four having entertained the fans and having developed some promising academy graduates. What’s more, with the likes of Matteo Kovacic and Jorginho notably improved the squad looks somehow more talented than it did at the end of last season. That is no mean feat. Chelsea, and their young manager, can be proud of how they have navigated a thorny year.