Premier League 2020/21 preview: Chelsea
Frank Lampard’s summer spending spree has brought back memories of the mega-rich Chelsea. But how will the new boss cope with so many signings?
Frank Lampard’s summer spending spree has brought back memories of the mega-rich Chelsea who elbowed their way onto the scene when he was a player. But with so many new signings to integrate and heightened expectations, how will the Chelsea boss cope?
First five games: Brighton and Hove Albion (A), Liverpool (H), West Bromwich Albion (A), Crystal Palace (H), Southampton (H)
Final five games: Fulham (H), Manchester City (A), Arsenal (H), Leicester City (H), Aston Villa (A)
How was last season?
Few knew what to expect from Chelsea at the start of last season. They had just won the Europa League and secured a top four finish but the departure of manager Mauricio Sarri and the talismanic Eden Hazard made it clear that a new direction was needed. With the club under a transfer ban they could not spend big to refurbish the squad and instead put their faith in some promising but unproven youngsters.
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The first of those was new boss Frank Lampard, who had just a single season of managerial experience in the second tier when he took over at Stamford Bridge. Lampard spoke of wanting to help bring through some of Chelsea’s highly-rated academy graduates and he gave plenty of opportunities to young English players throughout the season. Mason Mount made more appearances (53) than any other Chelsea player and Tammy Abraham finished as the club’s top goal-scorer with 18 in all competitions. Both players were rewarded with their first full England caps and have been shortlisted for the PFA Young Player of the Year award. Reece James, Fikayo Tomori and 18-year-old Billy Gilmour were also given their first real chances in the Chelsea first team.
Their performances bode well for Chelsea’s future but at times the emphasis on youth cost the team in the present. Inexperience often leads to inconsistency and that was certainly the case for the Blues as they performed in fits and starts throughout a rollercoaster season. They suffered an embarrassing 4-0 defeat to Manchester United on the opening day before going on a six-game winning streak in the autumn. However that good run was followed by five losses in seven matches, including home defeats to West Ham United, Bournemouth and Southampton.
That patchiness was also a consequence of their shaky defence and Lampard never really settled on a first-choice backline. Without the required quality in the squad he constantly rotated his defenders (and goalkeepers, eventually) without finding a solution. Although Chelsea finished fourth they conceded as many goals as 15th-placed Brighton and Hove Albion. Worryingly, in the last game of their season (the FA Cup final defeat to Arsenal) Chelsea’s defensive structure looked far weaker than the one assembled by Mikel Arteta in a shorter period of time. Champions League qualification was enough to mark the season as a success but there is certainly room for improvement for Lampard and his young team.
The entire forward line, for a start. After a season of thrifty, academy-focused Chelsea this summer heralded the return of the high-rolling, big-spending Chelsea from the early years of Roman Abramovich’s ownership. Their fallow year last summer allowed the club to save funds and with the transfer market depressed due to the pandemic they are one of few clubs with real purchasing power.
They were able to pay Timo Werner’s release clause when Liverpool could not; they signed Hakim Ziyech from Ajax and sorted a club-record deal for Kai Havertz. That trio will replace Willian and Pedro while also adding greater strength in depth for Lampard.
Perhaps even more crucial are the defensive additions to address two key weaknesses. Left-back has been a problem position for Chelsea in recent seasons with neither Marcos Alonso nor Emerson Palmieri as good defensively as they are going forward. Lampard identified Leicester City’s Ben Chilwell as his top target and the new £50million signing could tie down that spot for much of the next decade. A more short-term addition was central defender Thiago Silva on a free signing. The Brazilian will be 36 later this month but his wealth of experience and leadership qualities should strengthen Lampard’s new-look defence.
What should we expect this season?
With that aggressive transfer activity it follows that there will be a change of emphasis for Lampard’s second season in the job. Chelsea are now being spoken about, admittedly fairly quietly, as being potential title challengers if the new signings can gel with the youngsters who impressed last year. Those higher expectations should not be an issue for a man who lifted the title three times for the club as a player but it may influence Lampard’s thinking at times.
Will Abraham get as much game-time after the arrival of Werner? What do the arrivals of Ziyech and Havertz mean for Mount and Christian Pulisic? Not only will Lampard have to make those decisions but he will also have to deal with the consequences as he tries to keep all of his deep squad happy. The big-money signings will expect to play and the success of their integration into the squad will probably be the difference between progression and stagnation for Lampard’s side.
Regardless, they will continue to be an interesting and expansive team who are capable of beating the very best on their day. The defensive acquisitions make sense and they will pose enough of a threat going forward to outscore the majority of the teams they face. For a second year in a row Chelsea have had a transformative summer and they are an exciting unknown going into the new season.
What does the manager think?
Frank Lampard: “I’m thinking of where we want to go and how we need to improve. That game [against Bayern] showed that we can compete, certainly the young players, but also highlights how much work there is for us to get to the level we want to be at.”
What do the fans think?
Gabe Hendersen and Travis Tyler, editors of Chelsea supporters’ website The Pride of London:
Gabe: “I think the new signings will bring a healthy blend of offensive flare and necessary experience. Timo Werner and Hakim Ziyech could come out quick off the blocks. Both of their styles of play emphasize quickness and technical ability, rather than strength, so it’s not too far-fetched to believe they’ll be difficult for the opposition to figure out at first. Regardless, Chelsea fans have to allow each of them a grace period to get adjusted to the Premier League and playing with each other.”
Travis: “Last season, top four was the measurement of a good year. While it may seem as though Chelsea should be aiming higher than that after all the signings, it is more realistic to simply aim to close the gap to Liverpool and Manchester City. Closing that gap, getting top four and getting out of the CL group stage comfortably (and maybe snagging a cup) would be a very successful second year for Frank Lampard.”
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