Defensive issues continue to plague the Blues while their expensively-assembled attack is yet to properly fire in the opening weeks of the campaign
This season was supposed to be different for Chelsea.
After an inconsistent but encouraging first campaign under Frank Lampard last term, this was meant to be the season where the Blues made the leap from top-four battlers to title contenders.
With Roman Abramovich having backed Lampard with a £200 million-plus summer spending splurge, many felt the Stamford Bridge outfit had gone a long way to closing the gap at the top of the table.
Sunday’s 2-0 defeat to Liverpool, however, illustrated just how much work Lampard still has to do at both ends of the pitch to ensure his team can challenge both the Reds and Manchester City.
At the back there were similar problems from last season.
The Blues were a shambles at times defensively in 2019-20, and with new arrivals Thiago Silva and Ben Chilwell not yet fit to start, Lampard has been unable to make the necessary alterations.
That was illustrated clearly by Andreas Christensen’s red card in first-half stoppage-time against Jurgen Klopp’s side. The Denmark international was undone by a drilled pass over the top by Jordan Henderson and an outside-to-in run from Sadio Mane before wrestling the Senegal international to the ground when the last man.
The more pressing issue, however, remains behind the backline, with Kepa Arrizabalaga making yet another shocking error to gift Mane his second goal of the afternoon and leave the world’s most expensive goalkeeper’s career in west London hanging by a thread.
Kepa should see fresh competition arrive this week in the shape of Edouard Mendy after a £22m ($29m) agreement was reached with Rennes to sign the shot-stopper, and his days as No.1 must now be numbered.
While the Blues wait for their new defensive players and goalkeeper to establish themselves, those issues are unlikely to go away. What many hoped, though, was that the club’s new supercharged attack would be able to carry the burden in the early weeks of the season.
It was disappointing, then, just how limited Lampard’s side looked in their opening home game.
Germany duo Timo Werner and Kai Havertz – signed for a combined £117.5m ($149m) this summer – both started as part of a front three, but they were given few opportunities to make a mark on the game as Lampard set his team up to stop Liverpool rather than force them backwards.
N’Golo Kante, Jorginho and Mateo Kovacic made up a midfield that, while hard-working, lacks creativity in the final third. Mason Mount, meanwhile, was deployed on the right-hand side of the forward line so as to keep Andrew Robertson quiet with his ability to get up and down the field.
At the end of the first half, all 11 of Chelsea’s players had an average position inside their own half. In contrast, only Liverpool’s centre-backs and goalkeeper were not beyond the halfway line in terms of their own average positions in the opening 45 minutes.
Such a set-up did frustrate Liverpool before Christensen’s red card opened up the game in the second half, but should Chelsea not be showing a little more adventure, particularly in the early weeks of the season?
“We know at times last year we conceded too many goals,” Lampard said as he looked to defend his tactics post-match. “The biggest thing for us at the moment is lack of time to work on the training pitch.
“We are trying to work for fitness, we’ve got games coming thick and fast and there certainly needs to be patience from myself and from everybody. I know we are going to get better and better the more time we can build relationships on the training pitch.”
To his credit, Werner did look dangerous when he was given the chance to run at the Liverpool backline, and only some solid tackling from makeshift centre-back Fabinho stopped him from regularly testing Alisson Becker.
For the second consecutive game the former RB Leipzig man won a penalty for his side, though Chelsea’s disappointing afternoon was summed up by Jorginho missing from the spot.
Havertz, on the other hand, again struggled to impose himself on the game.
After underwhelming from the right-hand side against Brighton on Monday, the 21-year-old was moved centrally into the false nine role that he filled at times during his goal-laden final weeks at Bayer Leverkusen.
The youngster clearly, though, still needs time to get up to speed in the Premier League, and it was no surprise to see him sacrificed at half-time as Lampard reshuffled following Christensen’s dismissal.
Lampard’s vision of Chelsea’s future is a fluid attacking line-up that sees the likes of Havertz, Werner and Mount swapping positions to make them hard to track; Christian Pulisic and Hakim Ziyech will come back from injury while Callum Hudson-Odoi is also available.
It is a vision that the Blues are wholeheartedly behind, with chairman Bruce Buck delivering his verdict ahead of the opening game of the season.
“The onus is on us, and the rest of the chasing pack, to make up that gap to them [Liverpool], and we feel we’ve got the right man as our head coach and we’re getting closer to having the right squad in order to challenge for prizes,” he wrote in the matchday programme.
There is no shame in losing at home to the defending champions, but Chelsea want to see progress on last season after a summer of significant expenditure.
Many think the Blues should challenge for the Premier League title after their big-money signings, but talk in the camp is more cautious.
Still, Lampard himself admits that they must deliver more than they achieved last term. The early signs are that they still have some way to go.