One season of ‘gelling’ was forecasted before this much-changed Chelsea would contest for highest honors, but faster-than-expected progress means the club can expect to challenge this season after all.
The excitement around Stamford Bridge this summer was palpable despite the fact no supporters would attend games in the foreseeable future. However, early defeat to defending champions Liverpool followed by a Carabao Cup exit to rivals Tottenham Hotspur left some wondering whether they’d be worthy of titles this season.
Fast forward to Chelsea’s most recent result—a fourth straight win and their 11th in a row without defeat after 90 minutes—and manager Frank Lampard is beaming on home turf heading into the international break. He called their 4-1 win over Sheffield United “the best performance” his side have produced this season. Lampard’s side are fifth in the table, just two points behind Jurgen Klopp’s titleholders and within their rights to feel confident the new-look team will only continue to get better:
Their initial start mirrored that of the ill-fated 2015-16 campaign, whereby the club won, drew and lost in their three opening Premier League fixtures before going on to finish 10th. The west Londoners also returned four points from their first three outings last term, though as we know now, their transfer suspension at least granted clarity regarding everyone’s role in the squad.
The key difference between these examples is the Blues were coming off a title-winning season five years ago, expectations sky-high back under the wing of Jose Mourinho. Lampard’s second season at the helm came with its own presumptions given the mass spending undertaken this summer, but common sense always dictated it would take time for those new names to bed in.
After all, few managers can swap (or upgrade, in this case) half of their XI and channel the same synchronicity in their side instantaneously, never mind one as inexperienced as Lampard at this level. Despite what video games have taught us to believe, the path to great chemistry isn’t as simple as donning the same jersey.
Now that Hakim Ziyech is fit and well en route to cementing his place in Lampard’s XI, Chelsea’s starting lineup has completely transformed since losing the FA Cup final to Arsenal in August. Of their 20-man squad at Wembley that day, perhaps only five would be nailed on in what now looks to be the manager’s preferred XI: Mason Mount, N’Golo Kante, Tammy Abraham, Kurt Zouma and Reece James.
A defensive transformation
For all the hype surrounding the shiny, new names recruited to aid Chelsea’s attack during the transfer window, the defense’s metamorphosis has been just as critical to their improvement.
The Blues have scored three or more goals in nine of their 13 games across all competitions this season. They reign as the current top scorers in the Premier League (20 goals in eight games) and are on trend to score 95 times this season, enough to put them sixth among the division’s all-time highest-scoring teams. Not bad for a side made up largely of newcomers.
But standards at the back have come to match those in attack, coinciding neatly with Edouard Mendy’s arrival in goal. The former Rennes stopper was swiftly promoted to No. 1 and became the first Chelsea goalkeeper to keep clean sheets in his first three Premier League games since Petr Cech in 2004.
It’s less surprising to see Ben Chilwell impress given Chelsea paid Leicester City $65 million for the pleasure, while incumbent left-backs Marcos Alonso and Emerson often failed to impress last term.
Thiago Silva, on the other hand, was less certain to work out but now looks their steal of the summer. Even at 36 years of age, the Brazil international has settled almost seamlessly in central defense and is dazzling in his twilight. Lampard paid tribute to his impact after the former Paris Saint-Germain captain scored his first Chelsea goal against the Blades, via Goal:
Silva’s is perhaps the best example of time being necessary to reap the maximum potential of a new signing, considering his physical attributes aren’t what they once were. Becoming accustomed to the squad’s needs, knowing the strengths and weaknesses of one’s team-mates is arguably most crucial stepping into a role like center-back. Kai Havertz and Timo Werner can afford to fluff some passes or mis-time a few runs without major consequence, but the same amount of mistakes from someone in Silva’s position likely means a more visceral difference between victory and defeat.
Chelsea’s 3-3 draw at West Bromwich Albion in September highlighted the devastation that can come with those defensive missteps, though their legion of quality attackers was enough to rescue a result from three goals down on that occasion:
Early in the season though it was, that six-goal thriller looked like it would tell the tale of Chelsea’s season in microcosm: lots of goals scored, but lots of goals conceded.
The present-day truth is a lot scarier for their peers, as the Mendy signing in particular has had a transformative effect on a defense that was lacking in confidence. That sense of affirmation has also been an important tool for the likes of Reece James and Kurt Zouma, both of whom appeared to earn Lampard’s trust following heavy involvement in the 2019-20 campaign.
Both defenders boast considerable athleticism and contribute well going forward—Zouma is Chelsea’s joint-second-highest scorer in the league this season with three goals—but certain lapses at the back meant doubts lingered concerning the team’s balance if they played. The arrivals of Silva and Mendy didn’t just improve options in their positions but helped to counter the weaknesses of Zouma and James, allowing the latter duo to flourish as it’s known they can.
England's new title favorite?
All of a sudden, the Blues have gone from looking top-heavy to one of the most balanced outfits in Europe, their bench replete with players who can afford to be upset after having lost their starter credentials.
That second note in particular should worry Liverpool and Manchester City, who were acres ahead of the competition last season but have been badly hurt by injuries in key areas this term. The Reds confirmed Joe Gomez will miss “a significant part” of 2020-21 following knee surgery—similar to defensive partner Virgil van Dijk—while Pep Guardiola’s City look more human after losing Sergio Aguero, Aymeric Laporte and Gabriel Jesus for parts of the campaign.
Chelsea are yet to go through a comparable patch of injury misfortune, and the international break accommodates Havertz (as best as one could hope given the circumstances) after he tested positive for the coronavirus on November 4.
There’s no telling how badly they’ll be affected until said absences occur, but the bench options at Stamford Bridge are a potent concoction of experience and star potential in equal measure. Cesar Azpilicueta, Antonio Rudiger, Mateo Kovacic, Olivier Giroud and Jorginho have all been considered automatic starters in recent seasons, while Callum Hudson-Odoi is a prodigious talent facing healthy competition on the wings. That’s without mentioning hamstrung Christian Pulisic, Billy Gilmour, Fikayo Tomori and Andreas Christensen, each of whom could have long, bright futures at the Bridge.
One of Lampard’s main quandaries in the not-too-distant future will be convincing those talented fringe players of the roles they have to play in his squad, though it’s a dilemma most managers would envy.
The early-season promise displayed by Southampton and Aston Villa—fourth and sixth in the standings, respectively—will be expected to wilt over time, while Leicester and Tottenham—in first and second—are better-equipped to go all the way.
It was to be expected this Chelsea team would look like one of the best in England, but the speed with which they’ve developed into a fearsome force at both ends of the pitch is surprising.
Lampard didn’t lift the Premier League title until his fourth season as a Chelsea player, but he stands to halve that waiting time as the club continues to make all the right moves in his second term at the helm.