Chelsea: 2019-20 Season Preview
This is the story of a love affair between a man and a football club. After having a tough time of it at West Ham, Frank Lampard signed for Chelsea in 2001 and set about turning around his career. To say he achieved at this would be the world’s greatest understatement. While the purchase of the club by Roman Abramovich allowed Chelsea to buy almost any player they wanted, it was the man already there, Super Frankie Lampard, who starred as the midfielder with licence to break forward in a side that won three Premier League titles, four FA Cups and one Champions League across a thirteen year stint.
After Lampard left the club in 2014, on the face of it, things continued to be successful. The club have won the title twice in the last five years, as many times as Manchester City. But it’s the down years that have left a bad taste in the mouth. 2015-16 saw the atrocious Jose Mourinho implosion followed by a general sleepwalk to tenth place. 2017-18 saw Chelsea finish 23 points worse off than Antonio Conte’s first year and drop out of the top four. Last season was a quantitative improvement on this, finishing third and lifting the Europa League trophy. And yet the feeling around the club was very negative. Maurizio Sarri only seemed able to get the players to a passing impression of the football his Napoli side produced. The atmosphere in the dressing room seemed poor, with Sarri calling his players “extremely difficult to motivate”. So Sarri decided to head on home to Italy and worse still, Eden Hazard, the man so often single-handedly driving the Chelsea attack, left for Real Madrid. The sum total of all this was that the fans seemed to have lost an emotional bond with the club. With a transfer ban kicking in, after Chelsea seemed to make an active decision not to appeal their punishment, Chelsea can’t really fix any holes in their squad, so all that’s left to do is make everyone “feel” Stamford Bridge again.
Welcome home, Lamps.
In terms of what Lampard is inheriting, things look pretty good in the numbers. By expected goals, Chelsea had the third best attack and third best defence in the league last season. What’s more, this wasn’t drastically different to their performances the year before, under a different manager and different style of football. Chelsea have been simply a good football team for some time.
The obvious problem, though, is that these seasons were with Hazard. The Belgian managed 27 non-penalty goals and assists in last season’s Premier League, with the next best Chelsea player (Pedro) putting up just 10, but that only scratches the surface in terms of what he brings to the team. He had the most deep progressions (passes, dribbles and carries into the opposition final third per 90 minutes) of any wide player in the league. He had the second most open play passes into the box per 90 of anyone after Kevin De Bruyne. He had the third most dribbles per 90 of any player in the league. There is no one in the Premier League who moves the ball like Hazard did, and then he added goals and assists on top. And now he’s gone.
Chelsea’s one new signing made before the ban came in is thankfully a positional replacement for Hazard. Christian Pulisic, favourite son of all football websites looking to get some American traffic, is looking to push on in London after stalling a touch in his last couple of years at Borussia Dortmund. In the numbers, Pulisic actually looks a reasonable fit for Hazard’s skillset, offering a high volume of dribbles with a decent goal threat. His numbers from last season do need the asterisk that he was frequently coming off the bench, so there are some sub effects attached, and perhaps it is somewhat of an indictment of him that he didn’t play more frequently, but this is nonetheless exciting for any 20 year old.
In terms of how Lampard will look to play, we have all of one season at Derby County to go by. Derby reached the playoff final, yes, but this is a rather generous conclusion to their overall performances last year. At both ends of the pitch, Derby were as close in the numbers to a league average side as you could find.
Lampard’s Derby were a fairly aggressive pressing side, and this shows up in the numbers, with the Rams allowing the second fewest opponent passes before making an attempt to win the ball back (after Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds pressing machine). This was a set up that contained some of the principles from the Chelsea teams managed by Mourinho that Lampard starred in, but with much more of a front foot, high pressing approach. The Chelsea side he inherits have already spent a season adjusting to a higher pressing style, but this time it will be without the patient possession play that they never seemed to truly adapt to.
With the decision having been made to offer everyone a clean slate after various ongoings under previous regimes, Chelsea have quite a bulky squad. Many of the loan army have returned as Lampard looks to figure out who the hell his best players are. As early as it is, we do have some early indications as to what the Englishman wants to do. The side have looked toward a clear 4-2-3-1 shape, and we know this is the plan going forward because the players have said so. “Last season we had three midfielders and now we are two”, Jorginho has stated. At centre back, it looks as though Kurt Zouma has had a slightly surprising revival, and he’ll look to compete with Antonio Rudiger, David Luiz and Andreas Christensen for minutes there. Cesar Azpilicueta has been a Chelsea starter since forever, and looks set to keep his spot at right back with Davide Zappacosta currently second choice, though that could change when Reece James returns from injury. Marcos Alonso and Emerson look likely to again compete at left back. For the midfield double pivot, Lampard has liked the pairing of Jorginho and Mateo Kovačić, though N’Golo Kanté has been injured and one would expect the midfield to be eventually built around him.
Higher up the pitch is where things get interesting. It looks as though Pulisic has indeed taken Hazard’s old left sided birth, and that should be an easy fit. On the other side, the hope is still for Callum Hudson-Odoi to get a serious run when he returns from injury. While his Premier League form last year looked merely good for his age, his Europa League output paints him as an 18 year old phenomenon. Both are small sample sizes, but between them it looks like there’s a really exciting player in there.
For the central attacking midfield role, it looks like a straight contest between Mason Mount and Ross Barkley. Mount is someone a lot of Chelsea fans are excited about, with the youngster widely regarded as one of the brightest prospects in England. He certainly had an exciting time in the Eredivisie and looks to have the tools to develop into a top player. As for the present, though, his recent loan to Derby was more mixed. As much as supporters may disagree here, I’m not sure Mount is ready to contribute right now, and the limited but solid Barkley could be the better short term pick.
Upfront is where Chelsea have better options. Olivier Giroud is around and everyone knows at this point what you get from him: aerial dominance and good link up play but limited mobility and finishing that can run hot and cold. Michy Batshuayi has also returned from loan and is another player who could be described as a known quantity. When he gets on the pitch, he generally scores plenty of goals, even if he can cost you somewhat in possession. He had a productive half season at Crystal Palace, scoring 5 goals in 8.7 90s, even if he ran over xG in that period.
But having started three of the last four friendlies, it looks like Tammy Abraham is the man to beat for the striking role. Abraham might be a poster boy for Chelsea’s failed youth integration in recent years. First, he goes to Bristol City in 2016-17 and scores an awful lot of goals for anyone, let alone a teenager in a pretty average Championship side. Next up, he goes up a division and puts up entirely decent work in a well below average Swansea team that earned their relegation. But the headline figure was just five goals, so he’s unfairly demoted down to the Championship again, where he scores plenty of goals for Aston Villa. Lampard’s pitch for this job is about integrating these young players who haven’t been given a look in previously. For this to have any weight, Abraham has to be given chances. That he’s been given the number nine shirt at least suggests it’s the plan.
It’s hard to gauge what the threshold is for a successful season at Chelsea. Even if we take it on good faith that Lampard will do a better job than Sarri (which we certainly shouldn’t) and that the returning loanees will make positive contributions, the impact of losing Hazard would probably outweigh everything else. Thus things might be best judged in qualitative rather than quantitative terms. If Lampard manages to turn this team into a cohesive side by the end of the season, playing a more direct, swashbuckling style of football that the fans enjoy, while integrating several of the younger players well, the year will have been a success. If he doesn’t manage to achieve this, even if results are broadly fine, Chelsea might want to go back to the drawing board.
Header image courtesy of the Press Association