Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 27 September 2020

A painful finish for Chelsea but Frank Lampard's debut campaign counts as a qualified success

Blues manager knows he must move forward next season

In a sense, Chelsea came full circle. Their season ended as it began, conceding four goals in an August defeat to a superpower which highlighted problems with the defence.

Once again, they sought solace in their youth.

Some 362 days separated the 4-0 setback at Manchester United from Saturday’s 4-1 loss to Bayern Munich. They bookended a campaign which contained many a reason for optimism. They amounted to an unsatisfactory start and finish to a year unlike any other; not just for football, but for Chelsea.

As Frank Lampard said, being a “work in progress … is not the norm for Chelsea in the last 15 years.”

They have been strangers to transitional seasons and circumstances, particularly the combination of a transfer ban and the departure of the talismanic Eden Hazard, who scored or provided 49 percent of their 2018/19 league goals, rendered this year a bridge between past and future.

Perhaps it was therefore fitting that neither Willian nor Pedro faced Bayern. Their five-season job-share is over.

Timo Werner, Hakim Ziyech and, potentially, Kai Havertz will reshape the forward line.

Yet the more significant absentees arguably came elsewhere on the pitch.

Jorginho was suspended but Maurizio Sarri’s sacking by Juventus means the playmaker will almost certainly remain at Stamford Bridge for another season, even though Lampard’s summer selections suggested a definite shift in his thinking to use N’Golo Kante as the deepest midfielder, the only role the Italy international can fill. The conundrum of Sarri’s favourite carries on.

Meanwhile, there were a couple of incongruous sights on a Bavarian bench packed with academy products.

That neither Kepa Arrizabalaga, the world’s most expensive goalkeeper ever, nor Antonio Rudiger, the costliest centre-back currently at Stamford Bridge, merited a place was an indication of how plans have gone awry. The alternatives were duly outclassed by Robert Lewandowski, who emerged with two goals and two assists.

Rudiger may be Chelsea’s best central defender, but Lampard has failed to find an optimum partnership all season.

The German could yet be rehabilitated. Arrizabalaga, who had the lowest save percentage in the Premier League, seems beyond redemption in London, a £71.6 million mistake who has lost his manager’s confidence.

On the left, Marcos Alonso is only really trusted as a wing-back and Emerson Palmieri scarcely trusted at all. On the right, Cesar Azpilicueta struggled last August and this, before injury curtailed his FA Cup final, and though the captain defended more doggedly for much of the intervening period, age may be catching up with him.

These are individual and collective issues, problems with personnel and defensive structure.

Chelsea conceded 54 league goals, their most since 1996-97, and as many as 15th-place Brighton. In all competitions, they were breached 79 times. They played 28 games against England’s top nine, plus Bayern, Ajax and Valencia and kept four clean sheets.

The room for improvement is obvious, the number of roles that require upgrading daunting.

The bemusing element of the interest in Havertz is that there are so many greater priorities. Chelsea can benefit from a relaxation of Financial Fair Play rules but targets such as Declan Rice, Ben Chilwell and Jan Oblak would command huge fees.

Get all, or even some, and Chelsea will not be afforded so much leeway.

The simplistic, superficial assessment of this season is to see Sarri’s third-place finish, one above Lampard’s fourth, and the Italian’s trophy and assume the older man did the better job. He did not.

Lampard brought better football and a more progressive ethos. His debut campaign counts as a qualified success.

But, as a man steeped in the club’s recent history was swift to recognise, the context will change next year. More of the same will not be enough.

Updated: August 9, 2020 03:21 PM

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