After winning just one of their last six Premier League games, Chelsea returned to winning ways with a 3-0 victory over Morecambe in the FA Cup.
It was a welcome relief for the Blues, as they could finally register a victory. However, in the larger scheme of things, the game won't serve as anything more than a welcome distraction. When Chelsea travel to West London neighbours Fulham on Saturday night in the Premier League, the pressure will be back on Frank Lampard.
Last week’s embarrassing 3-1 defeat to Manchester City at Stamford Bridge has left Chelsea languishing in ninth place in the Premier League table. The more worrying part is that teams like Aston Villa and Manchester City are above Chelsea in the table, while Manchester United are seven ahead, having played a game less.
Chelsea's start to 2021 was in continuation to what was largely a mediocre 2020. Despite grinding out a top-four finish during 'project restart' and an incredible summer transfer window, the results over the course of the year were not great, to say the least.
During the calendar year comprising parts of two seasons, Chelsea only took 57 points over 34 games, a tally that is barely impressive for a club of their resources.
However, after a shaky start to the season, it looked like Chelsea were getting their act together. Frank Lampard's side went on a 17-match unbeaten run that saw them just a point off the top of the table and top of their Champions league group ahead of Europa League holders Sevilla.
While all seemed rosy at Stamford Bridge only a month ago, the wheels seemed to have come off in December. Starting with a 1-0 defeat to Everton, Chelsea have taken only four points in their last five Premier League games. Defeats against teams like Wolves and Arsenal, who came into the game completely out of form, are alarming.
With 10th-placed West Ham with the same number of points as them in a congested league table, Chelsea have reached the stage where any more dropped points would be a crisis.
How culpable is Frank Lampard for Chelsea's underwhelming results?
At a club like Chelsea, the bullets will always be fired at the manager first. Such is the history of the club that it does not take long for debates to start on the future of the manager. After the defeat to Manchester City, the rumour mill has been rife with speculations about Frank Lampard's future at Chelsea.
While his status as the club's highest goal-scorer and for many the greatest ever player will ensure that he retains the support of the club faithful for a long period, it remains to be seen how the club hierarchy feels about it.
Ultimately sentiment will have to go out the window, as the sport is a results business, and Roman Abramovich expects better results on the pitch especially after the massive summer spending Chelsea did in the summer.
It is hard to argue that Frank Lampard needs to do better. Some of his decisions have left many perplexed. The biggest of them being the persistence of playing Timo Werner at left wing despite the German clearly looking out of place. In fact, Werner, one of Europe's most prolific scorers, last season has started only six games as a centre-forward
While Werner has shown he can play on the left-hand side for the German national team, it is his role at Chelsea that is causing major concern. The former Leipzig forward is at his best occupying zones on the pitch near the goal while drifting towards the left. In other words, he is not a classical left-winger.
However, currently for Chelsea, he is almost playing as a touch-line hugging winger, for which he simply does not have the attributes. Moreover, his best skills are being wasted, which has resulted in a massive loss of confidence leading to a 12-game goal drought that ended against Morecambe.
In the limited number of games, he has played as a centre-forward apart from the game against Southampton in October, Chelsea’s build-up play has not any different to when they are playing with Tammy Abraham or Oliver Giroud up front. Chelsea have barely looked to play Werner in between the lines and have instead preferred to overload the wings and cross the ball in.
Whichever position Werner has been in, it is clear he is always looking to make runs off defenders. However, very rarely do Chelsea’s midfielders spot him and play him in like Jorginho did in the game against Southampton. As a result, the forward's explosive pace to beat players and cpnjure goal-scoring opportunitiesis getting wasted.
Similarly, as Kai Havertz’s heatmap shows, he is not getting near enough into the box in comparison to his last season at Bayer Leverkusen.
Followers of German football will tell you that the 21-year-old’s best attributes are running into space and his runs behind defences. Havertz is a player who is at his best in the final third, where is known to excel in either playing the final ball or making runs in the box to score or using his height to head balls from crosses.
However, these are areas that he has simply not found himself enough at Chelsea to have the impact people are expecting from him. This is a coaching and tactical issue, the buck for which has to stop at Lampard.
Despite Christian Pulisic’s impressive form in left-wing last season, the player has been forced to play on the right-hand side in many matches this season. More often than not, that has been done to let players like Mount and Werner, who are not natural wingers, play from the left. That has led to Pulisic’s threat getting nullified, as he simply does not look anywhere near as dangerous from the opposite wing
Quite bizarrely against Wolves, Pulisic, who was causing major problems playing on the left, switched flanks with Werner at half-time, and both players became very easy to defend for Nuno Espirito's men. Lampard stuck with the combination despite it not being effective in the victory against West Ham and the disastrous defeat at Arsenal.
From two players playing out of their comfort zones on the wing to a winger who has barely played: for years, Callum Hudson-Odoi has been regarded as the best of the talent line coming out of Cobham and tipped by many for greatness. However, despite Lampard being a coach who is known for giving young players a chance, Hudson-Odoi has barely got minutes under him.
After coming back from a major injury like the ACL and further fitness blows over the course, his limited minutes raising suspicion are justified. However, the trend has continued this season, and that is something that is difficult to understand, especially with injury issues of Pulisic and Ziyech.
Lampard has chosen to play not only Werner, who is clearly not comfortable on the flanks, but also Mason Mount at the start of the season, a player who looked completely out of place out wide.
In fact, Hudson-Odoi has looked impressive whenever he has played this season. In all competitions, he has scored four goals for Chelsea, which are more than that of both Ziyech and Pulisic despite playing significantly lesser minutes.
He was inexplicably dropped to the bench against Southampton after a solid outing against Crystal Palace in his only Premier League start of the season before a recent outing against Aston Villa. Hudson-Odoi also did not make Chelsea's match-day squad against Tottenham Hotspur after an impressive performance against Rennes that saw him score a goal. Even showing his quality on the pitch hasn't been enough for the player to find himself more minutes.
It's interesting to note that the Englishman is the player Lampard has turned to in dire times. Be it at the hour-mark while 4-1 down at Anfield last season, 3-0 down against West Brom, 2-0 down to Arsenal or 3-0 down to Manchester City this season, Hudson-Odoi has been called on from the Chelsea bench and has made an impact in each of the three games with either a goal or an assist.
Another player whose treatment has left many shocked is Fikoyo Tomori. Having worked with Lampard at Derby, Tomori made a strong impression in the first half of last season for Chelsea. However, after the new year, the young-centre back barely got any minutes and did not step onto the pitch for a single minute in Chelsea's 'project restart'; however, an injury at the start did not help his cause too.
The new season felt like a new beginning for Tomori, as he came on from the bench against Liverpool and started against Barnsley and Tottenham in the Carabao Cup, where his performances earned him praise.
However, following the October international break, he has not got another appearance. While Kurt Zouma and Thiago Silva have made themselves the undisputed first-choice pairing at Chelsea, it is the constant selection of Antonio Rudiger and Andreas Christensen as the back-up options that does not feel justified.
The duo has put on countless poor performances over the last couple of years, and that wsomething which was once again seen in the stalemate against Aston Villa in the last week of December.
Overall, while Chelsea have had a notable defensive improvement this season after the horror show at the back last campaign, their attack has looked lackluster this season.
Especially in the absence of Hakim Ziyech, Chelsea have looked pedestrian, predictable and bereft of ideas in the final third. This is an area where the Blues have regressed since last season, as they looked a very exciting team in attack despite lacking quality and experience.
Morever, as was seen in the game against Mancheser City, Chelsea's press has looked disorganised. Especially against tougher opponents, it has become very simple to play through Chelsea's midfield. While Lampard attempts to make Chelsea an energetic high-pressing side, he has struggled with getting the shape right to effectively make it happen.
Is it all Frank Lampard's fault?
As with any team across the globe, blaming everything on the manager is never the correct answer.
Firstly, one has to concede Lampard has had terrible luck with injuries. With the season almost at the half-way mark, Pulisic and Ziyech have just started one game together, and that was in the humiliating defeat against Manchester City last week. Before that, the duo had spent less than 30 minutes on the pitch together in the league.
Pulisic has been fit to start just six league games, while Ziyech has started just five. One has to be emphatatic to the Chelsea manager, as he has been without his favoured wide attacking options.
While Lampard’s use of Kai Havertz has been questionable, it is worth remembering that the player was putting in impressive performances in October but has completely fallen off the rails following his COVID-19 diagnosis.
The German has looked a shadow of the player he is known to be, and with a player who was expected to make a strong impact, not at peak fitness and performances levels, a manager can only do so much, especially as Havertz returned from a disease that has bought the world to a standstill for a year now.
Similarly, in Werner’s case, there is only a certain extent to which one can blame Frank Lampard.
The former Leipzig player has been failing in certain basics such as his lackluster passing, poor ball-control, and penchant to lose possession very easily. He has also missed a fair share of chances, and some of them have been sitters in front of goal. That is something a player, especially one bought for big money like Werner, needs to take responsibility for, and there is not much the manager can do.
Also, Chelsea's underlying stats still look very strong. In fact the expected points (xP) table made from expected goals (xG) of every match shows Chelsea to be the best performing Premier League side.
While this is a stat that needs to be taken with a pinch of salt, it does show that not a lot of what Lampard and Chelsea are doing is wrong, and there is a foundation in place to build something.
It also shows a simple improvement in individual performances in both attacking and defensive boxes could lead to a major improvement.
Lastly, one cannot ignore the extraordinary times this season is being played in: players playing inside bio-bubbles, empty stadiums and a schedule as hectic as ever seen before and the season running a month late. Also, one must be sympathetic to the fact that Lampard did not enjoy a pre-season this year to work on fitness, tactics and help his new signings gel together, which is far from an ideal situation
In such a situation, it's hard for teams to find peak performances, especially like a team like Chelsea, where Lampard is trying to integrate six new signings.
Top clubs such as Juventus, Barcelona and Real Madrid are struggling this season. Meanwhile in the Premier League, settled teams such as Liverpool and Manchester City have also looked far from their best and have failed to maintain consistency. That makes the case of those arguing for it being too early to judge Lampard a very strong case.
What does the future hold for Chelsea and Frank Lampard?
At Chelsea, a manager's future will always be in the air. While calls for stability continue to remain, it's a strategy that has brought unprecedented success to the club, and many would wonder why one must move away from it now.
The impressive job Lampard did last season, ensuring a top-four finish with a squad regressing in quality, losing Eden Hazard, and a transfer-ban while incorporating young players from the academy or returning from loan moves in the Championship deserves a lot of praise, regardless of what the future holds.
This season at Chelsea has been about finding out whether Lampard can take Chelsea to the next level. At the moment, he is failing to get results or get anywhere close to the best out of his many talented players. The club's all-time top goal-scorer will have to find a solution quickly, or the questions will only get louder.
It's worth remembering that only a month ago, Chelsea were being talked about as serious title contenders. However, such is modern football that a few poor results can completely change how a team and manager are looked at.
A couple of wins against strong opposition is all it will take for the narrative to change again, and Chelsea fans will hope that is the case, and they continue to live the fairytale of having Frank Lampard in charge.Published 13 Jan 2021, 00:48 IST