It is possible to sympathise with Frank Lampard when he suggests that Chelsea, their grip on fourth place loosening with each shoddy display, are performing above expectations. The club’s transfer ban left the youngest manager in the Premier League unable to act when Eden Hazard took his virtuoso skills to Real Madrid last summer, N’Golo Kanté is injured again and Kepa Arrizabalaga, the most expensive goalkeeper in the world, has lost his place to the 38-year-old Willy Caballero.
In that context it was unsurprising that Lampard was unhappy after Chelsea, able to spend again after having their transfer embargo lifted by the court of arbitration for sport in December, failed to strengthen their attack last month. The 41-year-old grumbled on deadline day and there have been rumblings since then, suggestions that the head coach had grown frustrated with the recruitment department and whispers that the hierarchy has questioned the decision to drop Arrizabalaga.
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Yet Lampard denied he was under pressure to restore the £72m Spaniard to the side for Saturday’s home game against Tottenham – “I am absolutely together with the board,” he said – and there was a show of unity when Chelsea completed a deal to sign Hakim Ziyech from Ajax last week. Ziyech, a Lampard pick, will surely enhance this blunt side’s creativity when he arrives next season.
Lampard targeted the Moroccan playmaker in January, only for Ajax to resist a mid-season sale. It was a difficult market and Lampard’s outburst at the end of the window, which invited pressure from above, shows he knows the pressure will increase if he fails to qualify for the Champions League.
The honeymoon period is fading. Although Lampard is a Chelsea legend, there were boos after his side suffered their seventh home defeat of the season last Monday, losing 2-0 to Manchester United. They have collected 15 points from their past 14 league games and their 12-point lead over José Mourinho’s Spurs is down to one.
The caveats continue. Kanté is out for three weeks with an adductor injury; Lampard is unsure when Christian Pulisic will be available; Antonio Rüdiger was absent for long spells before Christmas; Callum Hudson-Odoi has had little niggles; and Ruben Loftus-Cheek, who is in the squad for Saturday, has not played since tearing an achilles last May.
Yet Lampard has made mistakes. Chelsea have struggled when visiting sides sit deep, which will surely be Mourinho’s approach on his return to Stamford Bridge. They lack penetration from attacking midfield. Willian and Pedro are the wrong side of 30 and Ross Barkley is inconsistent.
Hudson-Odoi, Pulisic and Mason Mount are learning and, although Lampard cannot be blamed for missed chances, there are questions about his use of Michy Batshuayi and Olivier Giroud. They have found opportunities limited because of Tammy Abraham’s excellent form up front.
Lampard’s treatment of Giroud is odd. Although the France striker disappointed when handed a rare start in the home defeat by West Ham on 30 November, the 33-year-old has not even made the bench at times and, having been denied a move last month, was left out of the 18 for the 2-2 draw with Leicester on 1 February.
Lampard wants to press from the front, which requires speed, but Batshuayi’s all-round game is poor and the Belgian underwhelmed when he deputised for Abraham against United. Giroud impressed after coming on, a tight VAR call denying him a goal, and Lampard needs to be pragmatic in a transitional season. Giroud’s hold-up play could be effective if an ankle injury keeps Abraham out against Spurs.
Chelsea, who host Bayern Munich in the last 16 of the Champions League on Tuesday, need a way to function without Abraham and the shortage of reliable goalscorers is exacerbated by their defensive frailties. They are too open in midfield and concede soft goals, especially from set pieces. Lampard has chopped and changed in central defence and he has reservations about Arrizabalaga, whose future is in doubt after several costly errors.
The spotlight is unforgiving at the moment. A few months ago everything was about Chelsea’s youngsters. They were the season’s feelgood story. Yet Fikayo Tomori has not been seen as much in recent weeks, Reece James’s positional sense needs work at right-back and Mount’s influence has waned.
The Premier League is tough and Lampard, a rookie coach, is also feeling it. They need the Champions League and playing Spurs gives Chelsea a chance to rediscover their mojo. Chelsea were outstanding when they won 2-0 at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in December. Mount sparkled and Lampard triumphed against his old manager, catching Mourinho cold with a switch to a back three. There have been positives. The story is far from over.