Chelsea Football Club’s hierarchy have shown remarkable courage in entrusting the affairs of the first team to the managerial newbie and club legend, Frank Lampard.
It was an intriguing end to the 2018/19 season for Chelsea. The Blues fell off form at the start of the new year, following a series of humiliating defeats to Manchester City, Bournemouth and Arsenal. The team would also lose the final of the League Cup to City, a match where the kerfuffle between Maurizio Sarri and Kepa Arrizabalaga got more column inches than the final outcome, and get knocked out of the FA Cup by a rejuvenated Manchester United.
The inevitable questions over the viability of SarriBall arose and murmurings of player discontent with the Italian manager’s methods began to emerge. There was every reason to believe Chelsea’s season would end in humiliation.
The exact opposite happened instead.
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A few pragmatic changes by the manager, including the introduction of academy graduates Callum Hudson-Odoi and Ruben Loftus-Cheek to the starting lineup, would see the club’s fortunes change for the better. It also helped that their closest rivals, Spurs, Arsenal and United, chose this same moment to wobble.
Chelsea would eventually land a top 4 finish and go on to inflict a humiliating 4-1 final defeat on Arsenal to lift the Europa League trophy. Suddenly some faith and respectability was restored in SarriBall as the Italian claimed his first major trophy as a manager.
What has come to define recent seasons at Stamford Bridge – managerial change – has yet again come to pass as Maurizio Sarri couldn’t resist the alluring glances from Juventus. His and Eden Hazard’s departure and the transfer ban have come to define the club’s summer.
For a club accustomed to buying elite players, these circumstances have made adjusting to new realities an uphill task. Or so it seems.
If there’s any positive from the transfer ban (if one can call it so), it would be the fact that the club has been compelled to look inward. Rather than pull out the now common shopping cart scouring for elite players across Europe, the club has instead looked to it’s famed loan army for talent to augment its already decent first team.
The club has brought back players who excelled out on loan over the last season. Michy Batshuayi, Tammy Abraham, Mason Mount, Kenedy, Recce James, Kurt Zouma and Fikayo Tomori are all certain to feature in the incoming season as Lampard seeks to continue with a slightly modified and more adventurous version of SarriBall.
The arrival of Christian Pulisic from Dortmund and the permanent signing of Matteo Kovacic have ensured that the summer window hasn’t been entirely uneventful just as the contract extensions for a number of youngsters has lifted the spirit of fans who long to see the club academy finally produce the goods for the first team.
So what can one expect from Chelsea in the incoming season?
A lot of transition for certain as Lampard seeks to imprint his thoughts and methods on the squad. While his relative inexperience is a source for concern, there’ll be some comfort in the all-star bench of relatively more experienced former players he’s managed to assemble.
If there’s one member of his backroom staff who will prove important this season, that would be Jody Morris who once served as academy manager and led the youth team to several consecutive trophy wins. He knows the academy graduates such as Loftus-Cheek and Hudson-Odoi well and can help bring out the best in both players once they return to full fitness.
Preseason games have shown that the team can score goals but defensive concerns persist. This is one area that the new manager will need to address very quickly. This season will also be a defining one for the likes of Ross Barkley and Michy Batshuayi who finally have a manager that will entrust them to prove they deserve to remain and feature prominently with the former league winners.
The talented duo of Mason Mount and Recce James can now stake their claim to a first team place under a manager who has shown the bravery to trust in young players. The prolific Tammy Abraham will also finally get the chance to prove he can score and succeed at the highest level.
While other rivals such as United and Arsenal have a chance to work the transfer market for players that can improve the team significantly, they’ve also had to contend with departures. Chelsea do have the slight advantage of a relatively settled squad that never really required major changes in the first place. That could prove beneficial in the long run.
Concerns have been expressed over the loss of goals resulting from Eden Hazard’s departure. It still remains unclear where the goals will come from. But if there’s one thing we’ve learnt about Chelsea over the years, it would be that they always seem to find a way.
I expect more goal contribution to come from midfield and hopefully from the strikers who won’t have the burden of expectations that come with being the player with a huge transfer fee.
The early season fixtures are relatively favourable for the Blues as they only play three of last season’s top six teams in the first 13 games (United away, Liverpool at home and City away). If the team can get a solid run of results in those early games, that could prove very useful over the course of the season.
So where could the team possibly finish on the league table at the end of the season? It’s truly hard to tell. A top three finish seems overly optimistic, top four perhaps realistic but top six would be a bare minimum for Frank Lampard as he settles into the hot seat at Stamford Bridge under the most unfavourable of circumstances.
One thing is almost certain. It’s set to be yet another eventful and intriguing season for the West London club.
Tunde Dosekun writes in from Lagos, Nigeria