The fans may have ‘bitten your hand off to be in the top four’, but would they call the season a success? It’s Chelsea.
Best player: Mateo Kovacic
Chelsea probably wouldn’t have signed Kovacic permanently had their transfer ban not prevented them from signing an alternative in the summer. Kovacic himself admitted he felt restricted under Maurizio Sarri in a debut season that far from lived up to expectations. But the transformation in his performances following the “increased freedom of movement” Frank Lampard has granted him has been extraordinary. Following the Blues’ 3-0 Champions League humbling at the hands of Bayern Munich, his manager claimed Kovacic “could play in any team”. And his outstanding touch, control and ability to glide past players with the ball was particularly evident on an evening when the rest of the Chelsea side looked lost and totally overawed by the occasion. The Croatian compared Lampard’s management style to that of his former boss Zinedine Zidane, while we’re comparing Kovacic’s playing style to that of the legendary midfielder – there’s more than a hint of resemblance.
Mateo Kovacic|Most under rated|
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Biggest disappointment: Kepa Arrizabalaga
He doesn’t make howlers, but he makes a lot of little mistakes: palming shots into the path of strikers; punching balls he should catch; limp-wristedly allowing balls to squeeze through his hands. The world’s most expensive goalkeeper has been one of the worst in the Premier League this season – he can’t argue with the facts or stats. Undeniably good with his feet and certainly the sort of goalkeeper Chelsea and other build-from-the-back sides are coveting these days. The 25-year-old will have done some Lampard requested soul-searching as he watched grandpa Willy take to the field in his stead, which may or may not be enough to keep him at Stamford Bridge in the long term.
Best performance: Chelsea 4-0 Everton
They saved the best for last. Okay so Everton were pants, but Chelsea were brilliant. Four wonderful goals and most precious of all – the clean sheet. It was a beautiful blend of youth and experience. Olivier Giroud, Pedro and Willian showing there was life in the old dogs that looked dead two weeks before, Ross Barkley was showing off in the middle of the park, Mason Mount was at his buzzing best after a spell of looking absolutely knackered in the middle of the season. It featured the second of two Man of the Match performances on the trot from Chelsea’s own Marco Veratti, Billy Gilmour. Even Kepa was at it for fu*k’s sake, making a fine double save in the second half.
Worst performance: Chelsea 0-1 Bournemouth
After an impressive start to the season, Chelsea lost three of four home games at the back end of November and into December, to West Ham, Bournemouth and Southampton, sneaking a 2-1 win over Villa in the other. All three losses were almost identical. Chelsea dominating the ball, creating what Lampard attempted to hoodwink us into believing were great chances, and conceding on the rare occasions the opposition side came anywhere near Kepa’s goal. Defeat to what was essentially a second-string Cherries team was the darkest of them all.
Biggest VAR moment: Maguire’s kick to Michy’s goolies
United deserved to beat Chelsea in their 2-0 victory at Stamford Bridge, but Frank Lampard was right to feel aggrieved by VAR’s interventions. The Blues had two goals disallowed: One for a very marginal offside; the other after a game of dominoes in the United box with Fred pushing Cesar Azpilicueta on to Brandon Williams. The second was harshly chalked off – it was not a clear and obvious error. But the biggest VAR moment of the game came as Harry Maguire tumbled off the pitch and gave Michy Batshuayi a swift kick to the genitals. “I thought he was going to fall on me,” Maguire said after the game, “It was my natural reaction to straighten my leg to stop him.” The United captain went on to score his side’s second and secure the win. As Roy Keane said, Maguire was “a lucky, lucky boy”. Luckier than Batshuayi in any case, who’s barely played since, though that’s probably more to do with him being crap at football than his now-depleted sperm count.
Did their recruitment work?
They couldn’t sign anyone in the summer but sort of did, then spent a huge amount of money in lawyers’ fees so they could sign players in January, but didn’t. Premier League new boy Christian Pulisic – who signed in January last year but joined in the summer – gave an indication of what he is capable of with a hat-trick against Burnley, but was hampered by a serious injury for the second half of the season. With the lack of possible recruitment, Lampard has been the first manager to properly use Chelsea’s renowned academy, and it’s been successful in the most part. Tammy Abraham, Mason Mount and Fikayo Tomori have all shown that they could make it at the very highest level, while England’s best all round right-back Reece James and wee Billy Gilmour are dead certs to be Blues heroes for years to come.
Dick move: Rudiger’s histrionics
While Maguire got away with it, Son Heung-min was punished for his kick out from the floor. Like Maguire, he deserved a red card, but Antonio Rudiger made sure he got one. The German was left howling on the floor after a glancing blow from Son’s studs, with Jose Mourinho sarcastically wishing Rudiger a speedy “recovery from broken ribs because he will have broken ribs for sure.” The centre-back was allegedly racially abused after Son was sent off, so he was far from the real dick of the day. I say allegedly, I was there, and I heard it. There isn’t much dick to choose from at Chelsea these days. Which is surprising, as up until recently you could barely get through a game at Stamford Bridge without a cock or three waving in your face.
Manager’s job security
To borrow one of Lampard’s most parroted phrases, Chelsea fans would have bitten your hand off to be in the top four. And he’s right. They are still in the FA Cup and the Champions League (just about) and were arguably in their best form of the season before it all came to a halt. His insistence that Chelsea were playing well but not getting results became tiresome around Christmas as it appeared he was not learning from his mistakes, but his club legend status carried him through that sticky period and he looks to be out the other side. In many ways, Lampard is in the same place he started, with the goodwill of the fans allowing him the leeway others would not have been given.
What they need this summer
Definitely a striker. Abraham has has a very impressive season, and he may be the main man going forward, but Lampard can’t afford to take that gamble. Moussa Dembele has consistently been linked and seems like a decent option. They’ve got four above average centre-backs, but none of them are brilliant, so that would be an area to think about – though brilliant centre-backs are few and far between. Despite Marcos Alonso’s excellent recent form, they need a left-back, not a wing-back. Ben Chilwell has been linked, but he’s hardly set the Premier League alight this season. And the goalkeeper – that swap deal with Atletico for Jan Oblak still on the cards? Doubt it.
Will Ford is on Twitter