The chorus of ‘Super Frankie Lampard’ boomed out of the away end even before the game had kicked off at St Mary’s on Sunday. By the final whistle, those Chelsea fans were verging on fever. At least one generation of Blues supporters have never experienced what they are witnessing this season – their club, with their manager and their players – so who can blame them?
Many of those same fans were left cold last season as Maurizio Sarri’s methods, whilst yielding a third-place finish and a Europa League title, left them wondering where their club was going. The mood at Stamford Bridge has now changed dramatically. From “f-ck Sarri-ball” at the end of last season to chanting the name of Jorginho – the emblem of that style of play – just eight Premier League games into the next.
Perhaps the most evident sign of the turning tide at Chelsea was the reaction to the 2-1 defeat by Liverpool, with the fans chanting throughout the 90 minutes. They now have something more tangible than points to celebrate: the feeling that their club has a clear direction with the prospect of long-term domination, rather than just fleeting periods of purchased success.
Lampard himself may have warned against “getting too carried away”, but as he clapped and geed up the Chelsea faithful at the final whistle at St Mary’s on Sunday, it seemed that he too was starting to believe the hype surrounding his youthful revolution at Stamford Bridge.
The fresh-faced look to this Chelsea team is of course in part down to the transfer ban, but as Lampard has repeatedly made clear, these young players are not being thrown in out of necessity. It’s worth remembering that Chelsea have several World Cup winners on their bench, so this is no vanity project. Fifteen of Chelsea’s 18 Premier League goals this season have been either scored or assisted by academy graduates; these are chances that have and continue to be earned.
Upon his appointment by Chelsea, among the first questions asked of Lampard was how he would cope without Eden Hazard. He said his job was “to get the best out of those players” that remained at Stamford Bridge. Hazard was the man last season, consistently dragging Chelsea through games, single-handedly at times. This season, the division of attacking labour has been split and the situation is far healthier as a result.
— moaa (@eve1878mo) September 26, 2018
If Hazard had been injured at any point last season, Chelsea couldn’t have survived. This season, an injury to one of the forward players would be nowhere near as catastrophic. Chelsea’s team dribbling stats, for example, are almost identical this season to last (11.7 successful dribbles per game last season; 11.6 this season), but Hazard contributed 3.7 of those successful dribbles per game last term, with the next highest (Loftus-Cheek) at just 1.6.
This season however, they’re all dribbling… Pedro, Mateo Kovacic, Pulisic, Emerson, Ross Barkley and Mason Mount all range between 1.5 and 2 successful dribbles per game. Hazard is irreplaceable, but by splitting his responsibility across the team, the attacking threat can be less fragile and, as it turns out, more potent.
Willian, having largely been an afterthought during Hazard’s time with Chelsea, and the man Lampard describes as “the catalyst” for Chelsea’s high press, Mason Mount, are the two players currently in possession of the attacking midfield roles. However, unlike with Hazard, Chelsea could cope with an injury to either of them. Callum Hudson-Odoi is back from injury, £58million Christian Pulisic is eager for a chance to impress and Pedro waits in the wings. Chelsea have an embarrassment of riches, none as good as Hazard, but all striving to get somewhere close to his level.
Stamford Bridge has typically – barring Didier Drogba and Diego Costa – been a graveyard for formerly great strikers. Andriy Shevchenko, Hernan Crespo, Fernando Torres and Gonzalo Higuain. Overweight and undercooked, Higuain was not a Premier League striker in body or mind. Tammy Abraham on the other hand, is everything Higuain was not, and absolutely not what many expected. Headers, tap-ins, lobs, curlers, trickery, hold-up play; Abraham is showing a range he wasn’t thought to possess.
Good enough for the Premier League but not good enough for Chelsea tended to be the line bandied around about the young England international, with people now instead wondering if Chelsea have created – or stumbled upon – an ideal Premier League striker. A goal every 72 minutes for Abraham compared to one every 220 minutes for Higuain. It’s the key metric for a striker at any club, but in particular at Chelsea, who have lacked a significant goalscoring threat since Diego Costa left the club over two seasons ago.
The dynamic, pressing, attacking brand of football now played at Chelsea has predictably led to defensive problems. Cesar Azpilicueta, a pillar of consistency for so long, has been questioned for the first time this season and ‘the Kurt Zouma lunge’, like the one to concede a penalty against Man Utd, continues to be met with derision. Conceding an average of 1.75 goals per game compared to just over one last season, this is an area the Blues will have to improve on. The attacking prowess can only paper over the defensive cracks for so long.
That being said, another academy graduate – Fikayo Tomori – is potentially a real talent. Announcing himself to Chelsea fans with a wonder goal against Wolves, his display against Lille in the Champions League – which drew high praise from Rio Ferdinand – was a strong indicator for the future.
#1: Tomori screamer vs Wolves pic.twitter.com/QT5gVSlGqo
— Dylan (@DylanCFC29) September 17, 2019
Incredibly quick, strong and comfortable in possession, Tomori – recently granted his first England call-up – makes more tackles per game than David Luiz (3:1.1), more interceptions (2.8:1), fewer fouls (0.4:0.9) and perhaps most crucially to the way Lampard wants to play, completes more successful dribbles (0.6:0.3). Tomori’s distribution might not quite be on the same level yet, but that’s an area which will presumably improve in time.
The greatest irritant for Chelsea fans last season, though, was Sarri’s endless faith in Jorginho as the sole defensive midfielder. This was to the detriment of both Jorginho himself, who was repeatedly exposed to the Premier League’s rapid counter-attacks, and to N’Golo Kante, who was forced to the right side of a midfield three, rather than than being allowed to play his customary role.
N’Golo Kante vs Liverpool Is My Favourite🔥🔥🔥 pic.twitter.com/38dOAbcIKD
— 𓅔Chelsea Till Satan Repents⁶𓅓 (@assahfalcao) October 4, 2019
Jorginho bore the brunt of heavy criticism from the majority of Chelsea fans last season as a passing metronome, avoiding risk and thus any excitement. This season it’s been different. He’s been different. A lower pass success percentage (85.3%:89.3%) and more key passes per game (1.1:0.8) describes a player taking greater responsibility to be creative – one which, according to Lampard, has energised the Italian.
It’s no coincidence that he won his first man of the match award in a Chelsea shirt against Southampton with Kante back in the team alongside him. The World Cup winner has once again making defending, intercepting and tackling his priority, with the added goals he has showcased this season either a happy remnant of Sarri-ball or a conscious will from Lampard to turn Kante into an even better player than he was in Leicester’s and Chelsea’s title-winning seasons.
It’s little wonder the Chelsea fans are excited with their club so obviously moving in the right direction, with a young team they can connect with, and a manager convinced that this is just the beginning.
“The important thing now is that we take it forward,” Lampard said after Chelsea’s 2-0 defeat over Brighton. “Where we are slightly young and slightly transitional, daily improvement is our main aim. We must carry on.”
Don’t you know, he’s talkin’ ’bout a revolution.