The table doesn’t lie, Chelsea are no better than Villa

Will Ford

“It’s not tactics or systems, it’s: do you want to run? Do you want to back your teammate up? Do you want to sprint? Or do you want to jog? Or maybe you want to say, ‘Oh maybe I don’t have to run’. We took that decision rather than the right one.”

Frank Lampard said “the message was clear” ahead of the Arsenal game, as he ‘took some blame’ for the defeat but in reality shirked it entirely in his post-match interview.

The performance at the Emirates was dire and the desire to compete was bizarrely absent. But to wash his hands of a defeat in which the tactics and selection were also poor was not a great look. And his failure to understand that one of his primary roles as manager is to motivate and that failure to do so is definitely his fault as much as it is the players’, does not bode particularly well for the future.

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Perhaps it’s necessary to do more than just tell players that a game is important? Maybe he did more. But as a motivational tactic, that seems very basic.

“It’s up to them,” he then added, when asked whether he would demand a response from his side in their next game against Aston Villa. There was a reaction and it had everything to do with running, backing teammates up and sprinting. And absolutely nothing to do with tactics or systems. Have it your way, Frank.

The slow start was unsurprising. Chelsea were feeling their way into a game in which the pressure on Lampard was perhaps higher than it has ever been. A similar lack of effort and motivation would have started talk of lost dressing rooms and internal discord.

But the work-rate was back, and titbits of quality started to appear as they suppressed the inevitable initial nerves. Callum Hudson-Odoi looked confident, even cocky at times, as he sprayed passes left and right to fellow roamer Christian Pulisic and Ben Chilwell, who was back to his attacking best after a subdued display at the Emirates. His decision-making and crossing were both excellent and he came within inches of winning the game in the last minute with a quite wonderful volley.

It was lovely stuff from Olivier Giroud to give Chelsea the lead: his flick in the build-up; the movement to find space in the box; the near-post header. The Frenchman scored his first goal against Aston Villa in 2012; his tenth against the Villans on Monday was a reminder that he remains at least as good as he was eight years ago. With Tammy Abraham scoring twice last time out, the striker conundrum is a genuine and welcome one for Lampard.

But that was a clear-cut chance of few for Chelsea at home against Aston Villa – a statement that at the start of the season you would think would draw far more criticism than will likely be aimed at Lampard’s side following this game. But given the circumstances – the opposing form of both clubs and Villa’s incredible improvement – this could easily be seen as a pretty decent point for Chelsea. That’s telling.

Yes, they had more possession, more shots and more shots on target. And if anyone had the edge, it was Chelsea. But this was a game between two very evenly matched sides. ‘The table never lies’ is an irritating phrase, steeped – quite often – in bullsh*t. But in this case, for Villa and Chelsea to be level on points, with Dean Smith’s side above on goal difference with two games in hand, feels about right. Villa are much, much better than most predicted this season and Chelsea are a fair bit worse.

“Things don’t quite go for you when you’re struggling a bit,” Lampard said after the game, referring to – among other moments of perceived misfortune – Andreas Christensen being out of the game after a coming-together with Jack Grealish in the lead-up to Anwar El Ghazi’s equaliser. It would have been soft had a foul on the centre-back been given, and had Lampard been in a similar shame and blame mood to his post-Arsenal interview, there were a number of Blues defenders who could easily have felt his wrath.

There was no attempt to close down Matty Cash as he delivered from space on the right; Jorginho, Antonio Rudiger and Cesar Azpilicueta were all marking Ollie Watkins; N’Golo Kante failed to cover the back post. It left El Ghazi with a simple tap-in and Chelsea players with their hands in the air in protestation at an adverse situation they failed to react to.

Perhaps most worrying for Chelsea is that Villa weren’t especially great. The front three of Watkins, El Ghazi and Jack Grealish caused a few problems but looked a little leggy, and other than John McGinn who out Kante’d Kante in the everywhereness stakes and smashed the bar with a brilliant 30-yard strike in the second half, Villa – going forward – were only OK.

It was a much changed Chelsea side, but they were changes enforced through poor form, fatigue and by Lampard’s own admission – laziness. It was the team Lampard thought was best equipped to beat Aston Villa and those that will inevitably point to the raft of star quality on the bench as though it’s some indication that the ‘real Chelsea’ are better than their opponents would do well to remember that those players did not start for a reason.

The harsh but simple reality is that Lampard’s Chelsea are no better than Smith’s Aston Villa. That’s more of a compliment to Smith than it is an insult to Lampard, but still, the lack of progress at Stamford Bridge won’t be tolerated for long.


Will Ford is on Twitter