Lampard can’t hide behind caveats for lack of Chelsea improvement

Will Ford

“We weren’t really in too many people’s top fours at the start of the season,” Lampard said ahead of the 5-3 loss to Liverpool on Wednesday night – a sentiment echoed by Chelsea fans across social media, who would have ‘bitten your hand off’ if they were offered fourth place heading into the final game of the season, with an FA Cup final on the horizon. It’s an obvious thing to do – examine whether your club has exceeded expectations. And they probably have. But it’s not useful; it doesn’t serve a purpose.

It’s almost always the sort of point made by someone on the back foot, defending a poor decision or display. Yes, we conceded five, but look where we are in the table. Did you think we’d be fourth at this point? No? Well then, there you go…

But…Did you think we’d finish in the top four when you were asked midway through November? Well, yes, we did – you were odds-on, as you were for the rest of the season, and were ten points clear of Manchester United. Expectations change and are relative to the teams around you. If Lampard and Chelsea were told how badly Spurs, Arsenal and – until recently United – would perform when they were making their pre-season suppositions, would they have been so quick to gnaw at your outstretched fingers? Surely a manager should instead be judged on whether his team has improved under his stewardship? And at Chelsea, that’s not entirely clear.

The game at Anfield was Chelsea’s season in a nutshell: young players impressing; missed chances; good possession; defensive chaos; Pulisic brilliance; goalkeeping mediocrity. There was even a glimpse – if not a full-blown example – of Lampard’s classic interview style in his post-match thoughts.

“It was extraordinary, even when you say they that started to run away with it I thought we were in it [smile]. In match-play we were OK. They’re a fantastic team and we can’t afford to make those mistakes. At 4-3 [smile]… if we don’t concede a fifth I thought we were coming [smile].”

Chelsea were a match for Liverpool in a lot of areas, as they have been on the other occasions they have met this season, but they were also vastly inferior in others – and the mistakes to which Lampard alluded have been replicated all year.

But…but…young players, transfer ban, Eden Hazard…

The caveats are valid, but they are often used to explain away problems that – in reality – they have had very little bearing on. Would they have signed a new goalkeeper? No. Would they have signed a new centre-back? Probably not. Did they play Fikayo Tomori enough to claim inexperience as an explanation for a lack of defensive solidity? No. Are they conceding a ludicrous number of goals because Hazard left? Obviously not.

The main source of praise for Lampard this season has been his integration of academy players into his team. Mason Mount, Tammy Abraham, Reece James, Tomori, Callum Hudson-Odoi and Billy Gilmour have all featured, some more than others, some with more success than others. But they clearly haven’t been that great: Lampard’s replaced many of them with older members of the squad for more recent important games.

And how many of those names will be in the starting line-up come the first game of next season? James, maybe, if they play a back five. Perhaps Mount. Lampard was simply making the best of the resources available to him. And he deserves credit for that. But he’s not some sort of messianic Pied Piper, leading the Chelsea youth to glory. They’ll be back on the bench or out on loan next season as Lampard uses his flute and Chelsea’s money to lure better talent from across Europe.

That’s money that should be spent on his defence, as he’s proved incapable of improving what he already has. In open play they’re a liability, and from set-pieces they are truly terrible. And Lampard should know better; he played in the Chelsea team with the best defence in Premier League history, one that was utterly brilliant at set-pieces at either end. He can point to a lack of height as an explanation as much as he likes, but ‘marking’, command of the box and general desire to get the ball clear can be coached, and hasn’t been.

And what’s good about Chelsea has been good all season, hasn’t it? The transition from ponderous passing under Maurizio Sarri to the dynamic interchanging of positions and pressing to win the ball back was evident from the outset. I’m not saying Lampard hasn’t implemented changes for the better at Stamford Bridge and developed an ethos that leads to pleasing football and exciting games. But he’s struggled all season to find a balance between fluidity and solidity. What’s good has been consistently good but what’s bad has not improved.

If they qualify for the Champions League and win the FA Cup, it will have undoubtedly been a very good first season for Lampard. But let’s not pretend it’s some sort of miracle, or hide behind pre-season bitten hands as a mask for the disappointment if they miss out. You may have taken fifth place and an FA Cup final before the season started, but now it would be a failure. One that Lampard, his staff and players will be culpable for, more so than the legend that left or the sanction that meant they couldn’t replace him.

Will Ford is on Twitter