Chelsea’s injury list will finally clear up right as they reach the point in the season where injury rates rise and rotation is essential. There’s little point in talking about a best XI, just doing the best with the best available XI.
Chelsea received a batch of good news on the injury front on Friday. Frank Lampard said Antonio Rudiger, Mateo Kovacic and Pedro are all fit to play this weekend, and several hours later Callum Hudson-Odoi and Reece James played their first football since the spring, with James playing 45 minutes and Hudson-Odoi 61 minutes in the Premier League 2. Off-setting these tidings, though, is the uncertainty around N’Golo Kante. He will not play this weekend, and nobody will say exactly why or for how long he will be out of the lineup. Emerson is also still in doubt after his slight injury on international duty.
Once those seven players return fully to the first-team, Ruben Loftus-Cheek will be the only one left on the treatment table.* Assuming, of course, Chelsea lose no other players to injury or re-injury as the Blues roll through three competitions and have another international break, a seemingly cursed endeavor for the club.
Loftus-Cheek is tentatively targeting a November return. Even if everyone stays healthy between now and then, the Blues will only have about a month of the squad at full strength before hitting the congestion of the festive season.
At that point, injuries are almost expected and the best XI – whatever that may mean – is saved for the biggest games as the club starts playing three times in eight days for over a month.
Chelsea’s “best XI” will probably spend most of the season as a creation of fans’ optimistic imaginations rather than the names on Frank Lampard’s team sheet. For those games where he needs his best XI, it will be the best players available on that day for that opponent.
Rather than speaking of a best XI, a more useful idea might be the minimum necessary XI: what players can Lampard deploy to ensure three points or advancing to the next round, without taxing the players he will need in a subsequent game where the minimum necessary is significantly higher? The minimum necessary XI will allow essential players who need extra recovery and monitoring the days off to get it, players like the injury-prone Ruben Loftus-Cheek; those in a prolonged recovery phase like Callum Hudson-Odoi or Antonio Rudiger; and the truly essential, recently worryingly fragile N’Golo Kante.
The minimum necessary XI will sometimes be the best available XI. The Blues face Manchester City on November 23 and Valencia away four days later. Chelsea could potentially secure their Champions League group that night, which could be worth double-tapping the best available XI. Then again, eternal bogey team West Ham are three days after that.
Likewise, Chelsea play the two north London teams exactly one week apart, with Southampton at home in between on Boxing Day.
Where the best XI and minimum necessary XI converge is the need to have the right game plan for whatever XI is on the field. Whatever players Lampard has at his disposal have to be able to execute the plan for that opponent.
This means adapting – you might even use the word “tailoring” – the organization and tactics to those specific players. Rather than have every combination of players try to play a unitary “right” way, short-term and long-term success comes from having each combination of players playing their right way. By maximizing every squad’s set-up, a manager like Frank Lampard can minimize the margin between his theoretical best XI and his starting XI on the day.
Chelsea are not like Manchester City. If a £50 million Blue gets injured, Frank Lampard cannot just replace him seamlessly with a £60 million player, as Pep Guardiola could. Every Guardiola XI is a best XI, since his matchday squad is an all-world best XVIII.
This is not due to a lack of ambition on Roman Abramovich’s part. It is simply an unwillingness to play the game he and the club pioneered in the early 2000s, now that it has been taken to an absurd extent.
Frank Lampard may or may not have a “best XI” this season, and if he does, it may exist only on paper. As long as he has the best plan for the 11 players he selects from those available for a given match, the Blues still have a high probability of success, one that will only grow. The next few years will reveal if Chelsea are at the van of another movement in the game.
*Well, other than Marco van Ginkel.