Chelsea is operating under a meritocracy this season. But thus far, the Blues have mostly only seen one side of that coin when both are needed.
Meritocracy is not about skill but desire. On paper, few would be able to argue that Michy Batshuayi or Olivier Giroud were the more skilled strikers coming into this season. But Tammy Abraham has trained the hardest and performed the best. Therefore, on merit, he has locked down the starting spot (and likely has surpassed the other two in skill as a result).
Frank Lampard has mentioned something similar a few times with lines like “he was training so well I had to play him” or “his performances showed he deserved a start”. Age and experience are no longer accountable variables as hard work reigns supreme.
But there is another side of meritocracy that Chelsea has only seen flashes of this season. While the seen part has been training hard/playing well=chances, the unseen part has been training poorly/playing poorly=less chances. Lampard has been swimming in the former while only dipping his toe into the latter. Meritocracy requires both and Lampard will need to take the full plunge at some point.
Every young player the Blues have used this season has earned their spot on and off the field. And after almost every break through, Lampard has been quick to say something along the lines of the hard work begins now. That is his warning of the other side of meritocracy. Just because a player has trained their way or performed their way into the starting XI does not mean they have “made it”. They need to keep earning that chance again and again.
That is why, when a young player does have a bad run of games, Lampard cannot hesitate to drop them. The levels have to remain high and he has to show that there will be no exceptions for anyone. Callum Hudson-Odoi might already being seeing that.
Hudson-Odoi had returned from his injury with several fine substitute appearances. Those substitute appearances earned him several starts as Willian’s form dipped. But Hudson-Odoi failed to fully grasp the chance and Willian returned to the starting XI, once again in form. Obviously the injury will have played its part, but despite Hudson-Odoi being the golden goose for much of this calendar year, Lampard did not accept anything but the best. He was not seeing it from Hudson-Odoi and Willian earned his chance back. As Lampard said, the hard work starts after the break through and Hudson-Odoi has that ahead of him.
Something similar is likely to happen with Marcos Alonso. He had been on a good run of form but as often happens with the Spanish defender, the more games in a row he plays the worse he got. Being pulled at halftime against Ajax for Reece James, who then started the next match, was a clear sign that Lampard is aware of the two sided nature of meritocracy. Alonso’s standards slipped and James grabbed on. Alonso now has to fight his way back in and James needs to keep the level high.
Christian Pulisic is probably the only player to have seen this pendulum swing both ways. He had been starting before the first international break in part due to injuries of other players. Pulisic then saw his minutes disappear as his performances hardly wowed and Willian (and Mason Mount on the wing) stepped up. It looked bleak for a bit but eventually Pulisic trained his way back into the starting XI. Over the last two months, he has gone from a “waste of money” to arguably Chelsea’s best player over the winning run of games.
Meritocracy needs to work both ways. Good performances and training leads to opportunities just as much as bad performances and training should lead to fewer opportunities. With the winter slog guaranteeing a game nearly every three days, Lampard will need to keep shuffling the deck until he gets the right hand. The players get to decide if they are part of that or not.