Frank Lampard has not strayed far from a tight cadre of players this season, only making significant changes when forced to do so. While we can trust these are the right decisions based on training, and the results back that up, Chelsea could still have plenty of buried assets in the squad.
Eleven Chelsea players have logged over 900 minutes – roughly half of the team’s total – this season. The separation between the 11th and 12th most-used players (Christian Pulisic and Emerson, respectively) is the largest between adjacent players on the squad’s playing minutes chart. Just below Emerson are Andreas Christensen, N’Golo Kante and Callum Hudson-Odoi. All four players have been dealing with injuries throughout the opening months of the season.
Injuries have played a major role in how Frank Lampard has allocated minutes across his squad, but they have not been the determinative factor any more than the transfer ban is behind his reliance on youth.
Because Lampard has opted not to rotate even when he has options available, we can only conclude that his regular XI and these 15 players are the ones showing him the most in training. With the Blues in third place in the Premier League and tied on points for the lead in their Champions League group, it’s hard to argue with the decisions or the results.
But until a player and an XI take the pitch, no one knows for sure if the one they replaced really is better, worse, about the same or in some ways different. Sometimes different is better almost just for being different, especially if tactics and players become predictable and, therefore, vulnerable.
Michy Batshuayi and Olivier Giroud have combined for 464 minutes this season. With Tammy Abraham one goal behind Jamie Vardy for the Premier League lead, Batshuayi and Giroud would have a hard time arguing for more. Giroud himself even said “Abraham is walking on water.”
Abraham has still been subbed off in all but one Premier League game. He has scored in half his league games, and the Blues are 3W-1D-2L in the other half in which he did not score. There is no difference in the number of minutes he played based on whether he scored or not, so perhaps Batshuayi or Giroud could have scored in those games where he didn’t, had they come on sooner.
Pedro has not played since October 2. He has been dealing with family issues off the pitch and the return of Callum Hudson-Odoi and emergence of Christian Pulisic on the pitch. Once his personal situation is squared away, he is behind those two and Willian on the winger depth chart.
But there could still be a time and place for Pedro’s high-energy, high-pressing, direct style of play. That description alone makes him sound purpose-built for this team.
Aside from player selection, Chelsea have also not deviated from their organization. The prolonged injuries to Antonio Rudiger and Andreas Christensen have crimped centre-back rotation. However, Reece James has been in the lineup for several weeks and has been putting himself in contention with Cesar Azpilicueta and Marcos Alonso. Emerson is also back now. This opens up the possibility for Azpilicueta to join the back-line for a three-man defence, with James at right wing-back and either Alonso or Emerson at left wing-back. But there has been no sign of this move, even as the full-back rotation is becoming cutthroat.
At some point Chelsea may be forced into a player or formation switch due to injury. If Tammy Abraham lands wrong or absorbs a malicious tackle, Batshuayi and Giroud may find themselves both in the matchday squad. If Kurt Zouma or Fikayo Tomori get hurt or pick up a red card, it’s either Azpilicueta or Marc Guehi to the back in the Premier League.
Beyond the utility and pragmatism of such rotation, some of these options may, in fact, be better than what the Blues have been doing so far.
Chelsea are over-performing in many ways, including where it counts on the table. But within many games they look the young, inexperienced side that they truly are. They were impressive in the comeback draw against Ajax, but they were unimpressive in going down 3-1 and in scoring as many goals after the double send-off as before. They did many things right in both games against Manchester United, but lost both, including the opener by 4-0. The Champions League opener against Valencia was a turgid loss.
Those are the sort of things that come due for a squad during December and January.
Jose Mourinho rankled a lot of people with his recent comments, and that was probably largely because people know he’s right.
For as much as the data analytics crowd like to talk about “underlying stats” such as expected goals, the other side of football analysis – watching games – has an “underlying” element to it as well. Chelsea are, in many ways, outperforming their underlying eyeball tests.
Sending Azpilicueta into a back-three with two strikers and a winger up top in a 3-2-2-3 could break open a game that would otherwise end 0-0, and then let Chelsea close out the 1-0 win in a strong defensive (but still possession-oriented) posture.
Perhaps some acrobatic Olivier Giroud shots and goals will give Chelsea a safer margin of victory in the final 20 minutes. He doesn’t have the movement to run off defenders like Abraham does, but he knows how to pull defenders away from the space the other forwards can then occupy.
Giroud’s presence in combination with Pedro’s pressing could force the opposition goalkeeper to rush a goal kick, sending it out of bounds for a throw-in in the offensive half. That’s not uncommon with the current Blues squad, but it could turn out differently with different players. Different, how? is a question worth knowing the answer to.
Elective rotation is the best hedge against the perils of forced rotation, and controlled experimentation is the only way to validate that what a coach sees in training really is the best he can get from his team.
Some of Chelsea’s most familiar players are at the centre of unknowns of what else these games and this season could look like. Things are great, but with experienced players who have spent years making things better and young players looking to prove what they can do, Chelsea should not be setting a ceiling of routine.