Chelsea finally have a core group of players who match well with the manager, instead of a hodgepodge of players left over from ex-managers. This is an unusual platform for success.
If two things have defined Chelsea this century, it’s incredible on-field success and the inability to leave well-enough alone. For all the good that has come since Roman Abramovich started pumping money into the club, the constant thirst for more has led to a bad habit of fixing things that aren’t broken.
Over time, that issue has grown into a full-on addiction to change for the sake of change, usually under the guise of pursuing some sort of football nirvana. Chelsea have lurched from trophy to trophy over the past 15 years, rarely settling into any sort of groove for more than a season.
It’s been an exhilarating ride, but the changing world around the game is showing it to be an unsustainable business practice.
While much has been made about the carousel of managers over the years, Chelsea’s long-standing problem has actually been the accumulation of players who were never meant to play for a given manager.
It’s been a fairly steady cycle: a new manager is hired, Chelsea sign some players he likes, they work well together for a year or so, the manager moves on, the players stay.
As the players stack up over time and the managers come and go, you end up with a squad of players who were brought in to play for three different managers, all trying to play a coherent style of football under the fourth. It’s something that occurs at every club, but Chelsea has dialed this process up to 11.
Chelsea rarely hire a decidedly bad manager, but they certainly struggle to put them in the best position for lasting success.
Just look at Marcos Alonso and David Luiz. They were exclusively brought in due to their excellent fit in Antonio Conte’s 3-4-3, but were far less effective (bordering on outright liabilities) in the four-man backlines of Maurizio Sarri and Frank Lampard. Lampard had the foresight to jettison Luiz before the season, but Alonso was required for the sake of depth and the transfer ban. He’s been useful when Lampard has tried his own 3-4-3 this season, but there’s no question that Alonso just can’t cut it as an out-and-out left back.
Then there’s Jorginho, arguably the most polarizing Chelsea player in recent history. He unfairly suffers from the stigma of being Sarri’s muse, but it’s his plodding lethargy that singles him out as the deficient cog in Lampard’s more up-tempo setup.
Much like Alonso, he was always going to stick around last summer given the transfer ban, but, also like Alonso, he feels like a player who just doesn’t fit into the long-term plan under Lampard.
The accumulation of decent-to-good players who don’t quite fit the current system is a classic problem in modern football. Unfortunately, Chelsea have served as a particular hotbed for the phenomenon due to their ruthless expectations over the years.
However, for a few reasons — not all of which are intentional — it looks like the club is finally removing itself from this vicious circle.
The idea is simple: Frank Lampard is quickly developing a set of players who exclusively “belong” to him. The main source of this new era is the well-documented influx of academy graduates. With Mason Mount, Tammy Abraham, Fikayo Tomori, Reece James, and now Billy Gilmour, there’s almost half of a starting lineup that owes their current first-team status to the faith shown by Lampard (with some help from the transfer ban). You can also add Christian Pulisic to that group, given that Lampard is the only Chelsea manager he’s worked with. Even Mateo Kovacic can be included, such has been his improvement this season compared to his performances under Sarri.
It’s a work in progress, but Frank Lampard is in the midst of doing something that only Jurgen Klopp and the recently departed Mauricio Pochettino were capable of in recent years: constructing an entire squad in their image.
For Klopp and Pochettino, it took multiple seasons and transfer windows to develop a team that perfectly suited their philosophies. Lampard is well on his way in less than a year. And that’s without having received any backing in the transfer market yet.
Lampard has still leaned on several veterans throughout the season. But most of those players – e.g., Willian, Cesar Azpilicueta, Antonio Rudiger and, more recently, Olivier Giroud — are the types of professionals who can be effective in a variety of situations. The same went for players like Eden Hazard, Didier Drogba, and Lampard himself, in past seasons.
As those players age or move elsewhere, Chelsea will be responsible for providing Lampard with replacements who fit into the type of football he is instilling. That’s anything but a given these days, but a handful of shrewd moves in the next two transfer windows could complete the much-needed squad overhaul.
It’s been a long a time coming, but a new era is finally dawning. One that feels sustainable, organic, and purposeful.
The development of an entire squad assembled from the ground up with Lampard’s idea of football in mind will lead to a unified culture that has rarely (if ever) existed at Chelsea this century. It will be a bumpy road, but some faith from the board — in both a financial and footballing sense — could pay dividends, and turn Chelsea into an entirely new type of club.
In a world of Financial Fair Play, uncertain broadcasting revenue, and the imminent bursting of the transfer market bubble, Chelsea look uniquely well-poised to ease their way back to the very top of European football.