While not all of Chelsea’s struggles can be solved by a few players in the Blues’ squad becoming unavailable, a smaller selection would help tremendously.
The holiday season is all about traditions. Whether it’s Christmas, Hanukkah, New Year’s or any other cause for celebration, some customs are simply taken for granted as immovable pillars of culture. This time around, however, many of those traditions have been jettisoned in the interest of public health in the midst of a global pandemic. The world at large has been asked to defer the usual gatherings and reunions until we’re out of these plagued woods, hopefully sooner than later. Regardless of the unprecedented (to beat that word to death just a bit more) times we live in, some holiday traditions have managed to endure. Namely, Chelsea’s annual downturn in form. It’s nice to know that some things remain immutable, even in the direst of circumstances.
The Blues’ current run of form—just two league wins since the start of December—tracks as one of the most expected, albeit unwelcome, traits of a typical season at Stamford Bridge. Last season featured only four victories in the same timeframe; the 18-19 season brought six wins from nine, which better, but still the worst stretch of the season. It’s simply how things seem to go for Chelsea. You can blame it on the infamous club Christmas party, but that’s hardly an excuse this time around.
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You can also blame it on injuries, but you’d be wrong—you fool. This is the longest the Blues have gone with a healthy squad since Frank Lampard took over 18 months ago. Fitness is always a bit of a challenge around this time of year, but there haven’t been any lengthy absences that have popped up in recent weeks. If you’re not knocking on wood right now, you should be. But why, then, with an unusually healthy squad, can Chelsea not pull itself up by its proverbial bootstraps and get back to winning ways? The Blues were on a peerless run of form all the way up to the end of November. Practically no one will ever wish to go back to the good ol’ days of 2020, but Chelsea would like nothing more than to replicate those heady times as soon as possible.
There’s nothing particularly glaring in the way the Blues are playing, aside from the well-documented struggles of Timo Werner and a clearly COVID-affected Kai Havertz. With a healthy set of players, however, overcoming those weak points should be eminently doable for a squad that still possesses plenty of attacking talent. Yet, here we are. At this point, you have to turn and look at the illogical and unconventional. What if Chelsea’s clean bill of health is actually the problem? Is this Chelsea squad too healthy?
There’s certainly an argument for it, one that relies on the inherent issues that come with a young, inexperienced manager, especially one who has been handed a bunch of new toys in his second year. The one thing that Lampard unequivocally lacks is a tried and tested philosophy that has been battle tested over the years. This looks different from manager to manager. For Maurizio Sarri, it was a rigid structure based on predesigned patterns of play. Antonio Conte was similar, although he built a structure that suited the players at his disposal, while also being about one tenth as dogmatic as his compatriot. Jose Mourinho relied more on a type of psychological philosophy, one that his former players still praise to this day. Et cetera and so on. For Lampard, no such thing exists—at least not yet. After all, this is just his third year in management.
The issues compounds when you mix his continuing search for a philosophy with a large, healthy squad. There are any number of philosophies he could adopt, and roughly (and I mean roughly) 13,037,895 11-player combinations of the 27-man squad. That’s … a lot of tinkering to finally settle on something; Claudio Ranieri would be in heaven. The board has been patient, but that’s asking a bit much, even if Lampard is a club legend. Let’s say a rash of injuries—or, god forbid, COVID cases—knocks five players out of contention. The number drops to roughly (again, roughly) to 705,432 potential XIs. That’s still a lot, but it gives Lampard decidedly fewer decisions to make in electing his best starting line-up. It also limits the number of philosophies that could be compatible with the line-ups he could field.
To step away from that flawless, data-driven and analytical approach, consider the following hypothetical, say Olivier Giroud pulls a beard muscle and is set to miss four weeks (the standard for such an injury). Now, say Tammy Abraham stands up too fast and gets vertigo from the sudden dramatic altitude change. A game-plan revolving around playing crosses into the box suddenly becomes a non-starter. Instead, cutbacks and short passing combinations might be the only viable ways of scoring. That’s one major decision Lampard doesn’t have to make headed into a match. Add in a bruised toe for Hakim Ziyech, the result of him trying to kick the ball with his right foot for the first time ever. Now Lampard is down two strikers and a winger. That leaves him with a front three of Christian Pulisic, Werner and Callum Hudson-Odoi, who all need to play in a very specific system that relies on vertical runs and balls played into space. As the player pool gets smaller, the team sorts itself out, as do the tactics.
It’s the definition of addition by subtraction. At the moment, Lampard has an overwhelming number of options and no defined system to organize them into. Add in the panic that comes from the current putrid run of performances and chaos ensues.
Fortunately, there’s at least some stability in the team. The back line sorts itself out, which is a hilarious departure from what Lampard had to work with last season. That does leave him with six spots to fill though and 13 potential options. That’s still roughly (seriously, roughly) 1,716 possibilities. But, again, let’s add in three injuries, and it’s down to an actually reasonable 210 combinations (you already know what goes in parentheses). The injuries force selection, and the selection forces the tactics; the perfect training wheels for a young manager.
To be abundantly clear, I would never wish injuries on any player, Chelsea or otherwise—I’m not a monster. But with a dense fixture list that won’t let up until the summer, those injuries are destined to happen at some point or another. After all, the FA seems determined to act in opposition to player safety at all times. Hopefully, by the time injuries inevitably creep into the squad, the Blues will be leading the league by 10 points and we’ll all look back on this and laugh.
More realistically, Lampard will still be under pressure when players start queuing up in the physio room, but that could be the moment everything finally falls into place again. It’s a twisted and somewhat tortured logic, but it’s becoming clear that Lampard is finding the issues born from a combination of poor form and a big squad to be an inscrutable riddle. A smaller squad would be to his benefit. That’s neither likely nor desirable in the short term, apart from players picking up injuries.
Don’t hope for injuries, but recognize that a handful of them could change the course of Chelsea’s season.