Chelsea and Frank Lampard promised team selection would be done through merit. Play well, and more importantly, train well and you would find yourself starting. Anything less than total effort in training or games and you’d find yourself benched.
That was certainly the case for Lampard’s first season. This season, however, it seemed more and more that Lampard had settled on an “in” crowd and an “out” crowd. To add to those groups, it also appeared the board had their hand in some selections that surely weren’t starting based on merit. Whether or not the loss of meritocracy helped to aggravate Lampard’s situation or not is still unclear.
Thomas Tuchel has taken a somewhat similar approach to Lampard in his four games so far. His five man base has been fairly static while he’s changed up the forwards and the wingbacks. Overall though, it is hard not to acknowledge how many players are suddenly playing a lot after being exiled under Lampard. Maybe they are simply fresher than the alternatives (Tuchel does seem extremely aware of fatigue and injury risk adverse), but it is hard not to look at some players suddenly playing as political.
That is not a criticism of Tuchel, it is simply a reality of management. Coming into any club midseason, it is wise to win over the players that the last manager lost. It is also wise to tap into their “point to prove” and let the old favorites get some rest. Four games isn’t enough to determine who is in or who is out, though some patterns are emerging.
What will really be of note will be whether those patterns are already set, through preference or politics, or if meritocracy remains at Chelsea. The next two fixtures will be a tell of where Tuchel’s head lies with the squad and who gets selected.
Chelsea already played Barnsley once this season in the League Cup. Lampard used it to introduce Thiago Silva while trying to get Timo Werner and Kai Havertz into form. The Blues were comfortable victors on that day and, despite Tuchel wanting a trophy, there really is no reason for him not to rotate heavily for the Championship side. Any Blues team should have enough to take care of business.
This is the best chance for Tuchel to get a good look at Billy Gilmour, Tammy Abraham, Hakim Ziyech, Kurt Zouma, Kepa Arrizabalaga, Emerson, Tino Anjorin, Christian Pulisic, and even N’Golo Kante provided everyone is fit for the match. These are all players who have, for whatever reason, featured or started little for Tuchel thus far. Barnsley is a great opportunity for them to show what they have to offer the new manager.
Following Barsnley is Newcastle, who despite their recent uptick in form, is still very much at the bottom of the table. Tuchel can afford to continue to rest some of his regulars provided someone gives him a reason to against Barnsley. Good games against both Barnsley and Newcastle by any player could seriously give Tuchel something to think about before Southampton and the start of a truly brutal stretch of games until the March break.
If meritocracy remains at Chelsea, it will be revealed in the next few lineups. Yes, playing against Barnsley and Newcastle isn’t the same as playing against Atletico Madrid, but that doesn’t mean either game isn’t a lesson. Tuchel will learn who he can trust and he can show that it is two way if he picks players on merit after good performances.