So Chelsea and Arsenal will go head-to-head for a third time in the F.A. Cup final. Frank Lampard and his players pulled off a masterclass to nullify the attacking threat of Manchester United and seize upon individual errors to take Frank Lampard to a first major final as a manager.
One major complaint among Chelsea fans this season, especially since the restart, has been the fragility of the defence. This was perhaps best shown in the games against West Ham and Sheffield United. That was totally gone yesterday. The defence was as solid as a rock. No United player had any time on the ball, they were hassled and harried from front to back. The attacking players were unselfish in their workrate, and then created the more meaningful chances and were able to convert them. Whatsmore, players who had recently been looking on shaky ground performed above and beyond to help Chelsea to their 10th F.A. CUp final of the century. There was not a poor perfromance from anyone in the starting lineup. Not. One.
Much was being made of Bruno Fernandes, Paul Pogba, Anthony Martial etc. before the game but the Chelsea’s players workrate and application took them out of the game. There were mistakes on United’s side, both managerially and personally, but Chelsea often forced them into those errors and were then able to exploit them.The only slight blemish on what otherwise would have been a brilliant afternoon’s work was a silly challenge from Callum Hudson-Odoi to give away a penalty and to make the last five minutes slightly nervy.
Lampard didn’t disrespect the competition with his team selection either. Chelsea have regularly played with a back three and wing backs, often against the top six sides and to great success. Chelsea have beaten Tottenham twice playing with a five man defence this season, they beat Wolves convincingly early in the season playing a very similar system to yesterday. Often, Chelsea’s best performances this season have been with a similar system to the one implemented yesterday. They knew the system and what their jobs were going to be in that system.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer made a mistake with his team selection. He tried to hit the sweet spot of rotating his players while putting out a team strong enough to win the game and he got it wrong. He disrupted the players that had been playing so well for him by changing not only the personnel but also the system to one United do not play regularly. Every team has to try and manage the players through this hectic period of the restart but Lampard was able to work around keeping the players fit for a hugely important game on Wednesday against Liverpool and injuries to key players.
But that is indicative of Frank Lampard’s first season in charge. He came in with a lot of good will with Chelsea fans after his stellar playing career at the club, but faced a huge task. He took charge of a side that had faced turmoil the season before, had lost their talisman in Eden Hazard and were not able to sign anyone to replace him. Lampard had to rely on the younger players that have been knocking on the door of Chelsea first-team for a while. In that respect, he is a contender for a manager of the season award. Many thought Chelsea would not finish in the European places, they would not have the quality of players to truly compete in a Premier League campaign. Many of the youngsters have been playing their first season of top flight football.
He’s also faced recurring injuries to some of his most critical players like N’Golo Kante who has been struggling to maintain fitness all season long. Ruben Loftus-Cheek had not played at all this season before the restart, Tammy Abraham has spent a good amount of time on the sidelines, Christian Pulisic hadn’t played since New Year’s Day before the restart and Fikayo Tomori hasn’t played since the restart. Instead he has seemingly led the Blues to Champions League qualification and an F.A. Cup final.
Lampard clearly has a strong vision of the way forward that is persuading some of Europe’s top talent to sign for the club. Timo Werner has been one of the top finishers in Europe over the last couple of years, with pace and trickery on his side as well. Hakim Ziyech has been one of the great creators of the Dutch league in recent years as well. Both signings will go a long way to curing two of this Chelsea side’s ailments. They don’t create enough chances when they have the ball and they don’t convert enough of the chances they do create. Ironically, for a side with a lot of pace at its disposal, Chelsea can be very slow and languid with the ball when a side drops off them. They find it hard to break down a regimented defensive line. The further addition of Kai Havertz from Bayer Leverkusen should also be a plus in that regard. The 20-year-old has 17 goals and 9 assists in all competitions this season. Lampard is clearly looking to bring in players who can unlock a defence and finish chances to kill a game off. Too often Chelsea have not finished their chances and have been punished for it.
The defence will need some work as well; numerous players have been touted as targets for left-back. The likes of Ben Chilwell and Nicolas Tagliafico have been the ones most often suggested. There is also talk of a new centre-back and even goalkeeper being among the targets for the transfer window. Lampard seems to have favour a 4-3-3, but as he showed yesterday, he isn’t afraid to switch it up if he thinks it will help win the game. But Chelsea have often looked weakest defensively when playing with a flat back four. I think if the right people are brought in, a flat back four would be the best use of the players at Frank’s disposal; it would give him a better shot at implementing the style of football he wants to see. Kepa has also looked suspect at times this season, and there is talk that a new goalkeeper will be brought in even if the Spaniard stays, to try and light a fire under him.
This has been a trying season to watch if you are a Chelsea fan. Peaks and troughs in form, the question of the transfer ban, the struggle to qualify for the Champions League. But it also holds the potential to be a defining one. More first-team debuts have been handed to youth academy players this season than any in recent memory. The team looks to have a solid core to develop around, with strong additions coming in for next season. Lampard has imposed his authority, methods and footballing ideas on the squad. If they can get themselves over the line for Champions League qualification and win the F.A. Cup, that would be an absolutely stellar first season in charge.