That doesn’t mean I don’t think the season will be a successful one. I think it could well be one of the most exciting non-title winning seasons Chelsea have had in a long time. This season could be the precursor to Chelsea returning to being a major force in the league for a long time to come.
Frank Lampard worked under some unusual circumstances for an incoming Chelsea manager. He only had one season of professional management under his belt at Derby County, was taking over a team where he had enjoyed a stellar playing career and might struggle to match it in the dugout and was not able to replace the club’s best player in Eden Hazard, due to the club’s transfer ban. He had brought younger players through at Derby but he was going to have to do the same thing at a much higher level with a squad that had been through a good amount of turmoil under Maurizio Sarri. Most new managers coming into Stamford Bridge are afforded a big transfer budget that means they can immediately bring players in that fit their style of play. The club bought N’Golo Kante and Marcos Alonso in Antonio Conte’s first summer in charge. Maurizio Sarri brought over Jorginho from Napoli, and the club brought about six players to the club in 2004 after Jose Mourinho arrived. That’s usually part and parcel of taking the job. Lampard was not going to have that opportunity. But they still managed to secure a top-four finish and a cup final appearance. Even while having to rely on youngsters and players who had failed to make the squad previously. Players like Mason Mount, Tammy Abraham and Reece James made very serious claims to be regulars in the team for many years to come.
Throughout the season, Lampard was clearly looking for areas to improve the squad. Although no-one arrived in the January transfer window, to Lampard’s annoyance, they moved quickly to start the ball rolling to get the team moving in the right direction. Hakim Ziyech’s signature was secured for the new season back in February. The coronavirus outbreak obviously threw a major spanner in many teams’ transfer plans. Many weren’t able to think about spending truly silly amounts. But Chelsea were sitting on a kitty totalling about £170 million. They could afford to go after their top targets.
Lampard hasn’t been foolish with the money either. He has looked through the squad, identified where he felt the squad was lacking and then looked at who could best fill the void and whether they could get them in. The players they targeted are at the top level of the game. Timo Werner is one of the most in-form strikers in Europe at the moment. Chelsea frequently struggled to finish the chances they created. Hakim Ziyech is one of the most creative attacking players, frequently being the one to unlock defensive shapes. That’s something Chelsea also struggled to do, particularly if the opposition were sat very deep. Thiago Silva, even at 36, showed in the Champions League that he is still one of the finest centre-backs in the European game and will help with the defensive issues that Chelsea had last season. Ben Chilwell will also help in that regard. He’s far more defensively secure than someone like Marcos Alonso and carries a similar attacking threat. Lampard clearly wants to play a flat back four and Alonso does not fit that system comfortably. He is too often caught out of position. Kai Havertz is one of the most exciting young players in world football right now. He is also incredibly versatile, able to play anywhere from central midfield to striker. Chelsea are also apparently close to sealing a deal for the Rennes goalkeeper Edouard Mendy. That was another position that seriously needed attention. Lampard clearly wasn’t happy with Kepa Arrizabalaga’s performances last season and ended up dropping him for the finale of the season, including the F.A. Cup final. While they are unlikely to regain much of the world record fee, they paid for Kepa in 2018, some stiff competition might be one route to the Spaniard regaining some of the form and potential he showed in the 2018-19 season.
What has really impressed me about the business that Chelsea have done this transfer window is not just the players that have been brought on board, and they are absolutely world class signings that will improve the squad no end. The first eleven was a good Premier League eleven that would continue developing and getting better. But there was very little squad depth. Manchester City and Liverpool are in a position where they can name effectively two different starting line-ups. They can sustain challenges for silverware because they have sufficient strength in depth to rest and rotate players throughout the season. No, what has impressed me about Chelsea’s transfer business has been the fact that the manager and board have been in complete harmony. Lampard and Petr Cech have put the work in to identify the targets and sell the project to them. Lampard and Cech have had hundreds of phone calls and meetings to persuade the players that moving to Chelsea is the right move for them. All the players have played up the fact that Lampard talked to them extensively and helped to persuade them that the move was the right one for them. Marina Granovskia has also worked tirelessly to strike deals that aren’t too far into the realms of the ridiculous. Chelsea never disclose transfer fees anymore, but from what has been reported, the club have been operating well within their means.
The reason I don’t think that Chelsea will win the league this season is that such an influx of players requires time to meld together and gel. The majority of incoming players have not played in the Premier League before and will take some time to get used to it. I’ve always stuck by the theory that foreign players need at least a full season in the Premier League before they will fit top form. Liverpool and Manchester City are not going to be making such sweeping changes to their squads and so will be better grounded and set as a team. They will have all played in the league and with each other before. Chelsea will be working that out as they go along this season. I think qualification for the Champions League, while reducing the gap to the top two, and maybe a cup run would be another successful season for Frank and the team.
Many will accuse Chelsea of trying to buy the league again. And that may be true. But then, what have Liverpool and Manchester City been doing all this time?