When Frank Lampard was recently asked for his own assessment of his first season as Chelsea manager, the Blues legend wasn’t far off the mark, saying, "My first season back at Chelsea in management has been an unexpected, crazy season for many reasons.”
Lampard’s first season as the manager of the club that he is the top-scorer of was always going to be tricky. With question marks surrounding his credentials to take on a job of such a stature following his debut season in management with Derby County in the Championship, Lampard knew what he was getting into.
And his start to life in the Blues’ dugout wasn’t easy by any stretch of the imagination. After a loss in the UEFA Super Cup against Liverpool, Lampard’s team went on to lose their opening game of the Premier League season against Manchester United 0-4.
Faith in youth
The former England midfielder, though, opted to keep faith with his team selection that featured several youngsters from the club’s youth academy. While his decision to blood such youngsters were partly due to the transfer ban that was slapped on the west Londoners, Lampard’s belief in youth was evident during his time at Derby.
Under him, players such as Billy Gilmour, Mason Mount and Tammy Abraham – Chelsea academy graduates – enjoyed plenty of game time and the latter two became first-team regulars before too long. His belief in such players began to bring dividends as Chelsea soon strung together a decent run of results while playing attractive football.
As a result, positivity grew around the club, with Chelsea in the top four and looking good to push on. Some pundits, who predicted his inexperience and lack of activity in the transfer market would make life difficult for him, were beginning to sing from a different hymn sheet as a free-flowing Chelsea side, brimming with youth and excitement wreaked havoc on opposition defences when on the front foot.
However, it was at the back that Chelsea themselves struggled. While creating chances and scoring wasn’t much of an issue for the west London club, keeping clean sheets became increasingly difficult for them as the season progressed.
In any other season, a defence as fragile as theirs may not have even finished in the top four but the fact that the rest of the sides around them had their own problems to address made a Champions League finish possible for them.
Woes in defence
By the time the second half of the league was underway, Chelsea’s defensive problems were well known by the rest of the teams, and with Lampard struggling to find solutions for their backline, opposition units had begun working out how to best exploit them at the back.
Their inability to keep things tight at the back saw them constantly on the brink of dropping out of the Champions League places only for the teams below them to also slip up. This recurrance continued for Lampard and his Blues till the end of the season.
The fact that they didn’t have the most reliable goalkeeper in between the posts only served to make matters worse as Kepa Arrizabalaga found himself under a lot of pressure while being shuffled in and out of the team.
The lack of stability in goal and at the back is perhaps why they conceded more goals (54) than any other side in the top half of the Premier League table last season. It’s also worth mentioning that they were humbled by Bayern Munich in Europe’s top club competition and lost 12 matches in the league, which isn’t something you would expect from a Champions League team.
They also blew their only chance of silverware when they lost the FA Cup final against Arsenal, prompting some of the questions surrounding him at the start of the campaign to return. Is Lampard good enough to be Chelsea manager? Is he experienced enough for such a job?
Champions League spot finish despite transfer ban
Comparisons between the previous season and the recently concluded one didn’t help his cause either. The Blues’ former manager Maurizio Sarri had led them to a third-place finish and the Europa League title in the 2018-19 season. Lampard, by comparison, had fared worse than Sarri in terms of points, league position and trophies.
Having said that, what must not be forgotten is Sarri had a transfer window to add players to his team as well as the talismanic presence of Eden Hazard. In stark contrast, Lampard could only add youth team graduates and players that were away on loan from his team while also having to cope with the departure of their best player in Hazard.
All things considered, it wouldn’t be a bad shout to say that Lampard has somewhat exceeded expectations in his first season as Blues boss, especially when taking into account that most experts didn’t give his side a chance to finish in the top four at the start of the campaign.
While the scope for improvement, especially in defence, cannot be argued, Lampard can be proud of what he achieved in his first season of management in top-flight football. “I think the challenges I knew coming into this job at the start of the year, of the transfer ban and the transition we felt we were in,” he was quoted saying recently.
"To achieve Champions League football for next season gave me lots of positive feeling to how we can go forward from here. There were some tough moments along the way, which I certainly took on board and have learnt a lot about the squad and where we want to get to. But I think the real feeling is a positive one, now I'm back managing the club I love and I just want to take us forward," he added.
With all that in mind, Lampard will know that moving forward with Chelsea will be his only option in the season ahead. The addition of exciting talents like Timo Werner and Hakim Ziyech after their transfer ban was lifted, plus the experience of a full year of Premier League management puts him in a stronger position than he was at the start of the last season.
That said, he will also be aware of the need for more positive results, the tightening of his defence and rectifying errors of the past since another season similar to his first is unlikely to be accepted by the board, making it imperative for him to apply his lessons from the last season and show some progress in the upcoming campaign.
Feature image courtesy: AFP / Andy Rain
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