Is it time to press the panic button over Frank Lampard or have Chelsea just been unfortunate? We analyse the cold, hard facts and give an early verdict.
Just one win from Lampard’s opening quartet of Premier League games with Chelsea is hardly the return that the Stamford Bridge faithful was relishing. With the title race apparently lost already, it will take a Herculean change in form and fortune if Lampard is to win the top prize as both a player and manager with the Blues.
Can he do it? Or do the numbers point to a very real decline?
While the man in the pub will rightly use the points return as a means to judging Lampard, there are diverse ways that Lampard’s lack of luck, skill or both can be quantified. The phenomenon of ‘expected goals’ (xG) is a modern metric used to judge the effectiveness of a manager, and whether or not he has merely been unlucky.
With four games of the season gone, Chelsea are almost on a par with the expected goals tally. Six goals in their favour stands at just 0.5 goals below the tally the Blues should have.
Though somewhat discouraging, that figure is more indicative of bad luck than outright incompetence. However, there seems to be a massive problem in defence, with Chelsea going into the September international break conceding 3.61 goals more than they ‘should’ have.
Defensive woes the biggest issue
Lampard was always the clear favourite to be next Chelsea manager, but with the Expected Goals metric taking into account both the quality of shots and the calibre of the opposition, the suggestion is that most of the goals being conceded under his command are entirely avoidable.
Even a return to the basics of defending could see that ‘+3.61’ figure begin to drop immediately, and only by addressing key weaknesses in defence can Lampard have any hope of turning an imminent failure into a success story. That process starts with identifying specific underachievers, and reviewing their future in the starting XI.
At the back, the biggest individual culprit so far has been Kurt Zouma. Most notably, the Dutchman conceded a penalty in the in the disastrous opener at Old Trafford, and ended August by scoring an own-goal that directly cost Chelsea two points against Sheffield United.
Zouma is a powerful figure, but one whose decision-making is open to question. Even so, his dreadful run of personal form is a mystery, with Zouma being one of Everton’s biggest assets throughout the Merseysiders’ good spring of 2018/19.
Like Lampard though, Zouma is a genuine victim of circumstances. Defensive stalwart David Luiz has joined Arsenal, Antonio Rudiger is injured, Andreas Christensen is struggling for form and Fiyako Tomori is shouldering immense pressure before his time. Succinctly put, Lampard has a perfect cocktail of defensive confusion to address.
The tendency to fold late in games is also an area of concern. This was underlined in brutal fashion by a determined Sheffield United team back on 31 August, with Zouma’s own-goal making it three matches, out of the first four, where Chelsea have conceded in the final half-hour of play. It also meant that the period beyond the hour mark has already seen Chelsea drop four points across two home matches so far this term.
Positional shortages have bought Lampard time
Though Chelsea are evidently not clinical or resolute enough for either the common fan or the erudite boffin, there are undeniably some mitigating circumstances at play. Elements such as Eden Hazard’s departure and the transfer embargo are, of course, already well-documented. So too is the somewhat poisoned legacy left by Maurizio Sarri, with a light attacking roster amidst a somewhat directionless dressing room.
The lightweight attack has essentially given Lampard an impossible task, and not even a seasoned Premier League veteran could turn Mason Mount and Tammy Abraham into Robben and Drogba overnight. Injuries have also played a huge part in the poor start to Chelsea’s season, blocking all opportunity for Lampard to pick midfield workhorses who will fight for the cause, and ease the pressure on an unsettled defence.
Still sidelined, Mateo Kovacic and N’Golo Kante fit that particular bill with the greatest zeal, and as such, Lampard should ultimately be judged once they are back in action.
Where do Chelsea go from here?
Optimistic Chelsea fans, who would remain staunch Lampard advocates until the bitter end, will point to the fact that the Blues are unbeaten under Lampard in the three games where the side have scored first. However, the return of five points from a potential nine across games in that category is nowhere near good enough, especially for a squad that still has a number of title winners from 2016/17.
Much can be said of unlucky deflections and unavoidable own-goals, but a winning team ultimately makes its own luck. That is something Chelsea have categorically failed to do, especially in away games, with the Blues going into September bereft of a Premier League away win against any established top-flight team (newly-promoted opposition excepted) this calendar year.
Albeit mostly under Sarri, Chelsea have also gone on to recover just one point from away matches in that category where they have conceded first, beating only the eventually-relegated newcomers Cardiff after shipping the first goal in a match so far this year.
A difficult away schedule awaits in the coming weeks, with a trip to the Molineux immediately following the international break. On top of the fact that Chelsea were beaten on their last visit to Molineux, the ground has gained a reputation as a graveyard for the hopes of top-six teams, with even eventual champions Manchester City failing to take full points back in 2018/19.
A home match with Liverpool awaits after that, and even a team with a rock-solid defence generally struggles to keep the Reds out.
While there are no particularly brutal schedules for Chelsea thereafter, the away calendar looks daunting as Christmas approaches.
Trips to Manchester City, Everton, Tottenham and Arsenal take Chelsea up to the new decade, and with Chelsea taking zero points and losing 15-1 on aggregate across those away fixtures last season, a huge effort – if not a miracle – will be needed to give Chelsea the confidence boost they desperately need.