When Chelsea kick off their Premier League season on September 14 it will be one year to the day since a 5-2 win at Wolves in which all five goals were scored by academy graduates.
Tammy Abraham’s hat-trick took him to seven goals in three games, evidence of what can happen when youth meets opportunity. Mason Mount and Fikayo Tomori scored the other two – players who undoubtedly owed their chance to Frank Lampard, who had previously coached them at Derby.
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There were times last autumn when Chelsea appeared convinced of the merits of this new path, even if it was one they were treading because of necessity rather than design.
Eden Hazard was gone and the means to replace him had been temporarily restricted by a transfer ban. But when Christian Pulisic scored a hat-trick of his own at Burnley in October to extend the club’s winning streak to seven games, the sense of optimism and renewal was palpable.
Events since then have tempered that naive notion. After criticising the finishing at times during the first part of the season, the back-to-back home defeats to Bournemouth and Southampton in December left Lampard bemoaning a lack of creativity instead. The defensive flaws since the restart offered a reminder that all was not well there either.
By the time the FA Cup final had been surprisingly surrendered to Arsenal and the Champions League beating at the hands of Bayern Munich was complete, the verdict was in.
This transition season had served its purpose, a top-four finish secured. But for the club to move forward, new signings would be needed. High quality was the route back to the top.
“Expectations were mixed at the start of the season,” Lampard recently told Sky Sports. “There were some unknowns in terms of the squad. I had players making their debuts in the Premier League and I just wanted to see where we could get to. We have made some really good steps forward but then we have to think of the next one because we are Chelsea.”
The transfer activity since then has made the club’s intentions clear.
Quality has arrived en masse. Hakim Ziyech’s signing had long been known about but that has not prevented the club turning to Kai Havertz too. He joins fellow Germany international Timo Werner, new left-back Ben Chilwell and experienced Brazilian defender Thiago Silva.
These are elite signings.
Thiago Silva’s reputation is not in doubt. He joins having just played in a Champions League final. Liverpool fancied Werner but were unwilling to compete financially for his signature. Havertz is widely regarded as Germany’s outstanding young talent.
Nobody should get too carried away with the idea the Bundesliga pairing are here hoping to make a name for themselves – that has already been done. Speaking to Tayfun Korkut recently, Havertz’s former coach at Bayer Leverkusen summed it up well. “He is ready to play for any team in the world. Improve? What can you improve?”
As for Ziyech, at 27, he is undoubtedly in his prime. Chilwell is younger but he has vast experience – his first appearance for Chelsea will be his 100th in the Premier League.
Star players and expectations to match.
For Lampard, it changes the job. His task now is to ensure that his own time in charge does not come to be viewed the same way as last season: good fun while it lasted but not the long-term solution for a club with demands befitting that of a modern super club.
He must prove he is more than a mere placeholder.
Some of the traits that seemed so important just one year ago are less of a priority now. Lampard has stabilised the club, reconnected with supporters, and he has brought through some promising young players. But Pulisic and Mount are 21 now. The next step is here.
In short, Thiago Silva is not here for a rebuild. He is here to win.
Brighton vs Chelsea
September 14, 2020, 8:00pm
That is exactly how Lampard sees it too.
“I like the idea of players coming here who have a character, a desire, an attitude to come and work to be a success at Chelsea,” says Lampard. “Not just to pass through, not just to come and see what happens, not to come here because we are in London.
“I want them to want to be part of a really strong team that wants to go places. Of course, we want talented players but I want individuals with that mindset. Most of the things I have been involved in in football that have been good have had characters.
“People with desire to be winners.”
He understands that mentality better than most and, yes, he understands this club. His 11 major honours at Chelsea came in a career that spanned nine different managers.
He played and scored when the team won 6-0 against West Brom on the opening weekend of the season a decade ago – a performance for which Carlo Ancelotti was summoned to owner Roman Abramovich to explain himself as the display was deemed unacceptable.
He was there when Luiz Felipe Scolari was sacked in February with Chelsea only four points off the top of the table. He will recall former team-mate Roberto Di Matteo’s sacking just six months after leading the team to their first and only Champions League success.
Not everyone at Chelsea enjoys these moments revisited and it is true the circumstances have been different in each case. But this is a more accurate reflection of the fact that this is a club that traditionally demands more than most. The past year was the aberration. Chelsea’s summer spending is a reminder that the old rules apply once more.
The squad now looks deep. A refresh was required but after such significant investment, Lampard must know he will be judged by new standards – the old standards.
He will not be afraid to embrace that. Lampard is a winner by habit. His owns standards are high and there were signs as the season progressed that he was tiring of talk of tomorrow.
The decision to drop Kepa Arrizabalaga for Willy Caballero was ruthless. Favouring Olivier Giroud over Abraham proof that he was not wedded to the notion that he was some sort of development coach. Tomori hardly featured after the turn of the year even when he was fit. Havertz has even taken his shirt number.
Rather than perpetuate the idea that his team was ‘on a journey’ and pleading patience in the way that, say, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has done at Manchester United, there have been frequent reminders when the level of performance has fallen far short. No excuses.
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