Premier League 2020-21 preview No 5: Chelsea | Football – The Guardian

Guardian writers’ predicted position: 3rd (NB: this is not necessarily Jacob Steinberg’s prediction but the average of our writers’ tips)

Last season’s position: 4th

Odds to win the league (via Oddschecker): 11-1

The generous take is Chelsea do not have to rush. Although they have made impressive strides under Frank Lampard, it is unlikely they will be strong enough defensively to challenge for the title this season. Inconsistency remains an issue and, given Lampard is still learning his trade as a manager, there are bound to be a few more stumbles from this entertaining but erratic side.

The transitional period is not over. Chelsea performed above expectations last season, qualifying for the Champions League despite having to deal with a transfer ban, and are still a work in progress.

Lampard saw the best and worst of Chelsea during the final weeks of an encouraging debut campaign. Whereas Chelsea were efficient when they secured fourth place by beating Wolves 2-0 on the final day, they were a mess when they lost the FA Cup final against Arsenal the following weekend and looked a long way from being capable of challenging the elite when Bayern Munich thumped them in the last 16 of the Champions League. “From having the ban we have missed out where other clubs have spent,” Lampard said after losing 7-1 on aggregate against Bayern. “I know where we can improve.”

The obvious place to start is in defence, especially as Chelsea have sharpened their attack with the signings of Timo Werner and Hakim Ziyech and are poised to add Kai Havertz. Lampard’s side conceded 54 goals in the league last season, their worst record since the 1996-97 campaign. They made too many individual errors, struggled at set pieces and were vulnerable to counterattacks.

How they finished

Part of it is down to personnel. Lampard does not trust Kepa Arrizabalaga, the most expensive goalkeeper in the world, and chopped and changed between Antonio Rüdiger, Kurt Zouma, Fikayo Tomori and Andreas Christensen in central defence. Thiago Silva has been signed to strengthen there but he turns 36 in September and may not find the Premier League plain sailing. César Azpilicueta can struggle against pace and the Spaniard’s deputy at right-back, Reece James, is inexperienced. The hope is Ben Chilwell will solve the problem position at left-back.

Lampard is entitled to point out that N’Golo Kanté, the best defensive midfielder in the world, was rarely available to protect the back four. Opponents found it too easy to run through midfield when Kanté was not alongside Mateo Kovacic. Although Jorginho offers calm on the ball, there are times when the Italy midfielder looks too ponderous to flourish in England.

Not that Lampard is blameless. There are also structural issues to resolve. If teams find it easy to target Chelsea at set pieces and punish them on the break, it is down to the manager to find a tactical solution. Lampard, who thinks his players are too quiet, has to show he can strike the right balance between defence and attack.

Even so, Chelsea do not have to demand too much yet. Expectations have risen and Lampard, who has received substantial backing in the transfer market, is working in favourable conditions. But he has earned time; he deserves patience as he tries to close the gap on Liverpool and Manchester City.

After all, it is easy to ignore the fact Lampard inherited arguably Chelsea’s weakest squad of the Roman Abramovich era when he replaced Maurizio Sarri. Losing Eden Hazard to Real Madrid left a huge hole and there were times when Chelsea, who could not bring in a replacement straight away, huffed and puffed as they tried to break down deep defences.

Werner, Ziyech and Havertz should enhance Chelsea’s creative threat. There was an obvious need for more depth and quality in attack, especially after Pedro and Willian were allowed to leave on free transfers. Werner, scorer of 34 goals for RB Leipzig last season, will provide healthy competition for Tammy Abraham and Olivier Giroud and it should be fun watching Mason Mount, Callum Hudson-Odoi and Christian Pulisic combine with Havertz and Ziyech. Ruben Loftus-Cheek, fit again after recovering from an achilles injury, will also be keen to make a strong impact.

Yet Chelsea need time to grow and develop at their own pace. Lampard is hungry for trophies but his first task is ensuring Chelsea do not stand still.

Formed by Gus Mears at the upstairs room at the Rising Sun pub, which is opposite Stamford Bridge and known as the Butcher’s Hook these days. Won the First Division title in 1955, one of the greatest FA Cup finals in 1970 and the European Cup Winners’ Cup in 1971 despite having no history until Roman Abramovich bought the club in 2003. Became the neutrals’ favourites after Abramovich’s arrival transformed English football and led to an era of unprecedented success. Rival fans admired Chelsea for winning five Premier League titles and becoming the first London club to win the European Cup.

Photograph: Ben Stansall/AFP

The manager

On the touchline Don’t mess with Lampard. The manager showed his tough side when he thought Liverpool’s coaching staff broke a “code of respect” on the touchline at Anfield. His next meeting with Pep Lijnders, Jürgen Klopp’s No 2, will be one to watch.

On Zoom It is pointless asking Lampard about transfer rumours, unless you want him to shoot you down, but he is usually happy to answer most questions related to football. Watch out for him opening with a quick joke before vaulting into serious business mode.

Frank Lampard shows his tough side at Liverpool.

Frank Lampard shows his tough side at Liverpool. Photograph: Laurence Griffiths/PA

The key

Although Abraham and Giroud did well last season, Lampard was delighted when Chelsea completed a £47m deal to sign Werner. The Germany striker, who can play through the middle or on the left, scored 95 goals during four years at RB Leipzig and should improve an inconsistent attack.

Kit story

Chelsea wore Eton Blue from 1905 as the Earl of Cadogan, who was the club’s president and held the title Viscount Chelsea, was an old Etonian. They changed to the darker shade of Royal Blue in 1907.

The owners

Abramovich is the Russian billionaire who turned Chelsea into one of the biggest clubs in the world. He has spent heavily and has always sought high standards, acting ruthlessly whenever a manager has performed below expectations. However, Abramovich’s hopes of redeveloping Stamford Bridge have stalled. He took Israeli citizenship after withdrawing his application for a new UK visa in 2018.

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Young blood

Hudson-Odoi will be desperate to impress after going through a dip last season. The England winger showed glimpses of his talent but lacked consistency after a serious achilles injury. He needs to kick on following the departures of Pedro and Willian.

New blood

Ziyech is going to provide plenty of entertainment. The Moroccan winger starred when Ajax reached the Champions League semi-finals in 2019 and he should boost Chelsea’s creative threat. Ziyech, who can play on the right or as a No 10, has a wand of a left foot.

Hakim Ziyech can play on the right or as a No 10.

Hakim Ziyech can play on the right or as a No 10. Photograph: Glyn Kirk/AFP/Getty Images

Notes from an empty stadium

Some fans appear on the big screens at either end of the ground during games and seats are covered by banners and images of supporters drawn by the illustrator Brad Crawford. “I think the flags and banners gives a voice to the fans,” Crawford says.

Euros vision

Kanté has struggled to stay fit since playing the Europa League final in 2019 with a knee injury. The France midfielder kept picking up knocks last season and his lack of sharpness could give the world champions a selection headache at Euro 2020.