If you want to annoy yourself even further than today’s result has done, you can look at the currently Premier League table and note that all that was required for Chelsea to be in third — and three points above fourth, eleven above fifth — was beating West Ham, Everton and Bournemouth. If you want to annoy yourself even more you can check the other end of the table and note that, even with taking all three points against us, West Ham and Everton are still within two points of the relegation zone. Bournemouth, the juggernaut that they are, are now four points clear. Lucky them.
It was always expected that the summer transfer ban would have an effect, but not like this.
After the moral high of out-possessing a Pep Guardiola squad and forcing him into counterattacking tactics for the first time in his managerial career, Lampard’s Chelsea have gone 1-0-3. Key to the uplifting performance against City was our best midfield, the three of Mateo Kovačić-Jorginho-N’Golo Kanté. Lampard hasn’t named this midfield in the league since, because he can’t.
This is the evil of the transfer ban, the effects of which Chelsea had been successfully avoiding. But with fixtures piling up over multiple competitions, Chelsea are finally being engulfed by the foul-smelling hot breath of the transfer ban.
Lampard knows what his best XI is, and that it is highly reliant on the quality of having the our most-skilled players all in midfield at the same time. He names them in every Champions League match, but to protect them from fatigue he has switched to a 4231 in every league match since City. Mason Mount is inserted centrally within the attacking band of three, which allows one of the midfield trio to rest, squeezing the remaining two into a double pivot.
The result is a confluence of problems that Chelsea haven’t figured out how to cope with, even against some of the league’s worst sides. Mount is a good player with above average attacking instincts and a terrific ability to press opponents, but his below-average passing is a liability when asked to drop deeper than reasonable shooting range. This makes Chelsea easier to overrun in midfield by simply adding an extra man.
But even when teams, like Bournemouth, drop back and concede possession for the majority of the match, the 4231 becomes predictable, and in a way that is simple to stop. Without the freedom of movement offered by a 433, the wide players in the 4231 have to start wide. When they do, the defenders drop in behind one another and make crossing the ball as effective as punting it into a forest hoping to locate a friend. The formation also frequently isolates Tammy Abraham, who has limited opportunities to drop deeper and get involved in play — and when he does, the box is either vacated or left to Mason Mount, who two centre-backs would much rather mark.
However, I do not want to lay too much blame on Mason Mount; sure, his deficienciesas a central midfielder force us out of the 433, but it’s also true that he shouldn’t be in this position — particularly at this stage of his career. The primary culprit of course is the transfer ban, which has made Chelsea a small squad that becomes quite fragile with just one change, and unrecognizable with any more.
Being a former player, Lampard knows how rough this patch can be, and has tried to get ahead of it by taking risks with his lineups. Against West Ham he started Giroud and Pedro; then, as the team was scrounging for a point they ultimately wouldn’t get, he opted for Pulisic as a false 9 instead of bringing on Batshuayi. Before Rudiger returned, Tomori’s hip injury forced him into naming our leakiest centre-back pairing, Christensen-Zouma. And he’s shuffled players at left-back to try and get Reece James, our best crosser, into matches (unfortunately Azpilicueta forgot how to play on the left and Emerson’s defending is not a strong suit).
Because the drop-off in quality is so stark, all of these moves have had negative consequences. Now the players who haven’t been rotated (Pulisic and Willian) look exhausted, the midfield is hard to fix without risking injury or fatigue, and the goals have dried up. The result is Chelsea in the middle of their worst run of form — in fact, over five league matches, only Watford have done worse — and seemingly on another continent entirely from where we were in September and October.
With resurgent Mourinho-led Spurs and Arsenal coming up before the end of the year, things could get a lot worse before they get better. Thankfully the transfer ban was halved and reinforcements can arrive in January, and given recent results, let the retail therapy begin.