Well, this is a familiar feeling. No, not the feeling of Frank Lampard back in a proper shade of blue, but that Chelsea — for a multitude of reasons both beyond control and as consequences of direct action — are once again a mystery. Sure, formations and fringe personnel would change, and instructions would be barked from the mouths of José Mourinho or Antonio Conte or Maurizio Sarri or, in various interims, Steve Holland or Guus Hiddink, but knowing what to expect from Chelsea FC has never been all that difficult in the Eden Hazard era.
Since his arrival at Stamford Bridge in 2012, every manager has (eventually, smartly) decided that the easiest ways to win matches was to get the ball to Hazard. This became so embedded in the club that, though Maurizio Sarri came in with rigid tactical instructions and an emphasis on off-the-ball movements and one-touch passing, the Chelsea players still just kind of did what they’d always done: gave the ball to Hazard
Now, not only has the manager position been filled with someone who doesn’t have a lengthy track record of a defined style, Eden Hazard is, at long last, in the crisp whites of Real Madrid. And thanks to Chelsea’s transfer ban, the money handed over for Hazard’s signature hasn’t turned into a sparkly New Star of Stamford Bridge. Sure, Christian Pulisic is coming, but it’d be both unwise and unfair to place those expectations on him in his first Premier League season.
So then what do we do? Exactly how low — or if you’re particularly optimistic, how high — do we place the bar? Surely below challenging for the title, right? This isn’t Disney, sentimentality won’t magically course through the legs of unproven players in the 36 of 38 matches required to top Liverpool or Manchester City. But, again, how low? There were of course reports that all Frank Lampard had to do to earn a second season in charge of his favorite club is avoid getting relegated. So then, just above doom (battling to the final whistle of the season to remain mid-table)? Or should the bar rest just above the Nightmare Scenario™ (Lampard’s move immediately proves to be too much too soon and Chelsea is both laughed at and forced to embarrass a club legend within the first three months of the new season)?
Of course, We Are Chelsea, so it’s assumed that there’s no confluence of scenarios that should see us fail to compete for Champions League places, or at the very least begrudgingly accepting a Europa League slot. But Manchester City and Liverpool are incredibly and historically good, leaving just two slots for Champions League finishes. Spurs, while still trophy-less and Spursy, are finally spending money and spending it well; Tanguy Ndombele is a bit of a coup and exactly the kind of player any team needs, but especially theirs.
Manchester United are also off to a decent start with regards to throwing their money around, shedding old legs to bring in two ultra-promising talents in ex-Crystal Palace fullback Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Swansea’s bullet of a winger, Daniel James. However, they may also be losing Paul Pogba and Romelu Lukaku. Arsenal, well, they’re always kind of just there and in the way until they inexplicably but always hilariously go through a late season multi-week stretch of failing to pickup more than two points. Let’s also not ignore the missions that Wolves and Leicester are on, having not just made solid signings, but also being able to build and keep a talented core.
Confidently situating Chelsea within all that requires leaps to conclusions that are at the moment impossible to make. Just how will Chelsea will play? Which youngsters might step up? How well will Pulisic adjust to the Premier League? Will he adjust at all? How soon can Callum Hudson-Odoi get back, reach, then surpass his pre-injury form? And just where in the world will the goals will come from? All are unanswerable questions beyond hopeful guessing.
But what this has all done for me is bring back that buzz of weird energy that used to flutter in my stomach back when I watched Chelsea before we were serial trophy collectors. I always want the team to win of course, and am nervous ahead of and during every match, but before these Roman Era heights, the feeling was always more of a could rather than a would. That feeling was thrilling, and covered the club in a certain romanticism. We were all along for the ride and unsure of the destination. The satisfaction of expectations met is one thing, but the elation of trailblazing to define, and redefine, expectations can’t be matched.
I don’t know what to expect from this Chelsea season. And neither do any of us. My way of coping with this (and what I suggest to others) is to simply embrace, savor and spend time enjoying the return of that buzz — it’s the same feeling that fed our roots. We have a manager who know us, loves us, and will work hard for us. We have fresh new homegrown talent in the squad. We have two of the most exciting young prospects suiting up for us in Christian Pulisic (20) and Callum Hudson-Odoi (18). Worrying about how it will all fit, and to what end, is something we can and should put off until later. This buzz of excitement and tingly nervousness of mystery is an ancestral piece of Chelsea fandom, and we should honor and cherish it as such.