After getting the first win of the season last weekend against Norwich City at Carrow Road, Chelsea return home to take on newly promoted Sheffield United, the last game before the two-week international break.
Speaking in the pre-match press conference, Chelsea head coach Frank Lampard spoke about the squad’s fitness issues, the success of the youth so far, and the challenge of facing the Blades.
First up, the team news. As expected, N'Golo Kante is unavailable due to the ankle problem that ruled him out last week as well.
"N’Golo Kanté is not fit: so the continuation of his ankle problem and he won’t be travelling with the France squad either. I had a conversation with Didier Deschamps and we both agreed it’s the best thing for him. Let’s try and get him fit over the break.
“It’s a setback, of course. My focus is then to make sure he’s okay. He’s had four years of constant football at an incredibly high energy and output level. We have to get that right. It’s the right thing to do, we have a strong squad and the performance last week was very good. We have to be strong as a squad, and hopefully we’ll show that.”
Kanté’s joined by Pedro and Antonio Rüdiger, though the latter is expected to have another rehab start with the reserves later today (Friday). All three (plus Callum Hudson-Odoi and Reece James) should be back in contention after the international break, which certainly comes at the right time as far as Chelsea’s injuries are concerned.
“Pedro is not fit – should be the other side of the international break. Rüdiger will play in the U23s tonight for the final time in terms of proper match fitness, then in serious contention after the break.”
It's not all bad news for Chelsea however, even though we may be a bit light on numbers at the moment. The club’s new-found faith in young players was repaid wonderfully in the 3-2 win against Norwich City, validating Lampard’s belief and trust in Mason Mount and Tammy Abraham. Mount, who’s started all three Premier League games so far, scoring two goals, was even rewarded by an international call-up from England.
"We’re delighted for Mason. Great recognition. He had it at Derby but missed out with injury. He was potentially in contention to start, so he hasn’t had his chance yet. So delighted he’s got this chance again.
“With Tammy, there is competition up front. Hopefully it’s a matter of time for Tammy. But with the competition to start, it’s Gareth [Southgate]’s choice. I’m really, really pleased for Mason and Ross [Barkley], who is there as well.”
Despite the goals and the quality play in general, there is still a perception that Lampard’s is playing the kids just to prove a point — Chelsea’s three-man forward line against Norwich had a combined age of 61, the 21-year-old Abraham flanked by two 20-year-olds is Mount and Christian Pulisic.
“Mason and [the] young players [must] improve all the time [...] I’m not playing young players for the sake of it. Tammy is playing at the moment because he deserves it, but he’ll have to continue deserving it.”
“Two goals won’t make or break him. That has to be the start, and I have a feeling he’s that kind of character. He’s had a taste and he needs to push on because there’s competition up front.”
Lampard made sure to point out not only the hard work they have put in during training, but the extra work they’ve put in as well, just as Lampard himself used to do during his playing career.
Earlier this week, Chelsea posted a video of one of these extra sessions, with Lampard sticking one into the top corner, though Lamps played down that effort in favor of talking up his young charges.
“Yeah it does [their hard work says a lot about their character]. I was always a huge advocate of extra work because it served me well at times. It’s hugely important for all players, particularly young ones. But they’re not the only ones.
“Other players are prepared to stay out, it is something that we try to encourage, not always with shooting but also physical work, anything. Those two are very hungry. That’s why they were there. They stick them in the top corner regularly.
“My one was probably one of ten, so I am glad the camera got that one!”
And it's not just about hard work, of course. The kids have shown maturity beyond their age, both on and off the pitch. Tammy, especially, has taken all the abuse and assorted nonsense and not let it affect him or his mindset. That is praiseworthy and Lampard is mightily impressed, too.
“Really impressed. His character and how he dealt with the situation was brilliant in terms of the Twitter and the nonsense. I spoke strongly about it but he’s the one dealing with it first-hand. He’s the person who had to rise above it, which is not easy, and he certainly did that.
“He has this enthusiastic character, he’s a people person, the players love him. He trains with a smile on his face and has a work ethic. In terms of what I see from the outside in terms of how he’s reacted to that, and the competition of getting into the first XI, I can’t complain. It’s been brilliant.”
All the praise will ring hollow however unless it is matched by results on the pitch. Last weekend’s win was overdue after a bit of bad luck (but also some good luck, especially in the draw against Leicester City), and now we have to build on that.
Sheffield United may be another promoted team, and Chelsea have done extremely well against promoted sides at Stamford Bridge (just 1 loss, the 3-0 to Bournemouth in 2015-16, in the last 54 such encounters), but that doesn’t mean they can be taken lightly. Lampard surely knows, beating them once (2-1) and losing once as well (3-1) while with Derby County last season.
"They started well. I was hugely impressed with them last season, their style of play, formation and style. The job Chris has done there can’t be underestimated, and I don’t think it is. I think the recognition he has got is very well deserved, to take that club from where he has, with the style and identity that he has.
“He is a man that feels deeply about the club. I felt that when I went to Sheffield United last year and I was on the line next to him last year. I look forward to going up against him. A good team, seemingly like Norwich last week, stuck to their principles. They’ll give this year a lot of problems.
Blades’ boss Chris Wilder has turned heads with his tactical wrinkle on the three-man backline — overlapping center backs! — but that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
"Certainly, you have to give them credit where it is due. What I would say about Chris is that it is something we haven’t seen before. There’s something nice being a leader rather than a follower, and I think that caught the eye in the Championship last year and caught a lot of teams cold. I enjoyed the tactical battle going up against them. That’s something to applaud, there’s a lot of threats against you. You have to work out how you damage them.
“In terms of the Premier League, we’ll see. Whether they adapt slightly, or how quickly teams will be able adapt to their style... but watching their first games, there’s not just a tactical edge to their game. There’s also a physical and spirit edge to their team which I like. That maybe comes from trusting in the players that got them up. I like the style and the way they have gone, there you go, prove yourselves in the Premier League. They have not let people down.”
-Frank Lampard; source: Football.London
Speaking of not letting people down, Chelsea will want to get this win under the belt and head into the break on a good note. The schedule gets noticeably harder and certainly a lot busier afterwards.