Time for Chelsea to show ruthless edge and leave deadwood on the scrap heap
helsea still have seven games to play, but Tuesday night’s elimination by Real Madrid in the Champions League quarter-finals effectively brought down the curtain on their wretched season.
The Blues are eight points from eighth place and winless in five Premier League games, so even a spot in next season’s Europa Conference League is surely out of reach, leaving the club stranded in mid-table with nothing but pride on the line.
Frank Lampard, the only manager in the club’s 118-year history to lose his first four games in charge, afterwards insisted the prestige of playing for Chelsea should be motivation enough for his players and said the club should neither “be too short term” in its outlook nor “jump too far ahead”, unwittingly encapsulating the lack of strategy and direction which has contributed to such a remarkable slump.
In fairness, Lampard was making the point that Chelsea’s fortunes could dramatically change, while urging the squad to remain focused on the here and now, but clearly part of his job should now be to lay the groundwork for next season under a new manager.
Next week marks a year since Todd Boehly and the Clearlake consortium were named as preferred bidders for the club, but Chelsea are, in effect, still at square one, with a fifth head coach of the owners’ short tenure still to be named and a huge job ahead to create a streamline squad and, more importantly, a cohesive culture.
A spirited hour against the European champions at least offered something to build on during the run-in before Madrid went up a level, completing a 2-0 win on the night and 4-0 on aggregate through Rodrygo’s double.
There is the nucleus of a hugely talented young squad at Chelsea, and Lampard insisted his side “had showed they can compete with Madrid, except from the final-third stuff” despite his XI including a 24-year-old, four players aged 23 and two at 22.
Lampard picked the “form” and “fittest” players last night, but the interim boss faces a balancing act in the next five weeks of continuing to bed in new signings, building cohesion among the players and restoring confidence with results. His own reputation is on the line, too.
Conor Gallagher, Trevoh Chalobah and Mateo Kovacic were starters and Mason Mount came off the bench, despite being among the players Chelsea could try to move on, when they need to begin balancing the books. Lampard’s approach has been scattergun in his first four matches, but he should now focus on players who definitely have a future at the club, while there is also a strong case to involve some of the best academy products, even considering the vastness of their first-team squad.
Chelsea’s likely lack of European football next season only increases the need to trim the fat, and leaves Boehly and Co facing a damaging financial hit, as well as another pivotal summer in the transfer market.
Boehly has quickly established a reputation as an easy mark across the European game, and given how badly Chelsea need to sell players, it is hard to imagine they will be able to attract top dollar for Gallagher, Mount, Christian Pulisic, Hakim Ziyech, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, as well as returning loanees Romelu Lukaku and Callum Hudson-Odoi.
Despite a £600million outlay in the last two transfer windows, the squad remains incomplete.
Being out of Europe could come with advantages, however, and Lampard pointed out last night that the last time Chelsea won the title, in 2016-17, was also the last time they had no European football.
With fewer midweek fixtures, a new head coach will have the time and space on the training ground to instil a philosophy and build a team from Chelsea’s expensively-assembled rabble.
Despite a £600million outlay in the last two transfer windows, the squad remains incomplete, and another toothless defeat last night underlined Chelsea’s desperate lack of natural finishers.
Lampard’s 3-4-2-1 system, with N’Golo Kante and Gallagher as twin No10s, caused Madrid problems, but their best chances at 0-0 fell to the France midfielder and stand-in wing-back Marc Cucurella, hardly reliable goalscorers.
While a new centre-forward is surely a must, there is so much talent in Chelsea’s squad, which will be further boosted by Malo Gusto, Christopher Nkunku and, likely, Levi Colwill in the summer, that any new manager should be able to find solutions elsewhere on the pitch without resorting to more signings.
If there is a lesson for Boehly and the new owners from a chastening first year in English football, it is surely that spending lavishly does not always equate to short-term success, although Chelsea’s dramatic splurge may yet prove a winning long-term strategy.
In order for that to happen, the club needs a clear vision for the future and, with nothing left to play for in the present, that process can now truly begin in earnest.