As the top four race heats up heading into the closing stages of the Premier League season, Chelsea’s defensive woes are threatening their chances of a place in the Champions League next season.
The opening act of Frank Lampard’s tenure at Stamford Bridge has so far been a tempestuous affair, with the budding optimism brought upon by the ebullience of youth being countered by a pervasive defensive fragility and lack of experience.
Shades of what the very best of Lampard’s Chelsea may one day be have intermittently surfaced throughout a half or sporadic spells throughout games, but rarely have they put it all together in one game.
That all changed with the impressive 5-2 dismantling of Wolves at Molineux. Lampard’s decision to play a back three was arguably the most fascinating tactical adjustment so far during the embryonic stages of the season.
The absence of the injured Emerson and the return of Antonio Rudiger brought about food for the thought for a defence that has shockingly conceded more goals in the league than any other team bar Norwich.
Cesar Azpilicueta’s poor defensive form and Marcos Alonso’s discomfort at left back were brilliantly overcome by giving Azpilicueta more defensive cover as a right wing back while Alonso was restored to his natural left wing back position where he made such an impression under Antonio Conte.
Both excelled in their battle against Wolves wingbacks Adama Traore and Jonny as Lampard’s shrewd decision to match up Wolves’s shape not only nullified their attacking threat across the pitch but also made the defence led by the back three of Andreas Christensen, Fikayo Tomori and Antonio Rudiger much more secure.
Lampard will still be livid with the fact that he has yet to obtain a clean sheet, but the tactical finesse that was on show from the former Derby County manager indicates his tactical approach will be more nuanced than what many may have predicated.
Only he will know whether the move to 3-4-3 was just an attempt at fitting in Rudiger into the side without destroying the confidence of Tomori by dropping him, or a conscious decision to negate a system that Nuno Espirito Santo has executed so astutely in the premier league.
One suspects that it is the latter, as Lampard didn’t directly play three versus three in midfield against Moutinho, Neves and Dedoncker but rather, played to his teams strengths by having Willian and Mason Mount float around the half spaces either side of Tammy Abraham.
The pair are comfortable wide or as inverted number 10’s and they made telling contributions throughout the game by running the Wolves back three of Conor Coady, Romain Saiss and Jesus Vallejo ragged in a three versus three throughout the game.
Chelsea were utterly dominant by the time Tammy Abraham wrapped up his hat trick with a brilliantly taken goal to put the visitors 4-0 up before the hour mark, as Wolves had no answers for the slick attacking verve they were confronted with.
The question on everyone’s mind will be whether Lampard decides to stick to a three man defence given how imperious they looked and how the use of wingbacks gave the team greater balance.
With the likes of N’golo Kante, Ruben Loftus Cheek, Callum Hudson Odoi, Emerson and Reece James still to come into the fold for Chelsea in the coming weeks, it is no doubt a tantalising prospect to think how Chelsea’s talented youth will take them this season.
If Tammy Abraham, Mason Mount and Fikayo Tomori’s impressive starts so far to life in the premier league are any indication, it will certainly be an exciting and promising season if not a trophy laden one.
Lampard’s lack of experience as a manager and the perception that he is potentially keeping the Chelsea manager’s job warm while the club navigates its way out of a two transfer window ban is understandable to a degree.
He is a legend of the club and thus it makes sense that his currency with the Stamford Bridge faithful gives him some semblance of hope in dire circumstances that has seen him lose his best player in Eden Hazard and contend with a unique transfer ban.
The turbulence of results and performances ranging from the 4-0 loss to Manchester United to the ignominy of throwing away a 2-0 lead to Sheffield United at home has not doubt strengthened the case of the detractors and naysayers.
However, when the pressure was on against a team that hadn’t lost at home since January throughout a 16 game run, and given the demoralising nature of their last game, the performance and result at Molineux must be immensely commended.
It is still of course early days and the unenviable task of facing the European champions Liverpool next in the league will no doubt be a sterner examination of Chelsea and Lampard’s credentials this season.
Nevertheless, Lampard’s tactical flexibility and boldness that was the driving force behind what feels like a cathartic result, should give the man himself and the team the confidence and belief to aspire to be more than just competitive this season.