As a Chelsea fan, I have to admit that despite recent successes — including winning a Premier League title in the 2016-2017 season, the FA Cup in 2018 and this past season’s Europa League title — an overall air of frustration has marked the past few years at Chelsea Football Club.
The 2015-2016 10th-place finish (the team’s worst since 1996) comes to mind as an example of the up-and-down nature of the team’s performances, while the premature sale of players like Mo Salah, who went on to win two Golden Boots in the last two years, and Kevin De Bruyne, who recently set the record for fewest games needed to reach 50 assists, not only shows Chelsea fans what could have been, but also points to a deeper failing of management to identify and retain talent.
When FIFA announced earlier this year that Chelsea would receive a transfer ban for signing and loaning out too many foreign players under the age of 18, it felt like adding insult to injury. For years, the club had signed talented young players yet never played them, even when the usual starters experienced a dip in form, which endlessly frustrated the club’s fans.
To then receive a ban on signing new players felt like even further punishment for Blues supporters, especially after the sale of marquis player Eden Hazard to Spanish giants Real Madrid.
I will be one of the first to admit that the sale of Hazard coupled with the transfer ban made me think that Chelsea’s chances of finishing in the Premier League’s top six, let alone its top four, were all but dashed.
Enter Chelsea’s new manager Frank Lampard — a team legend who is the club’s all-time leading goal scorer and who captained them to a heroic Champions League victory in 2012.
From the very beginning, Lampard was open about his desire to give Chelsea’s young players the opportunity to compete for spots in the starting line-up. This included players like Tammy Abraham, who scored 26 goals in 40 starts for Championship side Aston Villa last season, and Mason Mount and Fikayo Tomori, whom Lampard managed at his former club Derby.
In Chelsea’s first game against rival Manchester United, Lampard put his money where his mouth was at, and gave Abraham and Mount the start.
The result was disastrous: Chelsea was shut out 4-0, the biggest debut loss for a Chelsea manager since 1978, and their biggest defeat away to Manchester United since 1965.
In its second game, the Super Cup final, the club played fellow Premier League side Liverpool and lost on penalties, with Abraham missing the final spot-kick that cemented the defeat.
Chelsea fans had finally gotten their wish — the young players were starting, but instead of seeing this move pay off, the team’s inexperience and youth were holding it back.
Rather than backing off this strategy, and benching Abraham and Mount in favor of older players like French striker Olivier Giroud and Spanish winger Pedro, Lampard doubled down and insisted that the young players be given the chance to prove themselves. Since that 0-2 start, Chelsea has not lost a game. The Blues have scored 11 goals in their past four games, with each goal coming from an English player under the age of 22 who came up through Chelsea’s academy. Tammy Abraham especially has rewarded Lampard for his trust, scoring back-to-back braces against Norwich City and Sheffield United, and then bagging a hat-trick this past weekend at Wolverhampton.
His seven league goals make him the joint leading scorer in the league, alongside Manchester City striker and perennial Golden Boot candidate Sergio Aguero.
After years of watching our academy players flourish at other clubs, I was beyond happy to see Chelsea’s young players lead the team to victory.
It finally feels like Chelsea has a skilled, reliable young core of players who will make the club compete for Premier League titles for years to come.
I still have several concerns for the team this season: Chelsea’s defense is among the worst in the league, conceding 11 goals in five games and scoring two own-goals in the process.
But again, the answer could come in the form of another young player as talented 19-year-old full back Reece James prepares to return from a lengthy ankle injury, and center back Tomori continues to gain experience. There will be other challenges that emerge too, especially if the young players struggle with form or if their inexperience takes the better of them in big games.
But even if this season ends with the Blues outside of the top six, I still believe that Lampard’s philosophy will pay off, and Chelsea will be able to return next season with a squad that can reliably challenge giants like Liverpool and Manchester City.
I am excited to watch this squad develop, and I hope that Lampard will give other young players — like American wunderkind Christian Pulisic — a chance to prove themselves on the big stage.
As the banner that hangs inside Chelsea’s home stadium Stamford Bridge says, I believe that “Super Frankie Lampard” is back and better than ever.