Frank Lampard’s debut campaign as Chelsea manager has been an unusual one for many reasons. First came the transfer ban in the summer of 2019 which meant Chelsea, arguably, went into their first season since the Abramovich era began not expecting the manager to challenge for the title. Not only was Frank in just the second year of his managerial career and his first at Premier League level, but the gap between Man City and Liverpool and the rest of the table was cavernous.
The more relaxed approach towards results allowed Lampard to test some of the younger crop; with Tammy Abraham, Mason Mount and Fikayo Tomori getting off to a blistering start in the first team culminating in a six game winning streak in the league as Chelsea ended October in third, earning Lampard the manager of the month award. Things quickly went downhill, however. Despite the blues progressing from a tough Champions League group and the emergence of Reece James as a star right back, not to mention Hudson-Odoi’s return from injury, performances started to flag. That inconsistency, particularly at home, has led to a rollercoaster season, with wins home and away against Joes Mourinho’s Spurs tempered by awful home defeats at the hands of lowly West Ham, Bournemouth and Southampton. In this article I’ll take a very subjective look at all of our regular players and attempt to rank their seasons out of ten as fairly as I can. Remember we all have different opinions and biases and I will try and be as reflective of the fan base as a whole as I can! Part one will be looking at our defensive players and keepers, so let’s dive into it…
This has been one of Chelsea’s problem areas. Despite the club breaking the world record transfer fee for a keeper in bringing in Kepa Arrizabalaga from Athletic Bilbao in the summer of the 18/19 season, he is not been the imposing figure we expected. Following two hugely successful Chelsea custodians was never going to be easy but Kepa’s confidence looks shot. His Chelsea career has followed the opposite trajectory to the club’s number one target, Alisson Becker, who has grown into one of the best stoppers in the world.
Kepa: Shockingly, he has the lowest save percentage in the Premier League at around 55% and although admittedly our shaky defence has conceded too many big chances, Kepa rarely seems to keep anything out. Failing to command his area or the defence ahead of him, whenever a cross comes into our box Chelsea fans collectively take a deep breath as we fear the worse. Our set piece defending has been abysmal and a lot of that is down to the lack of leadership from our man in between the sticks. Following poor performances at the turn of the year, Lampard made the bold call to drop Kepa for our 39 year old reserve keeper Willy Caballero, a move which yielded mixed returns. Before the season stopped Kepa had two confident displays against Liverpool and Everton, a triple save against the former particularly impressive. However, over the course of the season he has not been good enough.
Willy Caballero: He was given a brief stint in goal by Lampard and although he didn’t perform terribly, he did little to persuade the manager that he deserved the spot on a regular basis after conceding 11 goals in his five games between the sticks. An error in our 2-2 draw against Leicester stands out from his stint although he made several big saves against Bayern Munich in the first half of our 3-0 loss. Overall he’s done as well as could be expected.
The 39 goals we have conceded in 29 league games means we have the third most porous defence in the top half this season, a far cry from our days under Antonio Conte and Jose Mourinho, especially the 04/05 season where only 15 goals were let in. While some of these goals can be blamed on Kepa, the main reason behind this slump is the lack of a defensive general and a common starting centre back duo. In 04/05 Terry and Carvalho were imperious, whereas now Lampard can’t decide who to pick out of Zouma, Rudiger, Christensen and Tomori, all of whom have had decent spells of form interspersed with very rough patches. This season has taught us that centre back is an area we must invest in during the summer window in order to become more competitive in the league.
Christensen: Arguably he’s been our best centre back this season. The tall Dane made a very shaky start, potentially down to his lack of playing time last season, and he seemed to be regularly outmuscled by much smaller opposition attackers. However, something has clicked since the start of 2020 and he must now be one of the first names on the team sheet. The 24 year old has plenty to improve on and could still be more assertive physically but his distribution from the back breaking the opposition press, as well as his young age, means there’s plenty of reason to expect him to be a mainstay in our back line.
Rudiger: He came into his own last season under Sarri until an injury ended his campaign early. During our weak defensive performances early on this season, particularly the opening day 4-0 thrashing at the hands of Man United, pundits and fans alike were crying out for Rudiger to return. Unfortunately he’s been poor since returning: weak aerially, commonly making mistakes and regularly giving the ball away with hopeless 60 yard diagonal passes. He also lacks leadership skills and often ends up berating those around him for his own mistakes. A sorry decline, and he must be number one on the list of centre backs to ship out should a new one be signed this summer.
Zouma: After a promising season on loan at Everton and Chelsea’s inability to sign anyone last summer, Zouma must have thought he’d nailed down a starting role. However, a shaky start including a horrendous display in the opening day defeat to United where he needlessly brought down Rashford for a penalty from which they opened the scoring, soon saw him displaced by Tomori. Zouma’s aerial ability and pace are two strong factors working in his favour but he is still mistake prone and has frequent lapses in concentration. Whatever happens to him I will always remember his run and near worldy against Ajax in the Champions League as I’m sure you will too.
Tomori: Thrust into the team earlier than expected after starring in Lampard’s Derby side last season where he won the clubs’ player of the year, Tomori quickly adapted to the pace of the Premier League. An excellent performance in our 2-1 league defeat to Liverpool where he effectively marked Salah out of the game alerted fans and pundits around Europe that he was one to watch, with his blistering pace particularly impressive. However, a few lapses in concentration followed by an injury led to him being phased out over winter by Lampard. In September the manager stated that Tomori was in his top two centre backs, however he’s fourth for match time in 2020 and when he was given a chance back in the side against Bournemouth in our 2-2 draw he had a nightmare. Hopefully he’ll iron out his imperfections and come back stronger next season.
The personnel filling the full back roles has changed dramatically since the start of the season. Initially occupied by captain Azpilicueta (who has since often moved to centre back in a back 5) and Emerson (who started the season in electric form before an injury in September) it has changed to James on the right and Azpilicueta or Alonso on the left. Whilst the left back position is crying out for investment, in Reece James we have a world class right back for the decade to come. He was Wigan’s player of the year last season whilst mainly occupying a central midfield spot yet has slotted in seamlessly as Chelsea’s starting right back. If someone of Alex Telles’ ilk is bought in over the summer, Chelsea will have the second best full back pairing in the league behind only Liverpool’s Alexander-Arnold and Robertson.
James: His exceptional deliveries (often going begging due to a lack of a world class number 9) and sheer power (rewatch him knocking 6 foot 7 Dan Burn off the pitch) stand out for all to see, leading many to conclude that he mixes the best attributes of Alexander-Arnold and Wan-Bissaka, his competitors for the England right back slot. In fact he makes more tackles (1.9 to 1.6 per 90 minutes) at a higher completion rate (65.5% to 53.3%) than his Liverpool counterpart and while he has some work to do to catch up with Wan-Bissaka’s defensive numbers, he is way clear in an offensive sense with his 5.8 crosses per 90 more than double the United man’s 2.86. It is also worth noting that James has the highest pass accuracy and dribble completion of the three. His equaliser in the 4-4 draw with Ajax will remain in the memory for a long time, let’s hope he continues to kick on from here.
Azpilicueta: He may have relinquished his natural position to James but our captain has the versatility to play anywhere along the backline. Despite his pace waning and some questioning his suitability to play in the left back role – with a full back’s ability to bomb up and down the wing becoming essential in the modern game – Azpilicueta has been a key cog in our side, providing the passion and leadership that our team so sorely lacks. He’s a leader of the Terry and Cahill model and he always leaves everything out on the pitch. He is Chelsea through and through and shows it every time he takes the field. Reliable as always he ranks eleventh in the league for passes completed and he rarely puts a foot wrong.
Alonso: One of the hardest for me to rate this season. Largely an outcast until the turn of the year, he has once again shown why he can’t play in a back four, with his pace and positioning so frequently exposed by opposition wingers. Then there’s also his reckless sending off against Bayern Munich which didn’t do him any favours. However, he’s shown how important he can be to the side when used as a touch line hugging left wing back, scoring four and assisting three in just eleven Premier League games this season. Often he’s more clinical than our starting attackers, making it so hard to rate him!
Rating: 6/10 (as a forward he’d be an 8)
Emerson: After a strong pre-season he started the league campaign at blistering pace before picking up an injury against Liverpool in September. He came back a different player. Full of attacking intent initially – creating chances and taking decent efforts on goal – he is now struggling with his decision making in the final third, too often shooting when others are in better positions. The stats reflect his difficulties: he’s yet to register a league goal or assist despite having more game time than Alonso.
Despite the bumpy ride we’ve been on this season, there’s plenty to be optimistic about. Keep an eye out for part two of my article where I will be rating the midfielders, forwards and manager himself!
By Daniel New