With Frank Lampard’s team earning their 5th Premier League win in a row, Chelsea’s good form continued last night with a win over Watford at Vicarage Road.
That run, stretching back to the loss to Liverpool at the end of September, has seen a number of players step up and carry the team in different moments. In many ways, the diffusion of responsibility through this whole squad has been one of the defining characteristics of this season. At the beginning of the season everything looked exceptionally rosy, and the atmosphere at the club was as good as it’s been in years. Nevertheless, Chelsea’s odds of making the Champions League have dropped steadily, especially with key players missing, and bookmakers are now offering updated and available wagers throughout the season in a wide range of categories.
The last few games have seen Mateo Kovacic and Jorginho step up and run games from the centre of the pitch. Before that, we had Mason Mount and Tammy Abraham’s goals taking us over the line in some close matches. Christian Pulisic, Willian, Fikayo Tomori – all have been the outstanding figure in at least one game of this recent run.
As well as losing Hazard for good, we’ve also been forced to play most of this season without N’Golo Kante, our other key man from the past few seasons. The Frenchman has been troubled by injuries for months now, and early in the season our prospects looked bleak without his stabilising presence in midfield.
But his absence forced Lampard and his staff to come up with alternative systems, and the players on the pitch have adapted their game too. A midfield three of Mason Mount, Jorginho and Mateo Kovacic might not look like it has the legs or the grit to compete against some of the bigger and stronger teams in the division, but they’ve more than held their own.
Last night’s win was a perfect example. Watford’s physically dominant team came up against one of the smallest lineups Lampard has fielded yet, but they weren’t able to use their size at all.
Our technical players just passed round them, and at times Jorginho and Kovacic were making a mockery of the Hornets’ attempts to press them. Ahead of that pair, Mason Mount flitted between the lines creating space for his deeper lying colleagues to move into, and working hard with the front three to create pressure when the opposition had the ball.
The lack of Kante’s speed, tackling and nose for danger has been compensated by the efforts of the whole team to press as one, and by the coaching that Lampard and his staff have put them through to make sure every piece of the machine knows its role.
Overcoming a long running dependency on Hazard in the final third has been less systematic, but equally successful. Other teams may have been less scared of us to start the season, with our dangerman gone, but they now face other questions about how best to stop us scoring. In years gone by they had their work cut out – keep Hazard controlled and we’d quickly run out of ideas. It was easier said than done, but we were one dimensional in that regard.
Now it’s much less clear how to stop us. Our attacking play is more varied, sometimes going long to Tammy Abraham to win against the opposition centrebacks, sometimes going wide and fast through the full backs and Christian Pulisic or Willian, and sometimes relying on midfielders and defenders to step up when we need it most with a goal. Speaking to Sky Sports after the game last night, Lampard talked about exactly this tactical variety, and how he’s been working towards it.
As the weeks go by, and the rookie coach has more and more time with his players, his ideas are becoming more and more clear, with tactical flexibility and shared responsibility foremost among them. Just as sometimes a big name signing that seems to be the final piece in the puzzle can end up ruining the delicate blend of an existing team; in this season we’re seeing that addition by subtraction is possible – if your manager and his charges have the will to step up and fill the void.