Frank Lampard's Chelsea honeymoon may be coming to an end – and the transfer ban ending will heap on the pressure
Chelsea’s downturn in Premier League form has come at the worst possible time. Nestled between the two defeats to West Ham and Everton was the news that, as of January 1st 2020, they’ll be free to return to the transfer market. The Court of Arbitration for Sport has announced the reduction of the ban issued by FIFA and no sooner had that become public, then stories of war chests, targets and exciting new signings were spilling out across the press.
Ordinarily, that would be good news. Or normal, at least. For Frank Lampard, perhaps not though. He’d certainly prefer to work with the option of strengthening from the outside, but much of his team’s early momentum has come from being forced to work internally,
The ban has had two unintended repercussions. The first - very obviously - is that gaps in the first team have had to be filled by players who, under different circumstances, would just have been sent out on loan. The second effect is probably the more important, though. Without a phalanx of new players arriving over the summer, Lampard has felt unencumbered in making those selections and, in several cases, taking them a stage further. He's been free, for instance, to pick Mason Mount ahead of Ross Barkley, or Tammy Abraham instead of Olivier Giroud, and to continue doing so even when their performances haven’t merited it.
So to describe that as 'plugging gaps' would actually be wrong. Lampard has been far bolder than he might have been, taking many more risks than he had to with these less proven players.
That’s been of great benefit to them, of course. More broadly, the situation at Chelsea this season has been representative of something very rare in modern football - developing players being given an actual chance. Not just a few cursory minutes in games which don’t matter, but a proper opportunity to learn and grow, in which they potentially perform badly and make mistakes, but still be selected a week later.
The mood inside Stamford Bridge has often reflected that. Whether fairly or otherwise, Chelsea supporters have acquired a reputation for entitlement and giving short shrift to anything which doesn’t meet expectations. The transfer ban has affected them, too. In combination with Lampard’s radiance and this team’s Cobham DNA, the recognition that this season was destined to be imperfect has helped to create a softer, gentler mood among the fans.
It’s a relative situation, of course. This shouldn't be presented as the flaring of a Corinthian spirit, but those who know the harsh standards of the past will certainly recognise a difference. Crucially, one which has afforded these younger, more fragile players a more gentle beginning to their Premier League lives and which, over the long term, will probably allow them to become better footballers.
But what happens when the dynamics are shifted? Forget the literal implication of places in the team being less secure and Lampard’s options being broadened. What happens to the energy around these players once the club’s massive spending power comes back into play? How will the reaction to a bad pass, missed chance or botched clearance change in response?
There are already clouds in the sky. The recent criticism suffered by Mason Mount after the West Ham game suggests that old habits die hard and that homegrown status doesn’t afford infinite goodwill. Some of that might just have been a reality of modern sport, within which grace periods barely exist and inflantile hysteria on social media is boringly typical, but it’s also a reflection of Chelsea’s modern history. This club wins. Not just games, but trophies. Players either perform in the pursuit of those aims or they’re sold and replaced. That's how it has always been.
Such a conflict makes for a very interesting challenge for Lampard. One facet is, of course, how well he copes with the various agendas which have always been involved in transfer policy at Stamford Bridge. He seems to have one guiding philosophy, while they have always been associated with a contrasting other; where the middle ground between those positions remains to be seen.
But Lampard will also have to cope with the resumption of normal conditions and to condition his young players to survive beyond the end of honeymoon.
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