Frank Lampard accepts turning Chelsea into Premier League title contenders is a gradual process, but he is content with the progress made ahead of the trip to Arsenal on Boxing Day, live on Sky Sports.
Despite finding themselves just two points behind Leicester in second place, Chelsea have made their second-worst start after 14 Premier League games during the Roman Abramovich era and currently sit fifth in the table.
Lampard’s side have dropped points in all three of their encounters against the Big Six this season, and travel to the Emirates off the back of consecutive away defeats.
The only previous season where Chelsea had fewer points at this stage since Abramovich purchased the club in 2003 came under Jose Mourinho in 2015-16, but Lampard is looking at the bigger picture following last season’s fourth-place finish.
“I’m happy but we always want more as managers,” Lampard told Sky Sports when asked to assess Chelsea’s season so far.
“The reality is at the start of the season, we had some new players while others were missing, and we lacked a pre-season. Looking at our early results, we saw some good and some not-so-good performances.
“We then went on a really good run which saw a lot of improvement in the team, so I’m pretty happy but we want more. We want to be challenging for titles, but we have to accept sometimes that it’s step by step. We’ve made some steps, but I feel we have the potential to make a lot more.
“If anything, this season has shown that most teams have had difficult moments and a large part of that comes down to preparation. Preparation for the season is something that we certainly didn’t have. We mustn’t get too far ahead of ourselves or too far down the line.
“We have to think of the short-term and the games in front of us and not be too reactionary after defeats last week or even wins and our unbeaten run. It’s about making continual improvement and that’s important for focus.
“It’s hard [to set a target]. It’s clear I ask them every year to kick on – in my job, that’s what you have to do all the time, no matter what your situation. Coming fourth for us was a positive last year considering the circumstances around it but every year looks different and every squad improves around us.
“We bought players in and some of them need time, so I don’t set long-term targets. We’re trying to bridge a gap that was clearly there in the last few seasons to Liverpool and Manchester City in terms of consistency. We’ve had our moments of consistency and good form but we have to work to get even more consistent so we can challenge.”
Chelsea haven’t lost three consecutive Premier League away games since February 2019, a run which included a defeat at Arsenal, but following this month’s back-to-back defeats at Everton and Wolves, another reverse on Saturday would equal that unwanted run.
The Blues were unbeaten in their first five away league games this season, keeping three clean sheets, so have the recent losses in any way altered Lampard’s approach away from home?
He continued: “In the Premier League, if you drop your levels ever so slightly in terms of energy and urgency in our game – which we did… we dropped by about 15 per cent – you cannot win. It was a real strong lesson for the team, particularly against Wolves.
We want more. We want to be challenging for titles, but we have to accept sometimes that it’s step by step. We’ve made some steps, but I feel we have the potential to make a lot more.
“Against Everton, they’re a tough opposition but I don’t feel we should’ve lost the game. Against Wolves, we didn’t look ourselves, so it was important we got the result against West Ham, where I felt the focus of the team was very good.”
Chelsea’s 3-0 win over West Ham on Monday Night Football was the first time in the Premier League this season that Lampard’s team had beaten a side which started the day in the top half of the table.
Indeed, their away record in 2020 against sides who finished in the Premier League’s top half last season leaves a lot to be desired, with their solitary win this calendar year coming at Burnley, who finished 10th last term.
They had previously only scored four goals in the six matches played against teams in the top 10, but the Blues boss refused to attribute any significance to that run being broken.
“I read about that stat a lot pre-West Ham and I think this year has shown that the balance of the Premier League has changed. Anybody can beat anybody, whether you’re at the top or at the bottom,” Lampard said.
“Leeds were in the bottom half when we played them, and that was a really tough match. They’ve given some big teams really tough matches. I think it’s a bit of a red herring as a stat to look at games against the top half compared to the bottom half of the table.”
Lampard revealed that both Reece James and Ben Chilwell have “their own injury issues” with both doubtful for the trip to Arsenal this weekend. James is nursing a knee problem while Chilwell sustained an ankle injury after just four minutes of the 3-0 victory over the Hammers.
Chelsea’s shape was altered by the absence of two of the Premier League season’s most impressive full-backs, and Lampard acknowledges that his side may have to change their approach over the hectic festive schedule given the likely change in personnel.
“We can’t give a clear answer at the minute on whether Ben or Reece will be able to play against Arsenal. The next 48 hours will give us a clearer picture,” Lampard said.
“It may change how we play only slightly. It’s a big ask when a player has to come on, as was the case with Emerson, but I thought he did well in the game against West Ham. We work a lot as a team in training on similar movements and patterns, depending on the opposition or depending on what we feel are our fundamentals.
“If they provide a slight adaptation, then we’ll make them, but I don’t think they will be huge ones.”
‘Werner form, Havertz quality will come’
One player who has come in for some criticism is Timo Werner. The Germany striker has scored eight Chelsea goals since his £53m switch from RB Leipzig, but the 24-year-old has now gone nine games without finding the net in all competitions and has missed a number of fine chances.
Werner recently admitted that he underestimated the transition to the Premier League, but Lampard is in no doubt that the forward will come good.
“We always do extra finishing in training and I feel it’s very important to do specific work for strikers. I never felt you could score freely at the weekend if you didn’t work on it throughout the week, so that’s a big part of what we do.
“Timo has had a period where it hasn’t gone for him and strikers get judged on goals. He’s getting into positions very regularly and I feel that once he gets a goal or two, we’ll see many more from him. We’re working hard in training as we always do.”
Hakim Ziyech, Callum Hudson-Odoi and Christian Pulisic have all been absent for periods of time this season, meaning Kai Havertz’s teething problems have been exposed when it may well have been absorbed had Lampard been able to use his full range of attacking options.
Havertz suffered a setback earlier this term when he was sidelined with coronavirus, but having been anonymous in the defeat at Wolves, where he failed to create a single chance or have a shot, Lampard was again keen to contextualise the midfielder’s challenging start to life at Stamford Bridge.
“When Kai arrived, he played his first game for us after just four or five days of training. It was really difficult for him early on because he didn’t have a pre-season with a new team, with a new coach and in a new country.
“He was just starting to play really well when he caught Covid and had quite heavy symptoms with it. It has taken him some time to recover, but he’s getting back to a better place now. He’s a highly talented player, a great young lad with a great attitude.
“I certainly have huge confidence that he’s going to be a really big player for the club. It’s important that we remain patient in the short term, but Kai is a huge talent.”
Lampard ready to face the best Arsenal
Arsenal sit 10 places and 11 points behind Chelsea, but Lampard insists that his side’s opponents on Boxing Day remain a quality team. The Gunners lost this exact fixture 2-1 last season, despite being 1-0 ahead until the 83rd minute. That was Mikel Arteta’s first home game in charge, revealing the scale of his task, but the Spaniard enters the latest renewal under pressure.
Arsenal have failed to win any of their last seven Premier League games and will equal their record winless run if they fail to beat Chelsea, but Lampard hopes his opposite number is given time, irrespective of the stage of his managerial career.
“Expectations are higher at clubs like the ones we are both managing, but I don’t think it’s a case of him being a young manager. I see him as a very talented manager, and we’ve seen examples of clubs who have built really strong squads over the last three or four years. The dominant teams over that period, Manchester City and Liverpool, have had time to work and improve the squad.
“They went through tough moments, and they were given time to improve through those moments. It’s only then that you really learn about players, the team and the squad as a whole. I’m not talking specifically about Mikel here, but just generally in the Premier League.
“If you come into a club that’s going through a period of certain transition, I think it’s very understandable there will be lots of situations and work that you need to do in order to get the club where you want it to be. It’s not all rosy as that’s not football.
“That’s not to do with the manager. I think Mikel is a highly talented coach and manager, and his team are really just going through a recent patch of difficult form. That’s very commonplace in the Premier League as it’s a very tough league. I’ve got huge respect for Mikel and for Arsenal. They have a quality set of players and that’s the team I’m preparing for on Boxing Day.”
How to follow Arsenal vs Chelsea
Arsenal vs Chelsea will be broadcast live on Sky Sports Premier League and Main Event from 5pm on Saturday; kick-off at 5.30pm. Sky Sports customers can watch in-game clips in the live match blog on the Sky Sports website and app. Free highlights will also be published on the Sky Sports digital platforms and the Sky Sports Football YouTube channel shortly after the final whistle.