Frank Lampard is under no illusions about the size of the task facing Chelsea. The youngest manager in the Premier League has lost Eden Hazard to Real Madrid, David Luiz joined Arsenal on deadline day and Lampard has not been able to strengthen his squad after arriving at a club operating under a transfer embargo.
Gone are the days of heavy spending under Roman Abramovich. Uncertainty clouds the picture at Stamford Bridge and Lampard accepts that it will be difficult for his side to close the gap on Manchester City and Liverpool.
Chelsea finished 26 points behind City and 25 behind Liverpool last season and their inability to enter the market has made it hard for them to deal with the weaknesses that frustrated Maurizio Sarri. In different circumstances Lampard might have demanded a replacement before deciding to sell David Luiz, especially as Antonio Rüdiger’s knee injury means Andreas Christensen and Kurt Zouma are likely to form a slightly unconvincing partnership in central defence against Manchester United on Sunday afternoon, and there are also doubts over whether there will be enough creativity now that Hazard wears the white of Real Madrid.
Yet Lampard is not bothered by people writing off his side. The 41-year-old has dealt with criticism from a young age and the former Chelsea midfielder grinned and pretended to make for the exit when one of his interrogators began a question by suggesting that he was regarded as inferior to Joe Cole and Rio Ferdinand when they were in West Ham’s academy all those years ago.
“At the top it is tough and you have to prove people wrong,” Lampard said. “Even more in the modern day, with social media where everyone has a comment, really strong opinions. It certainly feels sweeter if you do manage to prove someone wrong or just get to where you want to be.
“I use it as motivation. I’m not stupid. We have a transfer ban. There were two teams very clear out in front last time. The Premier League is more competitive at the top end than it’s ever been. It shouldn’t be and won’t be ‘Chelsea are clear favourites to win the league this year’. I don’t think that’s the case for anybody going forward. Even Manchester City, who are a fantastic team, Liverpool pushed them to the wire.
“You should be aware of these things. They make me determined to do the job as well as I can. And I don’t mind it. I like to be considered maybe not quite a favourite.”
An obvious comparison to make is with Sir Alex Ferguson winning the Double with Manchester United after selling Andrei Kanchelskis, Paul Ince and Mark Hughes in 1995. Although Lampard has mirrored Ferguson by showing faith in young players, he insists that he did not think about how the former United manager would have handled the David Luiz situation.
“I’ve gone out of my way not to make any parallels with anyone else’s era,” he said. “I certainly don’t go out to make marks. I go out to make decisions that will help the club. You can’t get them all right. At a big club you have to make them. I’m trying to grow a group here that have a good spirit, focus and dedication to where we want to go and who are a really good team.”
Lampard plans to be his own man – he has not asked José Mourinho for advice since being appointed by Chelsea – and has spoken about wanting a team capable of playing fast, aggressive football in and out of possession. Callum Hudson‑Odoi, who is close to signing a new five-year deal, will improve the attack once he has recovered from an achilles injury and there is excitement about Christian Pulisic. The 20-year-old American winger joined in January for £58m from Borussia Dortmund before the transfer ban hit and should make his debut at Old Trafford.
“He has good ability,” Lampard said. “He can beat a man, run with the ball, has a nice touch. He scored a couple of goals in pre-season where he ran behind defences, which is what I want from my wingers or attacking players. But we must also give him time. This is the most competitive league in the world.”
Yet this is an imperfect squad. Pulisic does not possess Hazard’s technique, Willian and Pedro are solid but unspectacular options on the flanks and Lampard does not have a Didier Drogba or Diego Costa to lead the line. Judging by pre‑season Tammy Abraham will get the nod over Olivier Giroud and Michy Batshuayi against United, with the 20-year-old midfielder Mason Mount stationed behind a striker whose 25 goals helped Aston Villa win promotion last season.
Abraham is unproven at this level and there are issues for Lampard to resolve in defence. Allowing David Luiz to leave feels risky. Christensen needs to improve his concentration, Zouma spent last season on loan at Everton and Fikayo Tomori, another youngster in talks over a new deal, lacks experience.
United will expect Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial to trouble Christensen and Zouma, while Ole Gunnar Solskjær is bound to have noticed that Chelsea conceded 22 shots during last week’s friendly draw with Borussia Mönchengladbach. Lampard is yet to find the right balance between defence and attack.
This is the reality for a team in transition. Patience is required. Even Lampard, hired after one encouraging year at Derby, understands why people are saying this is the right job at the wrong time for him. He is listening to all the criticism and using it to fuel his fire.