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Chelsea's end-to-end chaos under Frank Lampard is surely unsustainable - but it's immense fun to watch

Adam Hurrey
Lampard lamented Chelsea's loss of control after Leicester fought back to claim a point at Stamford Bridge - REUTERS

It is worth reliving those final few seconds at Stamford Bridge on Sunday, a panicked microcosm of Frank Lampard’s nascent Chelsea reign. 

A booming Jonny Evans header upfield is flicked on fairly aimlessly by Youri Tielemans on the halfway line: a manageable state of affairs. Suddenly, Kurt Zouma is rearranging his limbs to gallop back as Leicester’s Marc Albrighton races past him into the green expanse of the Chelsea half. 

45 yards from goal, with Jamie Vardy free to his left, Albrighton appears to be about to launch a thousand back-page, crisis-club, cracked-crest graphics. Then, out comes Kepa Arrizabalaga - 40,629 hearts leaping into mouths - to slide-hoof the ball away with a yard to spare.

Unless you are blessed with the memory of unlikely right wing-back Robert Huth careering upfield like a driverless Eddie Stobart lorry in Monaco in 2004, this current Chelsea incarnation may be the furthest away the Roman Abramovich era has ever been from the defensive chain gang of Jose Mourinho’s first title-winning vintage. This latest spectacle, as their old manager's punditry from Old Trafford last week barely managed to conceal, was distinctly anti-Mourinho. Anti-anti-football.

If their current tidal range between rampant attack and desperate defensive back-pedalling persists, Chelsea may finally be on the verge of achieving the impossible under Abramovich and earning the ultimate back-handed Premier League compliment: becoming the neutral’s favourites. Lampard’s new philosophy has yielded more shots at goal than anyone bar the freakish Manchester City, while conceding - after just two games - precisely a third of the goals that Mourinho’s unit allowed in their entire 2004/05 league season.

Arrizabalaga was on hand to rescue Chelsea from last-gasp calamity against Leicester Credit: GETTY IMAGES

It is harrowing, startling, unprecedentedly end-to-end stuff. But so was The Human Centipede trilogy, and nobody can handle watching that twice a week.

Even the freshly-retired Ashley Cole up in the Sky punditry box - both a Lampard sympathiser and a player who once subsisted on a professional diet of high-intensity sprints - found Chelsea’s 90-minute sharing of the pinball points with Leicester almost too much for words. English football’s slightly patronising affection for various Entertainers - Newcastle’s 1995/96 nearly men chief among them - is well established, but Chelsea’s current state of “we might score one; will try desperately to stop you scoring four” will need some refining if they are to pass into similar Premier League legend.

An injection of the dutiful young blood of Mason Mount and Tammy Abraham has accelerated the transition from the often ponderous Sarriball, but the rest of the Chelsea team have found their remit has widened. Arrizabalaga, a naturally front-foot goalkeeper, does at least have the instincts for his new emergency service: so far, he has been responsible for 20 per cent of the Premier League season’s total instances of what Opta’s data classifies as “keeper sweepings”, rushes out to the edge of the box under pressure from an opposing striker.

In defence, Cesar Azpilicueta - once a quietly but aggressively diligent full-back - has completed his transformation into a sweat-stained, injustice-seeking captain, appealing for throw-ins as if they are the last throw-in that will ever be taken. A sterling one-on-one defender, even he has looked exposed in the spells where he isn’t gamely barrelling forward to fulfil his attacking duties (Reece James, another of Chelsea’s teenage Championship loan sensations in 2018/19, will present Lampard with a right-back quandary upon recovery from ankle surgery). 

Meanwhile, Kurt Zouma dealt better on home turf with the straightforward threat of Jamie Vardy than he did with the cavalry charge at Old Trafford, but his 89th-minute shot from 35 yards - literally nobody was urging him to do so - flew into the Matthew Harding Stand as Chelsea’s search for a rather undeserved winner resorted to Plan Z. His partner Andreas Christensen is a defender seemingly stuck in a permanent, anxious race back towards his own penalty area, while left-back Emerson exists purely to avoid the torture of watching Marcos Alonso clunk through the gears as an opposition counter-attack explodes behind him.

Kurt Zouma shoots from 35 yards - with inevitable results Credit: GETTY IMAGES

Further forward, there is greater encouragement for Lampard. The relentless N’Golo Kante, regardless of the parroting pundits who think he belongs in a defensive midfield desk role in front of Chelsea’s flustered back four, continues to be a vital gatherer and shuttler of the ball into the final third, but even his engine was struggling with the dramatic swings of the last 20 minutes on Sunday afternoon. Jorginho's mandate under Sarri was 1) passing and 2) pointing, but he has happily become more expansive under Lampard’s more vertically-minded regime - the waste products being an almost derisory 79 per cent pass accuracy and precisely one painful, yellow-card-worthy tactical foul per match.

While a long-term solution at centre-forward is yet to present itself, Chelsea’s support acts are well-equipped for an energetic new era. Christian Pulisic, presumably solidly schooled in the Teutonic modern art of the high press from his four years with Borussia Dortmund, simply needs the muscle to go with the will. Then there is Mason Mount. The 20-year-old is a rare thing: a young English academy graduate playing, scoring and influencing in a Chelsea team; selected not out of necessity, as a contractual carrot or in response to romantic clamour from the fans, but simply because the manager knows, loves and trusts him. 

Lampard has been careful not to do too much public pleading for time, that most precious of managerial commodities, but he can safely assume that his players will eventually find the precision to go with the pace and panic. Chelsea's collective 1,422 touches of the ball so far this season is bettered by just four other teams, only Manchester City have created more than their 23 chances from open play, but they have averaged just 52 per cent of possession - less than Norwich, Brighton and Everton. 

The energy Lampard demands has generated 28 interceptions (only one team has more) but Chelsea have won just 50 per cent of their tackles, the worst rate in the division. They have recovered possession 123 times (3rd best in the Premier League), the core quality of any transition-dominating team, but the opposition have dribbled past a Chelsea player 27 times (the 2nd worst).

Mason Mount has made a hugely encouraging start to life as a Chelsea first-teamer Credit: REX

Leicester eventually exposed these tectonic instabilities in the Chelsea gameplan. Each counter-attack in the second half, a flood of pale pink that repeatedly couldn’t believe its own luck, ran aground with the final pass or finish, the sort of mistimed and misplaced end products that football fans find either infuriating or heaven-sent, depending on which horse they have in the race. The overexcitement at Stamford Bridge, fortunately for Lampard, worked both ways. But such sucker-punches are clearly going to be a recurring feature for Chelsea, even on home ground, and more clinical sides than Leicester will find more joy until the manager strikes a better balance.

Are they simply too open by design? “No, not like we were in the second half,” Lampard insisted to Sky Sports after the dust had settled. “You can attack but still be in positions that, if you turn the ball over, then you don’t allow the counter-attacks that we allowed. 

“I’m not here to play incredible attacking football when everything’s great and then concede counter-attacks or easy goals when it’s not.”

That was a telling reassurance from Lampard, after a best-of-time-worst-of-times performance and an underwhelming result on his home debut as manager. A balance may well naturally set into his Chelsea team without a major tactical rethink but, in the months and years to come, even Abramovich will know that with entertainment must come containment. There is no real glory in being remembered as the neutral’s thrill.