Comment: Why the next four games are crucial for Frank Lampard and Chelsea

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With October coming to a close, Frank Lampard’s Chelsea appear to be gathering momentum and form in both the Premier League and the Champions League. 

A 0-4 win away versus Krasnodar was a flattering score line - the second, third and fourth goals coming in the last 14 minutes, although clear signs of progression and team chemistry were evident. 

Hakim Ziyech had a sparkling debut, topping off a fine man of the match display with a well taken goal. Edouard Mendy again proved his worth between the sticks - keeping his fourth clean sheet in five games. Christian Pulisic will be delighted to open his account for the season with a powerful right-footed shot between the keeper’s legs. Lampard’s substitutions were also smart and impacted the game well - Kante and Mount changing the game in the 71st minute, Chelsea switching to a 4-3-3 and scoring twice in eight minutes upon their introduction, and both Pulisic and Abraham looking lively and bright.

Chelsea are now unbeaten in eight games [if the Carabao Cup tie versus Tottenham is to be considered a draw]. Perhaps the greatest positive to be taken from this run is the defensive resilience the side has shown - improving vastly on the poor defensive record across competitions last season. 

Thiago Silva’s introduction into the side has proved something of a revelation - the 36-year-old proving his experience, leadership, awareness and positioning in a hard fought 0-0 draw at Old Trafford. Edouard Mendy looks a bargain at £22 million, an instant upgrade on Kepa, who conceded 15.9 more goals than 'expected' last season, as well as the most goals conceded from both corners and outside the box last season. 

Ben Chilwell has also been excellent - scoring one and assisting three in seven games, also somewhat of a bargain at £45m aged just 23. The combination of these players, as well as Kurt Zouma’s solidity and the continued rise of Reece James, has transformed Chelsea from a side that conceded goals for fun last season [the most goals conceded in the top 10], to one which the Europa League winners and 3rd placed team in the Premier League last season could not break down in 180 minutes.

Whilst the vast majority of the summer spending [£200.8 million] was spent on attacking signings, including a deal rising to £72 million for Kai Havertz, the improvements to the team’s defensive setup will prove invaluable in creating a solid foundation for the rest of the team to build on. It is only a matter of time before Timo Werner, Hakim Ziyech and Kai Havertz really find their true form, but defensive resolve is equally as important - and Lampard will be pleased with the clean sheets picked up against Man Utd and Sevilla.

With rivals Man Utd [whom also finished last season with 66 points] facing a tough upcoming run of games, including against Arsenal, Everton, PSG and Istanbul Basaksehir, Chelsea will look to capitalise on this in their next four games, and maximise the amount of points. It was between game week 7 and 20 that Antonio Conte won 13 in a row with Chelsea in 2016/17, scoring 32 and conceding four, en route to winning the Premier League that season, and the FA Cup the following year. Now is the time for Lampard to show his own ruthlessness and tactical intelligence in the upcoming games if he wants to also win trophies in his tenure as manager.

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Burnley (Away)

The visit to Turf Moor last season was one of the finest displays under Frank Lampard to date. The day truly belonged to Christian Pulisic, the American winger scoring a 'perfect' hat-trick as Chelsea won 2-4, the first since Didier Drogba versus Wigan in May 2010. Pulisic also became Chelsea’s youngest hat-trick scorer in the Premier League, beating the record set by Tammy Abraham versus Norwich earlier that season. The 2-4 scoreline flattered Burnley somewhat - Chelsea leading 0-4 on the 58th minute, and Burnley scoring twice in the remaining four minutes. This result also came in a positive run of form for Lampard last season - the 7th win in a row in all competitions, scoring 21 and conceding 5.

Lampard will hope to replicate this performance again on Saturday. Thiago Silva will rejoin the squad, having been rested for the trip to Russia. Kepa remains a doubt with a shoulder injury, although it is hard to see Edouard Mendy being dropped from the side right now. 

Burnley are notorious for their tough physicality and direct approach football - Chris Wood and Ashley Barnes are 6’3 and 6’1 respectively, and will look to make a nuisance of themselves in the box. Dwight McNeil is also a superb young talent, and his crossing and direct running will prove a challenge for Reece James.

However, now is a good time to play Burnley. The club have financially suffered due to the coronavirus pandemic, and were only able to make one signing - Dale Stephens from Brighton for less than £1 million. The club have yet to win a Premier League game - drawing one and losing five, whilst only scoring three goals. These are the kind of fixtures Chelsea must maximise points from - with the club currently in 10th position, and able to overtake rivals Tottenham and Leicester, if other results go their way.

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Rennes (Home)

Chelsea will return to the Champions League after the visit to Turf Moor, facing Edouard Mendy’s former club Rennes at Stamford Bridge in the third game of the competition so far. This is a real opportunity for Chelsea to take control of Group E - currently sitting first after two games, above Sevilla on goal difference. This is Rennes’ first ever year in the Champions League, after an impressive Ligue 1 campaign last season where the club finished 3rd. However, since then, Rennes have sold their first choice goalkeeper in Mendy for £22 million, as well as star winger Raphina to Leeds for £16.7 million, who scored six in 28 last season. Whilst Rennes held Krasnador to a 1-1 draw at home, they were beaten 1-0 away versus Sevilla courtesy of a Luuk de Jong goal.

Lampard will expect only three points in this clash - a home game against a young side with very little European experience. However, he will also warn against complacency. Rennes have a number of extremely talented players - including 17-year-old Eduardo Camavinga, who has already made three appearances for the France national side. 

New summer signing Jeremy Doku, a pacey and versatile forward, will also look to cause issues for Chelsea’s backline. A win in this fixture would be important in strengthening Chelsea’s bid in qualifying for the knockout rounds.

Chelsea face Rennes after the away trip to Newcastle in the fourth game of the Champions League campaign. A win in both games would see Chelsea register 10 points in Group E. In comparison, Chelsea qualified for the round of 16 from Group H last season with 11 points. Wins home and away versus Rennes, plus Krasnador at home still to come, would surely guarantee qualification in at least 2nd place.

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Sheffield United (Home)

Sheffield United proved to be something of a 'bogey team' for Chelsea last season. The club suffered a humiliating 3-0 defeat post lockdown at Bramall Lane, a performance that infuriated Frank Lampard in Chelsea’s push for top four. In the reverse fixture in August last season, Chelsea were held to a 2-2 draw by the Blades, despite leading 2-0 at half-time. A Callum Robinson goal [who also scored a brace for West Brom against Chelsea earlier season] one minute into the second half brought the tie back into contention, before a Kurt Zouma own goal in the 89th minute split the points. It was in this game that Chelsea named their youngest starting 11 in Premier League history with an average age of 24 years and 158 days, including Fikayo Tomori and Billy Gilmour making their debuts.

Part of the progression Lampard will hope to see in the team this season is picking up points where they were dropped last season. Chelsea only picked up one point versus Sheffield United last season, and will look to collect at least four, ideally six, this time around. 

Like Burnley, the Blades have also started the season poorly. They currently sit 19th, one position below Burnley, although both sides only have one point. Sheffield United will also be without loanee Ethan Ampadu due to eligibility rules in the Premier League, a further restriction on an already small squad hit hard financially by the pandemic. 

Lampard will hope to have access to a fully fit squad - bar Kepa whose return is uncertain right now. It is these kinds of fixtures where players like Hakim Ziyech and Kai Havertz will look to impose themselves and rack up the goals and assists.

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Newcastle (Away)

St James Park was also a place where Chelsea sadly dropped points last season. A cold afternoon in January saw a fairly uneventful game - Chelsea fielding a young side with Reece James, Mason Mount and Callum Hudson-Odoi - until Isaac Hayden converted a header in the 94th minute, a textbook example of Kepa’s flaws last season. Ecstasy for Newcastle, bitter disappointment for the Blues.

Chelsea will look to record their third consecutive Premier League victory in this game. St James Park is a difficult ground to visit - Jose Mourinho losing his first game of the season there in the 2014/15 campaign where Chelsea won the Premier League and League Cup double. It may be a game of pragmatism, patience and tactical intelligence over individual brilliance. By this stage, fitness permitting, Chelsea’s team should feel more complete and more predictable. Chelsea fans are desperate to see Pulisic, Werner, Havertz and Ziyech combining on the pitch at the same time, whilst also retaining the defensive strength shown in the past three games.

Newcastle have had a mixed opening to the season - winning two, drawing two, and losing two, sitting in 14th, wedged between the Manchester clubs. A win here [plus against Burnley and Sheffield United] would see Chelsea take 18 points from a possible 27, and push the club into proper contention for holding down a top four spot all season. The next few weeks will be crucial for Lampard and his project at Stamford Bridge.

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