FootballPremier League

As Lampard manages expectation Chelsea’s young stars continue to shine

September 18, 2019

THE way Fikayo Tomori elongated his stride as the ball rolled his way, 30 yards from the Wolves goal, betrayed his intentions.

The 21-year-old centre-back wasn’t for a second considering a simple square pass to keep possession circulating, nor even a sliding through-ball to one of Chelsea’s forwards. With a forceful, swerving side-footed shot, he drove home his first goal as a professional footballer to put the Blues 1-0 up in an away fixture that, despite the home side’s stumbling form, was supposed to have presented a distinctly stern test.

Chelsea went on to hammer Wolves 5-2, with a Tammy Abraham hat-trick and a late Mason Mount strike powering their comfortable victory. Three graduates of the club’s prolific academy with the goals, all of whom benefit from Chelsea’s inability to register new players in the last and next transfer window. And all revelling in the faith manager Frank Lampard has placed in them.

"I'm delighted to see it because it's not easy,” Lampard said of his young stars impressing. “It's time. The youngsters deserved their chances and they need to keep improving."

Abraham’s treble means he is currently the Premier League’s top scorer, level with Sergio Aguero on seven goals. Mount has found the net three times from midfield and his fine start to the campaign was recognised by the award of his first senior England caps earlier this month. And Tomori, who was making only his second Premier League start at the weekend as the Blues mirrored their host’s back-three set-up, already looks comfortable at the top level. So much so that David Luiz, whom Lampard allowed to leave for Arsenal on the eve of the new season, hasn’t been, and won’t be, missed.

Given Chelsea’s transfer ban and the vacancies created by, in addition to Luiz’s exit, the departures of Eden Hazard to Real Madrid and Gonzalo Higuain returning to Juventus, Tomori, Abraham and Mount would almost certainly have received similar opportunities this term, irrespective of the manager.

But it is not merely for playing these youngsters that Lampard deserves significant credit, it is rather in how he has placed implicit trust in their ability to perform, to be central to his new-look Blues in key roles. Never has the former England midfielder given even the remotest impression that his young starters are little more than beneficiaries from Chelsea’s predicament, nor that he would, in an ideal world, be playing anyone else in their place.

It has been suggested that Lampard essentially has a “free hit” this season, afforded reduced expectations due to Chelsea’s inability to make signings. His status as one of the clubs greatest-ever players might also foster him a degree of leniency other Stamford Bridge bosses have not received in the Abramovich era. And it is difficult to dispute that the strength of his achievements during his playing career, rather than those of his single-season as a manager, landed him the job in the first place.

All things considered, then, Lampard can’t lose by dipping into the long-overlooked talent pool which has helped Chelsea win the prestigious FA Youth Cup seven times since 2010.

But, of course, Lampard does not simply have a free hit this season. While a slight fall back from Maurizio Sarri’s third-place Premier League finish and Europa League triumph would be tolerated, signs of sustainable, long-term progress are a must for the new manager.

Lampard has to prove this season firstly that he has the ability to hold his own tactically at the highest level, devising a coherent playing strategy and remaining competitive when head-to-head with top-six rivals. His Chelsea side must also demonstrate a front-foot, attacking style of football desired at Stamford Bridge, moving away from the pragmatism of past managers without veering into Sarri-esque dogmatism. All the while, steady progress is the aim.

As such, the easier option for Lampard would have been to rely more heavily on experienced heads such as Olivier Giroud, Willian and Michy Batshuayi – who have started one, one and zero Premier League games respectively so far this term – and integrate the young players slowly.

Last season, Callum Hudson-Odoi was the only player under the age of 22 to play in the Premier League for Chelsea. Lampard has used five players aged 21 or younger, despite Hudson-Odoi and Reece James’ absence through injury. And Mount, who has started all five league games so far, has already eclipsed Hudson-Odoi’s total minutes for the entirety of the previous campaign.

As a manager, there are many questions of Lampard still unanswered, many tests he is yet to face. But his philosophical commitment to developing young players is unquestionable.

So as Tomori strode forward at Molineux on Saturday, tunnel vision fixed on the top-left corner of the Wolves goal, he did so with unwavering self-belief, faith in his capabilities matched by his manager.

For perhaps the first time, Chelsea’s gifted youth is in trusting hands.