As Robert Lewandowski headed home the last of the 79 goals Chelsea conceded in the 2019/20 season – an average of 1.44 a game, their worst return since 1990/91 – Manager of the Year candidate Frank Lampard was seen prowling the touchline with a face like thunder, furious with how his side had defended yet again.
For all of the now semi-famous interviews Lampard gives (the ol’ ‘serious point, then a light-hearted one, then a serious one again’ shtick), it’s become a far too common sight to see the manager of a Champions League club fume over the amount of goals being shipped.
He said he “learnt a lot” following Chelsea’s calamitous 3-0 defeat at Sheffield United last month, and while the Blues kept two clean sheets in their final five in all competitions games to finish the season, they still managed to concede 11 goals. In that time, he’s dropped Kepa Arrizabalaga for Willy Caballero and used seven different defenders.
This horrendous record has led to criticism of the club’s transfer plans, having already signed playmaker Hakim Ziyech and a new star striker in Timo Werner, while attacking midfielder Kai Havertz also remains a target.
And yet for all of their flaws at the back, there is at least some sense in not being heavily linked with defenders.
Right, yeah, just hear me out.
There is so little value in the transfer market right now; even before COVID-19 we were heading towards this kind of window. It feels like there’s a gap in quality between the elite and the very good, a far too big a gulf between the experienced and the upcoming. Few defenders could come in and be Chelsea’s rock at the back for the next five years. Napoli’s Kalidou Koulibaly and Inter’s Milan Skriniar are the two potentially on the move that could come in and be that – the Telegraph reported that the club haven’t been put off by their asking prices.
Elsewhere, you’re looking at stop gaps, defenders who are beyond their price range (e.g. Jose Gimenez) or unproven players, guys whose chances of being what the Blues need are much lower.
Over the last week, Chelsea have been linked with moves for John Stones, James Tarkowski and Ben White – do you see my point? Most players within Chelsea’s reach won’t prove to be too much of a differential. Even a player like Ben Chilwell (at a fee that could rival Harry Maguire’s when Leicester sold him to Manchester United) wouldn’t be the difference between a title or a cup for them.
By next summer, some of their tentative targets might have kicked on and be worthy of a place at Stamford Bridge, or they could fall off – either way, there should be a much clearer picture of the defenders’ market in 12 months.
In Reece James, Fikayo Tomori, Kurt Zouma, Antonio Rudiger (sometimes) and Cesar Azpilicueta, Chelsea at least have good defenders. If they want to find an easier and yet more sustainable way to tighten up at the back, they’re better off signing a new goalkeeper.
According to FBRef (whose data is supplied by StatsBomb), Chelsea’s goalkeepers had the worst save percentage in the Premier League this season (keeping out just 54.8% of attempts on goal), yet the Blues made the third fewest errors leading to shots conceded (9). And for the expected goals lovers out there, Chelsea’s xGA was 37.1 – only Manchester City and Wolves had a better record.
Numbers can only tell us so much, but the picture they and the eye test have painted is one of a goalkeeping crisis more than a defensive one. Bringing in a stop-gap stopper could even turn into a long-term solution because of their longevity, and it would make more sense for one to be in Chelsea’s sights than an extortionate defender. Theoretically, a signing like Nick Pope or Vicente Guaita would be more beneficial than Tarkowski or Stones.
In Ziyech, Werner and Havertz (assuming the latter signs), Chelsea have identified three of the biggest locks up for grabs in this transfer window to be a success in the medium to long-term, trumping rivals at home and abroad to bring in talent that should turn into the highest quality. If the club feel there’s little value signing the defenders available now, then they’re at least doing their best to stack the attack and continue making strong signings.
Lampard still has work to do, but he’s not an idiot – he’ll know where Chelsea are going wrong, and the club clearly back him to fix their issues regardless of reinforcements.