Chelsea’s unconvincing win over Brighton show Lampard’s project will need time
The subtext to Chelsea's £220 million summer spending spree is Frank Lampard's judgement that many of his existing squad were not at the required level.
Lampard will be satisfied the Blues started their much-anticipated Premier League campaign with a 3-1 win at Brighton, but if anything the players who have been asked to respond to the new arrivals only really reinforced their manager's view.
Ruben Loftus-Cheek was given an unexpected opportunity in a No. 10 role as Chelsea shifted to 4-2-3-1, a formation change expected to accommodate Kai Havertz on his debut following a £71m move from Bayer Leverkusen.
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This was a golden chance for Loftus-Cheek, on only his third start since lockdown, to prove he can force his way into Lampard's thinking as the Blues boss shuffles his pack to identify what he hopes can be a winning hand this season.
Instead, he laboured in possession too often and squandered a fine counter-attacking break to release Timo Werner for what would have been a clear opportunity to double Chelsea's lead shortly before half-time.
Loftus-Cheek has missed a year of football with a serious Achilles injury and so he should be afforded more leeway than most, but the message when discussing his situation will have resonated with others. Those players waiting in the wings are here to improve the team.
“Ruben had been out for a long time and even his return to play was pretty broken by the lockdown and the restart when he was just about to play some games,” said Lampard.
“We certainly have to give Ruben a bit of time on those fronts. It is a position Ruben can play for us. We have got injuries in forward areas in terms of [Hakim] Ziyech, [Christian] Pulisic.
“There are players who will come back who will give me a lot of options, so it was interesting for me to see him in that position. He can certainly give us an option.”
The visitors were already ahead thanks to an earlier example of Werner's blistering speed. Steven Alzate gifted Jorginho possession and although the Italian overhit his pass, Werner made up the ground in the blink of an eye, catching out Brighton goalkeeper Mat Ryan who knocked the Germany international off his feet in the penalty area.
Jorginho scored from the spot — extending his 100 percent penalty success rate for the Blues from eight attempts — but Brighton were a little unlucky to fall behind on the balance of play.
Tariq Lamptey was a constant menace from right-back as Marcos Alonso underlined the importance of Chelsea signing another left-back in Ben Chilwell from Leicester City.
Andreas Christensen and Kurt Zouma were unconvincing as a centre-back pairing, both seemingly requiring Thiago Silva to bring some calm to the heart of Chelsea's defence.
Brighton kept plugging away, but were indebted to another mistake from Kepa Arrizabalaga to draw level. The Spaniard was slow to get down to his left to keep out Leandro Trossard's 54th-minute shot, adding another entry to Kepa's expansive file of moments entitled: “Not a howler but not good enough for the world's most expensive goalkeeper.”
Edouard Mendy's imminent £20m arrival from Rennes is casting a long shadow over Kepa and his place in the team.
Chelsea were without Chilwell, Ziyech, Pulisic and Silva on Monday, all of whom look more certain starters simply by what went on in their absence, even allowing for a shortened preseason and clear lack of physical conditioning.
There was, at least, no time for panic to set in following Trossard's goal as exactly 100 seconds later, Reece James thrashed the ball past Ryan from 25 yards with a ferocious strike that reverberated around the near-empty Amex Stadium.
Zouma extended Chelsea's advantage 10 minutes later with a deflected shot from James' corner and the Blues saw the game out comfortably enough, perhaps underlining why Brighton need to sign a striker before the transfer window closes next month.
Chelsea will have to improve when hosting champions Liverpool on Sunday afternoon and they will surely look to their big-money acquisitions to help deliver that. Chilwell has a chance of being fit, as does Pulisic, but while Werner was exciting and incisive throughout, Havertz was more peripheral.
The two have had hugely contrasting preseasons with Werner shunning Red Bull Leipzig's Champions League knockout campaign last season to hit the ground running in England, while Havertz has had a much shorter timeframe to work after joining up with Germany for the first part of the recent international break.
However, there will be a smaller margin for error against Jurgen Klopp's side next weekend and Lampard would be right to expect more when the tougher tests begin.
“We will be better [on Sunday],” he said. “This is our first game and in the circumstances we have been together as a group for four days. We have got two guys making debuts there tonight.
“We showed a lot of good stuff. It wasn't where we want to be and we'll improve for Liverpool as well. The first game of the season is certainly about getting the win when you come to a place like Brighton and we did a lot of good things to get that.
“We've had a lot of quarantines at the club, we've had a lot of players going away with internationals and not being fully fit. That's just the way it is.”
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