The forwards usually steal the attention but the pre-match focus ahead of Arsenal’s meeting with Chelsea on Boxing Day was on a pair of full-backs. Reece James was back in the Blues’ team after missing their previous game through injury, while Ben Chilwell was also included in Frank Lampard’s starting XI despite limping off in that prior victory over West Ham United. This was a major advantage for Chelsea, who were seeking to inflict further misery on their London rivals.
In the end, it was Arsenal’s full-backs who had the more significant impact on the game. Hector Bellerin and Kieran Tierney were excellent as Mikel Arteta’s men secured a much-needed 3-1 win. Not only did Arsenal show more hunger and urgency than Chelsea, they also demonstrated more quality on the day.
This was another disappointing result for the Blues, who have now lost three of their last four games. Aston Villa, their opponents on Monday, go into the clash at Stamford Bridge above Chelsea in the table. Their current spot in eighth is a far cry from the expectations that surrounded the west Londoners at the start of the season.
Chelsea spent more than £200m on new acquisitions in the summer. Edouard Mendy arrived between the sticks and the experienced centre-back Thiago Silva was captured on a free transfer, but the bulk of the outlay came at the other end of the field. Deals for Hakim Ziyech and Timo Werner were agreed before the end of the 2019/20 campaign, and they were followed by the £72m purchase of Kai Havertz at the end of the August.
The season is now four months old and Chelsea have yet to settle on a first-choice front three, with Frank Lampard seemingly unable to decide which forwards he should play on a regular basis. Mason Mount, Werner and Havertz began the campaign as the front three. More recently, Mount and Havertz have been deployed in midfield (although the latter has been in and out of the team), while Werner has shifted to the left. Olivier Giroud and Abraham have alternated up front. Pulisic started Saturday’s game on the right wing, where he is less effective than on the opposite flank.
No manager will ever complain about having too many options. After the win against West Ham last week, Lampard spoke about how the differing styles of Giroud and Abraham allow him to rotate his starting striker depending on the opponents in front of him. That makes sense to an extent, but Chelsea’s lack of attacking rhythm is in part down to the chopping and changing of their forwards.
Of course, some of the alterations have come as a result of injuries. Pulisic is fit again and has forced his way into the team of late, with Ziyech replacing him on the treatment table. Lampard cannot be accused of lacking ideas or sticking to the same formula come what may.
Nevertheless, Chelsea have been blunt in recent weeks and it may now be wise to settle on a first-choice trio of forwards. Werner has yet to catch fire and could benefit from a rest, particularly if that allows Pulisic to play from his favoured left-wing berth. If Lampard generally prefers Abraham to Giroud, he should give the England international a run of starts up top. Ziyech will probably be the go-to option on the right once he is fit again.
Chelsea will not have failed if they do not win the title this term, but they must get closer than they did last time out. Lampard knows better than most that managers are usually the ones held responsible for underachievement at Stamford Bridge. If he is to turn the situation around, settling on a first-choice front three would be a good place to start.