NOT SINCE 1977 have Chelsea suffered such an opening day defeat, and it is exactly 50 years since the club conceded four in their first league game (August 9, 1969 at Liverpool). Not the best of overtures for Frank Lampard on his debut Premier League fixture as manager of Chelsea.
Already this campaign has the look of a transition for the Blues. Chelsea, to their credit, fielded Tammy Abraham and Mason Mount, sending a signal to their fans and the football world that things were now different, that young talent would [finally] be given its chance. Of course, it is a not a decision based on a deep commitment to player development, it is largely because the club cannot sign anyone in two transfer windows.
Yet Abraham and Mount, for all their promise, cannot be looked upon as “finds” coming back to Chelsea to claim their rightful place. Abraham, for example, is 21 but has spent the last three seasons on loan to Bristol City, Swansea City and Aston Villa. Most of that time, he has been in the Championship where, admittedly, he did well at Villa, scoring 25 league goals in 2018-19.
Abraham, before playing against Manchester United, had made two appearances for Chelsea in league football. That’s exactly the same number of caps he has won for England. He’s big (6ft 3in), strong and raw. He may or may not be ready for the Premier, but if he was that vital, why did Chelsea send him out on a series of loans, especially when they have struggled to find a forward they’ve been truly happy with over the past few seasons? In the coming weeks, we will discover if Abraham does have a future in the top flight with the club that nurtured him. It could take time.
Chelsea, with Abraham in their starting line-up, were comprehensively beaten at Old Trafford – nobody loses 4-0 unluckily. True, they were the better team in the first half, but their defence was vulnerable and suddenly, David Luiz and Gary Cahill were being sorely missed. It might have been so different if Abraham’s early shot had not struck the woodwork and there was a lot of promising approach work. But where were the goals coming from?
On the evidence of the first half hour or so, Chelsea looked capable of getting a result, but by then, they were a goal down thanks to a very clumsy penalty conceded by Kurt Zouma, another player who has been waiting for his chance at the club.
It all went beyond Chelsea just after the hour when they conceded two goals in quick succession, well taken efforts by Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford (his second after the first half penalty). Time after time, United’s counter-attacks caused problems and when Daniel James scored a fourth, the rout was complete.
For United, a summer of dark clouds has been lifted in a few days – thanks to the signing of man-of-the-match Harry Maguire, adding solidity and presence to the defence, and a 4-0 win against one of their peer group rivals. As for Chelsea, there are many questions. How long will it take for players like Abraham and Mount to acclimatise? Who can score goals to finish off that purist passing? What will be the best defensive pairing? Can Lampard keep the notoriously impatient Chelsea management happy?
It could well be a case of grin and bear it for the Chelsea faithful and the men and women in the Stamford Bridge C-suite. Chelsea, if they need to, can afford a poor season, or at least a mediocre one as they try and get maximum mileage out of some of the youngsters that would usually be farmed-out across Europe. Lampard, whose popularity will, one assumes, win time and understanding, may have that luxury, something other managers have not been afforded at the club.
If the first weekend of 2019-20 is a pointer to the next nine months, Manchester City are way ahead of the competition. And they probably won’t need to worry too much about Chelsea and – most likely – United. Not this year, anyway.