LONDON — What was the plan here, Frank? What was the question to which the answer was “sending a rusty Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to hide for nothing in his former home?”
Aubameyang is not part of Chelsea’s short, medium or long term plans. If you subscribe to the property’s claims that they considered weeks before they wanted to sack Thomas Tuchel, Chelsea’s number 9 was nothing more than a joke at the expense of their former head coach. Through little to no fault of his own – neither Graham Potter nor Lampard have ever been anything less than complimentary of his behavior on the training pitch, even if he has been met with humiliation upon embarrassment – he has become the totem for this most disastrous of seasons .
“You’re going down,” the Emirates chanted. Probably not, but at the rate Chelsea are sinking, it’s best not to rule out the possibility that one of the club’s greatest ever players could lead them to the Championship. Lose Nottingham Forest and Bournemouth and it seems likely that Lampard’s tenure will be pointless in more ways than one.
With a bloated squad, no realistic chance of silverware and routes to Europe next season drying up quickly, there seemed to be no way for Lampard to damage his position as future Premier League manager for next season and beyond. And yet he found a way as one of those shots through a crowded penalty area in which he specialized. He’s not the first to be burned by the rubbish fire that is Chelsea 2022-23, he just might find this favor to Todd Boehly is like a burn mark on his CV.
The best hope is that this is the low point for both parties. Sure, the interim head coach gave the impression of a man stunned to see his club so low, who has little choice but to pick at least the players who try. Indeed, he seemed to suggest that some of those he selected lacked the basic fitness to compete with this opponent. “If you haven’t conditioned on Wednesday and Thursday, you won’t do it on Saturday,” said Lampard. “If they become you as a group, they don’t change overnight. We’re seeing that right now.
“I’m definitely not questioning the players as lads, but from being good lads to transfers on the field, you have to be aggressive all week to get. [an] aggressive player when you go on the field. That must be something you do. We as a collective group are not. There can be many reasons, some excuses and some [reasons] are very valid by the way, players who come into the Premier League in a team have a difficult moment, it is not easy. This is the toughest competition in the world.”
Chelsea certainly makes it look that way. Had they not had Tuchel in the first six games, of which they claimed 10 points, where would they be?
You could tell the story of Chelsea’s rapid decline pretty well in their last four encounters with Arsenal, five if you count last year’s exhibition game in Orlando, where Tuchel concluded something was seriously wrong. Last time the Blues visited the Emirates Stadium, they bullied Arsenal, their superior game control coupled with the authority of Romelu Lukaku. Two defeats at Stamford Bridge left Chelsea mired in self-inflicted crises of their own, Roman Abramovich’s sanctions and Boehly’s spending. As this disastrous season draws to a close, the visitors were lucky to lose only 3-1.
The opening passage determined the timbre of this game. Jakub Kiwior, who improved quickly after a slow start, gave Chelsea possession with a heavy touch. Enzo Fernandez did nothing positive with the ball, blasting an ambitious shot straight at an Arsenal defender, and within seconds Bukayo Saka was flying onto the pitch. The hosts weren’t so flawless that there was no chance for a better opponent to get anything out of this game, but then again Chelsea simply had no answers for Arsenal.
Granit Xhaka spotted Martin Odegaard in a gap of space outside the penalty area. No one in a blue shirt did until it was too late, when the Arsenal captain bent the ball in off the crossbar, his 21st goal of the Premier League season. He is now in the kind of thin air where Robert Pires was at his best. His 22nd soon followed, one short of Invincible’s vintage Pires, another Xhaka cross for his unmarked captain. There are facets of Chelsea’s game for which Lampard is firmly to blame. The bewilderment of Chelsea’s coaching staff said it all, these were fundamental mistakes of the sort that no coach needs to remind players not to make.
Still, Chelsea ended up with a flurry of mistakes: Wesley Fofana, Cesar Azpilicueta, Thiago Silva and Kepa Arrizabalaga collapsed on deck as Gabriel Jesus lobbed the ball into the net. By half-time, Aubameyang had registered nine touches. Four of these were kick-offs. One of them was in the Arsenal half and hit the ball straight into contact to the Emirates’ derision. It was no wonder that opportunities passed him by as Raheem Sterling played through balls into empty spaces. On the other hand, these two started a game for the first time since the last time they lost to Arsenal way back before the World Cup. It’s no wonder they were on such different wavelengths.
He wouldn’t make it to the break. Did Kai Havertz spark more life at Chelsea in the second half? Not particularly, it was more a case of when Saka and Gabriel Magalhaes saw opportunities pass by, Arsenal’s intensity cooled, much to their manager’s frustration.
“After 60 minutes we should have scored four or five,” said Mikel Arteta. “We didn’t do that and after the goal against, with a long period to play, we should have managed the game a bit better.”
Noni Madueke’s clipped finish on Mateo Kovacic’s high pass wasn’t even a consolation, no cavalry charge coming from a team that had just doubled their goals in six games under their current manager. Lampard pointed to a “more dynamic nature”. It is indeed a low bar, two shots between the start of the second half and the 90th minute. On the other hand, that’s what Chelsea have imposed on themselves this season. In any case, anything bordering on adequate will be progress next year.