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As Chelsea prepare to host Brighton this Saturday, there is a sense of hope around Stamford Bridge that seems to have evaded the club since the departure of Antonio Conte two years ago.
Frank Lampard’s return to Chelsea in the summer was met with a sense of excitement amongst the club’s fanbase. Despite a stuttering start to his first season in charge, the performances of some of the club’s academy products have been promising.
A combination of Eden Hazard’s departure and an untimely transfer ban may have given him little other option, but Lampard’s persistence with his youngsters seems already to be paying dividends.
Tammy Abraham currently sits in joint-second on the Premier League’s top scoring chart, whilst Mason Mount and Fikayo Tomori, both of whom were at Derby County last term, have also impressed during the opening games.
However, it hasn’t been plain-sailing for the former England midfielder. Two months into his tenure and Chelsea find themselves eleventh, with goal-difference separating them from tenth-placed Sheffield United.
Whilst they are yet to draw a blank in front of goal in the league, a lack of defensive stability has repeatedly hindered the Blues’ pursuit of victories. Just two league victories, coupled with a 1-0 defeat to Valencia on their return to the Champions League, makes for a grim read through the Blues’ results list so far.
Their most recent result – a 7-1 victory over Grimsby Town in the Carabao Cup – marked Lampard’s first home victory since he took charge. And yet, despite a relatively disappointing run of results, the atmosphere amongst those in the stands is almost polar opposite to that of last season.
The patient approach fostered by Mauricio Sarri during his managerial cameo left a lot to be desired for fans. Many of whom lost patience with the Italian’s possession-based and seemingly ineffective brand of football.
But Lampard appears to have rejuvenated his supporters, and the fans’ delight with their new-look side stems primarily from the outstanding performances of a handful of academy graduates – most notably Tomori, Mount and Abraham.
The fact that all three were ‘rested’ against Grimsby with Saturday’s game against Brighton in mind is testament to their importance not only to the Blues’ performances but also to the feel-good factor around Stamford Bridge. There was a notable sense of relief amongst fans that all three were rested for the game, highlighting the esteem in which they are held.
Even more encouraging is the array of other young talents which are beginning to be showcased at a club which has, for so long, been criticised for its failure to ensure players make the transition from their fruitful youth academy to the first-team squad.
The game against Grimsby allowed Lampard to hand out five home first-team debuts, with Scottish midfielder Billy Gilmour impressing in central midfield and full-back Reece James scoring late-on to round off a man-of-the-match performance.
The impressive showings of these young players seem to be complimented in Lampard’s team by the experience of the squad’s more senior players, something which was shown on Sunday as Chelsea hosted the league-leaders.
N’golo Kante’s return as the lynchpin in midfield triggered a much-improved performance in the second-half against Liverpool. Goals from Pedro, Michy Batshuayi and Ross Barkley in the Carabao Cup will have also given Lampard food for thought as he strives to find the balance between youth and experience.
In many ways, the transfer ban may now be regarded as something of a blessing in disguise. The significant spending power of the club has, over the past ten years or so, limited the opportunities available to younger players and those who graduate through the club’s academy.
Therefore, a ban on any incomings has allowed those who may otherwise have been shipped out on loan to instead find themselves within the realms of the first-team squad.
Despite still having over thirty-five players currently out on loan, a total of ten under-21s players have appeared in all competitions for the West-Londoners this campaign.
The return of highly-coveted winger Callum Hudson-Odoi against Grimsby was further encouragement for Lampard, especially as the 18-year-old scored the game’s final goal.
For the avoidance of doubt, Lampard, as well as the majority of Chelsea fans, seem blissfully aware the club is going through a transition. However, the early signs seem to suggest that the seasons that follow may bring more glory to the most successful English club of the last decade.
Wherever the Blues end up come May-time, the circumstances surrounding this season’s personnel may bide Lampard some time as he battles the seemingly relentless and almost inevitable threat of being shown the exit door by the Chelsea hierarchy.
Whilst Chelsea fans’ relationships with the array of managers in the Abramovich-era have been varied, Lampard’s service to the club as a player, married with his passion for youth, seems to have endeared him to supporters to such an extent that they are prepared for whatever happens this season. It’s a stark contrast to the likes of Sarri and Villas-Boas who have come under scrutiny at the first signs of failure.
With the club seemingly never far from a crisis of sorts, the situation Chelsea found themselves in over the summer could have posed a serious threat; manager-less, Eden Hazard-less and unable to recruit anyone to replace the Belgian.
However, the prospects on show at Stamford Bridge so far this season have lifted the mood amongst home fans, with the consensus being that the club’s future is extremely bright.