It may be of scant consolation to Thiago Silva, following his new entry high in the charts of Chelsea’s worst Premier League debuts, but perhaps at least his was not the most hubristic. Fernando Torres could forever retain that unwanted distinction after making his bow against Liverpool and losing to them. The £50 million man was not the only newcomer that day, however. David Luiz chalked up two inauspicious debuts, with twin losses to Liverpool, and, albeit amid some idiosyncratic pratfalls, went on to become a cornerstone of Champions League and Premier League-winning teams.
First impressions can be deceptive. Chelsea trust they are in the case of a Brazilian defender with a rather greater reputation for reliability than David Luiz. Silva’s howler, losing control of the ball to allow Callum Robinson to score his second goal as West Bromwich Albion surged into a 3-0 lead, had the feel of an aberration.
Frank Lampard has sufficient understanding to realise it was his headline contribution but argued it camouflaged more encouraging signs. “People are going to want to talk about the second goal and that is fair, that is the nature of being a top footballer, which he has been all his career,” he said. “But at the same time but I think we saw how he is, his leadership and qualities.”
Silva may have to be Chelsea’s silent leader. Granted the captaincy with Cesar Azpilicueta benched – the Spaniard had to be summoned when Marcos Alonso was at fault for Albion’s other two goals – he was rather quieter than John Terry was in his days as captain, leader and screamer. Silva is multilingual but English is not among those tongues. “Language is a slight barrier,” Lampard added. “I am sure he will learn quickly. Some players in the squad do speak the languages he speaks, French being the main one.”
But if organisation can come through communication, it is required. Chelsea have now conceded 60 league goals in 41 league games under Lampard; they let in 60 in their first 113 under Jose Mourinho. That decline in defending prompted the question if Lampard, who has roped in his old ally Petr Cech to work with his new goalkeeper Edouard Mendy, may do something similar with the back four. “No,” came a one-word reply from a manager who is usually more loquacious.
Perhaps the theory behind the question was that individuals can effect an upgrade; if so, it appeared to reflect Chelsea’s recruitment strategy, with Mendy, Silva and Ben Chilwell hired to bring improvement at goalkeeper, centre-back and left-back respectively. The counter-argument is that it should come from coaching and structure, though last week’s conquerors suggest high-class personnel can be transformative: look at Alisson and Virgil van Dijk.
Perhaps Silva’s blunder could be written off as a one-off, the equivalent of Van Dijk presenting Leeds with an equaliser on the opening day. Perhaps, despite the understandable questions if a 36-year-old can adapt to the Premier League and if Robinson’s sharpness highlights concerns if he can cope with its speed and despite the probability Alonso will become a bit-part player, Albion’s second goal was the least worrying for Chelsea. The first and third conformed to familiar themes.
In a sentence, Lampard referenced transition, mistakes and set-pieces: the three issues that have undermined his Chelsea at the back. “When you are asked to mark a man, you have to mark a man,” Lampard said. “If you let someone roll off the back of you and be free to score a goal that is a clear mistake.” There is a logic to his rhetoric, and it irritates one of the most diligent of his generation at following instructions that others are less meticulous.
But if errors are uncharacteristic as Silva’s feel freakish, the sight of Chelsea conceding in calamitous fashion is increasingly common. Perhaps Silva, Chilwell and Mendy will change that and the 3-3 draw at West Brom will, in effect, be Chelsea’s last result of 2019-20. But if not, Lampard, the most prolific goalscoring midfielder of his era, may be defined by defending. And unless it is transformed, that could bode badly.
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