Before Frank Lampard was Chelsea’s manager, he was one of the club’s greatest players ever. Their best ever talisman, with 211 goals in all competitions, Lampard won three Premier Leagues with Chelsea, captained them to victory in the 2012 Champions League final and sits fourth and fifth among all-time assists and goals leaders in Premier League history, respectively. While Lampard was a midfielder who could do almost anything, he was never known as a defensive specialist, and often needed to play alongside a holding midfielder like Claude Makélélé who could provide defensive cover.
As a manager, it seemed like Lampard’s propensity for attacking play had carried over from his playing days. In his first managerial job, leading Championship team Derby, Lampard’s side conceded a modest 54 goals, one of the better defensive returns in the league. But his side struggled to keep clean sheets, only holding opponents scoreless 11 times in 46 games, and conceded twice in the Championship playoff final to keep them from promotion to the Premier League.
When Lampard made the move to Chelsea, he arrived at a team in moderate turmoil. The club had just lost its best player, Belgian forward Eden Hazard, to Real Madrid, and had been given a two year transfer ban by FIFA, international football’s governing body. Chelsea’s two strikers from the previous season, Alvaro Morata and Gonzalo Higuain, both left the club as well, leaving Lampard with a dearth of attacking talent.
But the club’s largest problem was its defense. Previous manager Maurizio Sarri had allowed longtime defender Gary Cahill’s contract to expire, and the transfer ban meant Lampard had no ability to replace him. Chelsea also sold Brazilian center back David Luiz to crosstown rivals Arsenal at the end of the summer, leaving Chelsea with only three healthy center backs to begin the season.
None of those three center backs —Kurt Zouma, Andreas Christensen and Fikayo Tomori — ever settled into a starting spot in the back, with Lampard constantly rotating players in search of a defensive pairing that could hold clean sheets. Even after the return of Antonio Rüdiger, who was seen as the club’s best defender, Chelsea struggled defensively. Every time Lampard made a defensive change that seemed to work, those tactics would fail in the next game.
In December, for example, Lampard started a back three of Rüdiger, Zouma and Tomori against Tottenham, with the hope that a more compact backline would neutralize the threat posed by Tottenham’s prolific forwards Harry Kane and Son Heung-Min. The plan worked to perfection: the back three were able to keep Kane and Son in front of them, and Tottenham mustered one shot on target all game as Chelsea emerged as 2-0 winners.
But when Lampard rolled out the same back three in the next match against Southampton, the result was the exact opposite, a 2-0 loss. Southampton deployed a low-block that frustrated Chelsea’s offense and pulled their defense up higher while pushing for a goal. This left them vulnerable to the counterattack, and Southampton struck twice late to cause Lampard’s side an embarrassing home defeat on Boxing Day.
While Lampard managed to lead Chelsea to a very respectable fourth-place finish last season, the club’s defensive woes posed concerns for the future. Chelsea shipped 54 goals during the 2019-2020 campaign, the worst total for a team in the top half of the table. The club’s offense looked at times like one that could win a Premier League, but the defense mirrored those of teams struggling to avoid relegation.
Poor center back play was at fault for many of the goals conceded, but goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga was simply disastrous throughout the season. The most expensive goalkeeper of all time, Kepa ended the season with a save percentage of 54.5 percent, the worst of any keeper in Europe’s top five leagues. Kepa certainly was not helped by a poor defensive line in front of him, but advanced statistics show that, given the shots he faced, Kepa conceded nearly ten more goals than the average goalkeeper would have.
Chelsea’s successful appeal of their transfer ban meant that the club could sign new players this past summer. To the surprise of many, Chelsea’s most expensive signings were mostly attacking players, including German striker Timo Werner and midfielder Kai Havertz, along with Moroccan winger Hakim Ziyech. The club also brought in left back Ben Chilwell from Leicester, but their only center back signings were free transfers: Thiago Silva from Paris St. Germain and Malang Sarr from Nice.
In the first few weeks of the new Premier League season, it was clear that Chelsea’s defense still looked unreliable. Their opening 3-1 win to Brighton saw Kepa concede on a weak shot from outside the box, and in Chelsea’s next game against Liverpool, Kepa made an egregious error that allowed Liverpool striker Sadio Mané to get the game’s first goal.
The club’s next match saw them concede three goals in the first half to newly-promoted West Bromwich Albion, with two goals coming from individual errors by defenders. Kepa had been benched for this match in favor of 38-year old Argentine goalie Willy Caballero, but Chelsea’s defense still looked mistake-prone and poor.
Sensing a crisis, Chelsea made one final signing of the transfer window, bringing in Senegalese goalkeeper Édouard Mendy from French side Rennes. In his first Premier League start, Mendy did not need to make a single save, as Chelsea’s defense blanketed Crystal Palace in a 4-0 victory. Mendy picked up a slight hip injury the following week on international duty with Senegal, which forced Chelsea to start Kepa again in their next match versus Southampton. Chelsea led 2-0 in the first half, but Southampton came back to score twice in quick succession, with Kepa making a terrible error to concede the second goal. Chelsea then retook the lead with one minute until the hour mark but conceded in stoppage time to tie Southampton 3-3.
Chelsea fans clamored for Mendy to return to the starting lineup as soon as possible, and Lampard heeded their call. Since the 3-3 draw to Southampton, Mendy has started all four of Chelsea’s games and has not conceded a single goal. He looked especially astute in Chelsea’s 0-0 draw at Manchester United, where he made two key saves from United striker Marcus Rashford to earn his side a point.
Mendy’s advantages over Kepa are manifold. It is clear that after repeated poor performances, sloppy mistakes and lambastings in the papers, Kepa’s confidence is completely shot. Mendy did not need to be the most composed figure to offer a much more stable option at the back. The two keepers have significant physical differences as well. Kepa is a shorter keeper at 6’1”, which leaves him at a disadvantage claiming crosses or making saves in the corners. Mendy is five inches taller than Kepa, which gives him a larger save range and a more imposing presence on the pitch.
The four consecutive clean sheets with Mendy in goal also speaks to the impact he has had on the mentality of the team. Chelsea’s defenders look more confident knowing that they have a reliable goalkeeper behind them, someone they can trust with a back pass or who they know can make an easy save if need be. The psychological impact of Mendy’s arrival is almost as important as the physical saves he makes.
Mendy has kept three clean sheets in his first three Premier League appearances, making him the first Chelsea keeper to do that since Petr Cech, a club icon who has the most clean sheets in Premier League history. Although he has only needed to make four saves, Chelsea won’t care how they get the clean sheets as long as they get them.
The stability in goal has allowed Lampard to settle into a preferred back four as well, with Reece James and Ben Chilwell out wide and Kurt Zouma and Thiago Silva in the middle. Chelsea have an easy next few games against Sheffield United and Newcastle before a match up with high-scoring Tottenham, and Lampard will be hoping to see his side’s defensive rigidity continue. If Chelsea can continue to score freely and hold their defensive form, the Blues very well could challenge for their first title since 2017.