Chelsea’s meeting with Brighton was less than a minute old when the first chorus of ‘Super Frankie Lampard’ sounded around Stamford Bridge. It started in the Matthew Harding Stand and carried over into the East Stand. By the final whistle, all four sides of the stadium were joining in.
The 2-0 victory was only their third of the season and their first at home. They sit 10 points behind leaders Liverpool and will drop out of the top four if Arsenal avoid defeat against Manchester United on Monday. For these Chelsea fans, though, the legend in the dugout and the young, vibrant team on the pitch are providing more than enough encouragement.
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The mood has changed dramatically from last season, when Maurizio Sarri’s methods left many fans cold. Last weekend, those same fans applauded their team off despite a 2-1 defeat to Liverpool. This time, they had something tangible to celebrate. The three points were welcome. More significant, though, is the feeling that the club finally has a clear direction.
Perhaps the transfer ban has worked in their favour. On Wednesday, there were 10 academy graduates in the 18-man squad to face Grimsby Town in the Carabao Cup. Against Brighton, there were seven.
“I don’t really consider age,” said Lampard afterwards. His attitude is a major departure from that of his Chelsea predecessors, and it has had a galvanising effect.
As Lampard has repeatedly pointed out, though, Chelsea’s young players are not just being thrown into the team for the sake of it. It is partly borne out of necessity, but this is no vanity project. The win over Brighton provided more evidence that they are there because they are good enough.
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Tammy Abraham should have added to his tally of seven Premier League goals, but he was a handful for Brighton all afternoon, his understanding with former academy team-mate Mason Mount plain to see in some of their combination play. Neither of them scored, but it was Mount who won the penalty for the crucial opener. The assist for the second, meanwhile, came from the returning Callum Hudson-Odoi, who was thrown on ahead of the £58m Christian Pulisic.
2:58 FREE TO WATCH: Highlights from Chelsea’s win over Brighton
Amazingly, 13 of Chelsea’s 14 Premier League goals this season – with the exception of N’Golo Kante’s strike against Liverpool, set up by Cesar Azpilicueta – have either been scored or assisted by academy graduates. It’s still only September but it’s already more than in the whole of last season.
The profile of the team has changed dramatically. In each of the last five seasons, Chelsea’s starting line-up had an average age of over 27. This season, their average of 25 years and 176 days makes them the fourth-youngest side in the Premier League.
The young players have been emboldened by the trust of their manager and there is a youthful energy to Chelsea’s attacking play that wasn’t there before. They are fun to watch but they are effective too. On Saturday, they peppered Mat Ryan’s goal from start to finish.
Consider the statistics. Only Liverpool and Manchester City have scored more goals this season. Chelsea rank second for shots, shots on target, and chances created from open play, while only City score higher for expected goals, which is to say that their opportunities are high on quality as well as quantity. Chelsea have completed more dribbles than any other side.
It is doubly impressive considering they lost Eden Hazard in the summer and it is not just on the pitch that Chelsea’s make-up has changed. Lampard’s history with the club is well known but it’s also significant that his assistants – Jody Morris, Eddie Newton, Chris Jones and Joe Edwards – are all either academy graduates or former academy coaches themselves.
Lampard commented on how Chelsea’s youngsters have been helped by the senior players in the squad on Saturday, but their existing bonds with the coaching staff have been just as important. Take how Hudson-Odoi, after setting up the second goal, could be seen sprinting over to Chelsea’s technical area to receive tactical advice from Morris, his former coach with the U18s and a man who knows his game inside out.
What’s perhaps most encouraging about their latest performance, though, is that it brought the first clean sheet of the season. And what’s more, it was achieved with a pair of academy graduates with a combined age of only 44 in the heart of the defence. Andreas Christensen was impressive and so too was Fikayo Tomori.
Indeed, it was largely thanks to Tomori’s speed, awareness and anticipation that Brighton did not create more openings. Time and again, he could be seen shuttling across into the full-back positions to snuff out danger. This Chelsea team is full of speedy attackers, but according to Premier League tracking data it was Tomori who registered the highest speed on the pitch against Brighton. He even made the most sprints.
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Like the rest of Chelsea’s academy graduates, he is growing by the game. Indeed, it was notable how assured he was in possession against Brighton. No player had more touches and his passing accuracy rate topped 90 per cent. At one point in the first half, he produced a through ball for Mount that the departed David Luiz would have been proud of.
There are still flaws among Chelsea’s young players, of course. There are errors and there will be more. But the fans are excited by what they are seeing and right now their support is unwavering. When Hudson-Odoi over-hit a routine pass for Willian in the second half, there were no groans of frustration. Instead, they applauded the intent.
2:32 Frank Lampard says that Chelsea dominated their 2-0 win over Brighton
Hudson-Odoi, Mount, Abraham, Tomori and Christensen all played important roles in the victory and their ranks could be swelled yet further in the weeks ahead. The 19-year-old Reece James made an impressive debut against Grimsby and will provide a younger alternative to Azpilicueta at right-back, while Ruben Loftus-Cheek – arguably the most gifted of them all – is still to return to fitness too.