Frank Lampard was afforded the opportunity to open Chelsea’s rather large chequebook over the summer.
His arrival had been painted as necessary when, in the summer of 2019, the Blues were hit by a transfer ban. After years of numerous managers stockpiling talent at the hand of Roman Abramovich, a new approach was needed; Chelsea’s steady production line of academy talent, which had largely gone to waste, would come sharply into focus. Lampard had shown at Derby County, in his only season in full time management, that he would offer the youngsters a chance.
While that was undeniably part of his appeal, more pertinent in everyone’s thinking was Lampard’s standing as a Chelsea legend and their record goalscorer; bringing him ‘home’ could be an easy way of appeasing a disgruntled fanbase. It becomes very hard to envisage him succeeding Maurizio Sarri, who had exited after winning the Europa League, without his standing and relationship with the club, given his minimal experience in the dugout and complete lack of it at the top level.
In his debut campaign, Lampard maintained Chelsea’s position as a Champions League team and reached the FA Cup final. It was a good achievement given the lack of signings and the gaping hole left by Eden Hazard’s departure for Real Madrid.
Squad reinforcements were strong this summer; Timo Werner, Kai Havertz and Hakim Ziyech have added a new dimension in attack, and Edouard Mendy, it is hoped, will solve the growing goalkeeper crisis at Stamford Bridge after the erosion of Kepa Arrizabalaga’s form and confidence.
Questioned remained in defence despite £50million being spent on Ben Chilwell and the free signing of Thiago Silva. The latter’s arrival, at the age of 36, was compared to applying a plaster to a flesh wound, after Malang Sarr was instantly sent out on loan.
The likes of Mason Mount, Tammy Abraham and Fikayo Tomori face a greater battle for a starting place this season.
One player expected by many to join Chelsea this summer, someone who combines both nurturing young talent and spending big on players, was West Ham’s Declan Rice. It seemed like a fairly simple deal to do were a viable fee able to be agreed; Rice is a former Chelsea youth product and best friends with Mount.
Football is, in many ways, subjective, but the consensus around Rice has been split down the middle among neutrals. West Ham fans adore him; he is an England regular, so the press does too, and his price tag reflects that; it would take around £70million o get him in the current market, at least. But a common theme during the recent international fixtures was people claiming not to understand the hype around him.
Just last week, he was called an “upgrade” on N’Golo Kante, arguably the best holding midfielder the world over the last five years, by Darren Bent on Talksport. That comment may have come from context of him being more suited to Lampard’s ideology because of his versatility, able to play in midfield and defence, while Kante hasn’t been utilised where he is strongest for some time. But it still jarred with many people who are mystified by his rise.
There is little doubting that Rice has been a consistent performer for West Ham since breaking through into the first team three years ago. But so many other English players have seen their hype reach unmanageable levels thanks to the press before and ultimately fallen by the wayside. Will that happen here?
Statistics by no means tell a player’s full story, but they can at the very least further contextualise it. In the Premier League last season, he won the fourth most tackles with 116. Leicester City’s Wilfred Ndidi was the only player in a similar position with more. When it comes to interceptions, he was joint-third with 77; these are impressive and back up the suggestion that he is worthy of his reputation.
But a potentially fair argument could be that if Rice wants to play at the very top level for both club and country, regularly competing in the Champions League and for Premier League titles, he should move into a central defensive position. Predominantly playing as a midfielder for West Ham, who are a reactive team preferring to play on the counterattack in the bigger games especially, his lack of prominence high up in the rankings for touches and passing is less of an issue.
For England, it is that which makes supporters question him. Gareth Southgate is often criticised for playing defensively; his midfield options lack the creativity and ability to be progressive and help push the team on. This is far from being all Rice’s fault, of course, and Chelsea do have more creative options than England. The balance may work better.
Rice does excel with the ‘dirty work’, but he could be exposed by the footballing elite who all demand more than that from every player on the pitch. If a goalkeeper is expected to be proficient with the ball at his feet and play a role in attacks, then a midfielder of any sort will be absolutely vital in that regard.
Declan Rice’s abilities are unquestionable; but he becomes susceptible to criticism on the international stage because there is more scrutiny on his shortcomings. The best bet for him to really shine in his career is to play in defence. Should Chelsea sign him? Well, there is no doubt he would make them a much steelier outfit, but beyond that, they should go in with their eyes open.