By Alistair Hendrie
No, Frank Lampard said, Tammy Abraham had not recovered from a knock to his ankle but on the other hand, he added, the Chelsea forward was fit enough to start against Leicester City on Saturday. Lampard grinned with admiration for Abraham, just about stopping short of donning pigtails, pom-poms and a skirt. In the end he had to thank his German centre-back Antonio Rudiger who scored a brace of bullish headers to help Chelsea to a 2-2 draw which both sides could have gained more from.
You might ask what Lampard would have thought from the touchline watching Abraham huff, puff and just come up short until he was substituted for Ross Barkley on 82 minutes. The England man is far from the finished article and although he didn’t seem compromised by any injury on Saturday, he rarely looked like improving on his latest record of two goals in his last nine Premier League matches. His promise is also negated by the fact that only one of his 13 goals in the league this season have occurred against a current top six side. That was in August against Sheffield United when Chris Wilder’s side were adjusting to their new surroundings.
Leicester, of course, were far more formidable opponents. As Chelsea dominated the first 45 minutes Abraham misfired on a cross from Mason Mount and also appealed in vain for a penalty when he tumbled over, attempting a cutback while under pressure from Caglar Soyoncu. As Rudiger opened the scoring, later equalising after Harvey Barnes and Ben Chilwell put the home side in the driving seat during a frantic second half, Abraham turned in a disappointing shift and couldn’t tune his radar to any of Pedro or Callum Hudson-Odoi’s deliveries behind the hosts’ backline.
Lampard will defend his striker to the end though. From day one he has championed academy talent and you feel that the former Derby County boss is attacking his first big assignment as a manager with a sense of wide-eyed wonder. He sometimes appears out of his depth but he’s enthusiastic enough to make the bold decisions.
He did exactly that by putting his faith in Abraham, leaving Michy Batshuayi on the bench. Olivier Giroud didn’t even make the list of substitutes. Lampard’s selection reinforced his absence of confidence in Batshuayi, who has only been on the pitch for 139 minutes this season in the league and is yet to start in the competition. The Belgian striker, tall and powerful in the air, would have surely fed off Mount’s set-plays better than Abraham did against Leicester. It was telling that at 2-2, when Chelsea were chasing the game, Lampard would rather bring on Barkley, Mateo Kovacic – two players who rarely gel – and Willian instead of opting for more of a target man.
Lampard’s decisions could also speak to his disillusionment with Chelsea’s January transfer window business. They missed out on Dries Meterns from Napoli. They also let Edison Cavani, the Paris Saint-Germain striker, slip through their fingers. Neither could they shift Batshuayi or Giroud. As such, Lampard sent a message to the board telling them to act in a more clinical manner in future windows.
It’s clear that Lampard would have also kept an eye on Abraham while managing Derby in the Championship last season, as the spidery forward netted 26 times on loan at Aston Villa in the same division. He is a Lampard player. Batshuayi and Giroud aren’t. The former seems particularly unsettled and Maurizio Sarri, Lampard’s predecessor, was also unconvinced by him.
Saturday’s setback was emblematic of Lampard’s lack of choice of a traditional striker. Although Mount, Pedro and Hudson-Odoi created havoc on the left none of them could fashion a clinical moment. The manager even gambled on playing the lightweight Willian as a false nine as the match dwindled out. Abraham was ineffective and Batshuayi, the substitute, was pictured hunched forward with anxiety, covering his face with his bib. Lampard will hope to put less emphasis on Abraham in the future.
Check out Alistair Hendrie’s Kindle book, Fight Game: The Untold Story of Women’s MMA in Britain, featuring insight from Rosi Sexton, Joanne Calderwood and more