Chelsea-Manchester United Preview
There could not be a bigger stage for Frank Lampard to make his Premier League coaching debut Sunday than the "Theatre of Dreams" at Old Trafford, where Manchester United welcome the new Chelsea boss to the top flight.
In a case of the more things change, the more that stay the same, Chelsea had yet another coaching switch in the summer as Maurizio Sarri left after one season and a Europa League title. The London side also finished a distant third in the table - 26 points behind champions Manchester City - and supporters never warmed to the eccentric chain-smoking Italian as he became the 13th manager to come and go since Roman Abramovich took ownership of the club in 2003.
In Sarri's place is one of their own in Lampard, a legend for the club as their No. 8, scoring 147 goals in 429 matches in a career that spanned from 2001-14. Also a standout England international, Lampard was part of three Premier League-winning teams and the 2012 Champions League side who defeated Bayern Munich on penalties.
While Lampard's player CV is as long as the day, his managerial experience is not, which makes this move a gamble. His coaching career began only last season, guiding Derby County to a sixth-place finish in the Championship and the promotion playoff final versus Aston Villa. While the Rams came up short in the "richest game in the world," Abramovich saw enough potential to make the move rather than have a second tense season with Sarri at the helm.
"Of course this club aims to be playing Champions League football every year," Lampard said about expectations without laying down specific markers in his Friday press conference. "We did that last year and I would love to be able to do that again for us. I'm not settling for fourth place, but we're realistic. We will have to work every day to improve and improve and improve, and try and stay right up there.
"Manchester City and Liverpool showed the rest of us there is a gap, and that's a gap everyone has to try and make up. We are striving to do that. I don't want to get ahead of myself and say this position or that position will be a success."
One of the traits that made Lampard appealing to Chelsea was his work with young players at Derby. And with the Pensioners having completed the first of a current two-window transfer ban, there is an influx of youth at Cobham will all of the players they recalled from loans across Europe.
All of those players, though, will not replace the signature loss of Eden Hazard, who joined Real Madrid on an eye-watering £88.5 million in June. Cheslea planned for the eventuality of the Belgium international moving on with the signing of Christian Pulisic, the current face of international soccer in the United States.
The 20-year-old shattered the transfer fee record for any American player at £58 million when terms were agreed to in January while he played for Borussia Dortmund. Pulisic is expected to slot into Hazard's spot on the left, though Lampard prefers a 4-2-3-1 set-up to Sarri's 4-3-3.
Lampard also has opted for youth in central defence as 32-year-old David Luiz surprisingly moved across London to Arsenal before the close of business Thursday. The new manager denied there was a rift between the two, citing a numbers game in which Chelsea have "four centre-halves. Three full internationals, one is an under-21 international who I worked with last year." The move leaves holdover Andreas Christensen and Kurt Zouma - who was loan at Everton last season - as the likely pairing.
There is also high intrigue in attacking midfield, with the shift to a 4-2-3-1 creating a more traditional No. 10 than Sarri's 4-3-3 that had Jorginho playing in a deeper role to spray passes. Ross Barkley is the incumbent, but Mason Mount has impressed since in returning to Chelsea from loan under Lampard at Derby.
Jorginho and Kante are expected to be the pairing in defensive midfield, though the latter is sweating out a late fitness test. Up front, Pedro likely will start on the right flank, and the centre-forward spot will belong to either veteran holdover Olivier Giroud or yet another recall in Tammy Abraham. The 21-year-old bagged 25 goals for Aston Villa last season in helping them earn promotion.
If there is one side who can go toe-to-toe with Chelsea for drama - on or off the pitch - it is Manchester United. They will be looking to retrace the Pensioners path back to the Champions League via a Europa League title or top-four finish after placing sixth in a tumultuous 2018-19.
Jose Mourinho unsurprisingly wore out his welcome in his third season at the club, getting sacked in December, and successor Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's star shined early and faded late as United won only two of their final nine matches while going winless in the last five.
The Red Devils were aggressive in the summer transfer window, but their biggest move did not take place until right before Thursday's close when they were finally able to prise centre back Harry Maguire from Leicester City for a reported £80 million, making the England international the most expensive defender in the world. The 26-year-old signed a six-year deal with United, bringing stability to a back line that shipped 54 goals - their most in the Premier League era.
"I have thoroughly enjoyed my time at Leicester and would like to thank everyone at the club, and the fans, for their fantastic support over the past two seasons," Maguire said in a statement on the club's website. "However, when Manchester United come knocking on your door, it is an incredible opportunity.
"From my conversations with the manager, I am excited about the vision and plans he has for the team. It's clear to see that Ole is building a team to win trophies. I am now looking forward to meeting my new team-mates and getting the season started."
The other key addition came at right back, where United signed Crystal Palace's Aaron Wan-Bissaka for £49.5 million. The position was a sore spot all last term as youngster Diogo Dalot never got settled and talisman Ashley Young looked every bit his 34 years too often to be a full-time starter.
There was one notable departure as United recouped nearly all the money spent on Maguire by unloading striker Romelu Lukaku to Inter Milan for a reported £70 million Wednesday. A late scramble to find a replacement striker, including Juventus' Mario Mandzukic and Paulo Dybala, failed to generate anything, which means Solskjaer will be relying on the youthful pairing of academy alums Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial and newcomer Daniel James for the bulk of their scoring.
The playmaking duties - for now - continue to belong to Paul Pogba, as a summer of rumours and whispers about a move to Real Madrid or return to Juventus never came to fruition. The mercurial France international and World Cup winner totaled team highs of 16 goals - seven of them match-winners - and 11 assists in all competitions last term, and Solskjaer insists the two can thrive together.
"I can't dive into all these hypothetical questions, but we've not had offers," Solskjaer said during the team's preseason tour in Australia last month. "I've said so many times about Paul that he's a top, top boy and a great player, and he's never, ever been a problem.
"I've not been upset by anything he's said because we've had many conversations, and I know exactly what Paul is thinking. I can give him a new challenge."
The teams played to a pair of draws last season, bracketing United's 2-0 victory in the fifth round of the FA Cup on first-half goals by Pogba and Ander Herrera. United are unbeaten in their last six home league matches (2-4-0) and 5-5-1 in the last 11 overall, with the lone loss coming on Phil Jones' own goal in a 1-0 defeat in 2013.
Updated August 9, 2019