The book ‘Shoe Dog‘ describes Phil Knight’s journey, taking Nike from his parents’ basement to a juggernaut of modern sportswear. In the first few years of its existence, the company was known as Blue Ribbon. To raise enough capital to order stock, it was necessary to apply for a line of credit at the bank.
However, as the demand for Blue Ribbon shoes grew, Phil recognised the need to ensure the growth continued. “Grow or die”, he declares many times throughout the book. Only one problem. To place larger and larger orders from suppliers, Blue Ribbon was going further and further into its line of credit. Most of the revenue Blue Ribbon was bringing in was being put straight back into paying off the bank loan that bought the stock. Phil would waltz back into the bank and ask for a larger loan than the previous. Eventually, the bank grew wary of this growth and concerned by his lack of equity.
Equity is defined as the company’s total assets minus its total liabilities. In plain words, equity translates to cold hard cash sitting in the bank. As I tuned into the pre-match broadcast for Tottenham Hotspur vs Chelsea, seeing Callum Hudson-Odoi absent from the squad and Olivier Giroud on the bench, one word kept rattling around in my mind. Equity. Or lack thereof.
Equal, but not fair?
After Frank Lampard’s first Premier League game as Chelsea manager, he responded to criticism over picking Mason Mount and Tammy Abraham by saying “With regards to the squad and picking experienced or inexperienced teams, I completely pick the best team to win the game regardless of age, it’s very important to have a competitive team.” With this in mind, you would have been forgiven for thinking Giroud and Hudson-Odoi would be in contention to start the derby against Mourinho’s Spurs, but that depends on your perception of how this Chelsea squad is selected.
Lampard is quoted multiple times insisting that players will be selected based on merit. However, I would contest the notion that this squad in its current form is a meritocracy. You could argue that last season this was how Lampard operated. Meritocracy allowed Tammy Abraham to stake his claim for Chelsea number 9 competing with two internationally capped strikers in Michy Batshuayi and, World Cup winner, Giroud. Mount, Reece James and Fikayo Tomori, also broke into the Chelsea squad and benefitted from this environment. However, it seems that inconsistent form and the pressure of reaching top four forced Lampard into a new system of balance and equity.
When Christian Pulisic did not feature consistently in the early portion of the 2019/20 season, there were grumblings from across the pond over Mason Mount being played ahead of him. This certainly agrees with the concept of a meritocracy, as the early performances of Mount, with his tireless pressing earned him his place in the side. Fast forward to after the lockdown, where Pulisic’s performances meant he had bulldozed his way into the reckoning.
In other words, he had built up considerable equity for the upcoming season. This meant that he was a player high in both Lampard’s and the fans’ estimation. For pundits and fans alike, alongside all the glittering new signings, Pulisic was now considered part of Chelsea’s best line-up. This is why, despite not featuring in almost a month, he was considered to have more equity in the bank than Hudson-Odoi. Considering Pulisic only just returned from injury, were this a true meritocracy, after his midweek performance, Hudson-Odoi would probably have made the squad.
Whatever the method of managing the squad it is important to find a balance. Whilst it seems like Chelsea have found a semblance of balance on the pitch, retaining harmony among the squad is just as important. During Sarri’s first season in charge, he religiously followed the advice of Pep Guardiola, ‘focus on 14 core players.’ This strategy can have merit in possession-oriented teams with automatisms. Repetition is key. However, it can have the effect of creating a team environment with little to no competition. This is in contrast to Lampard’s first season where the first team line-up was in constant flux. Whilst it is important to have a core group of starting players, the back-ups are just as important. There are many examples of Chelsea’s fringe or back-up players having key contributions.
Think back to Michy Batshuayi’s late winner at the Hawthorns to secure the title in 2016/17 or, even more recently, Giroud’s post lockdown efforts carrying Chelsea to the promised land of Champions League football. Whilst having a star-studded cast of players to choose from is any manager’s dream, it also comes with the added burden of keeping all of these players happy. So, Lampard must find the balance, it seems he has abandoned his meritocracy in favour of this equity system. Being a hard worker, performing in training, contributing goals & assists in key matches and suitability to the system gives you equity with Frank Lampard. Whilst it is evident that some players don’t get as many opportunities to build up equity as others, this is a far cry from the rigidity of Sarri’s favoured 14.
From the perspective of the manager, the team comes first, but what about the player? From Hudson-Odoi’s perspective, he has done very well to fight his way back from a significant injury and is now starting to look like the player that burst onto the scene in 2018. I recall watching a youth game at Stamford Bridge and Hudson-Odoi stood out immediately. Knowing the club’s history with youth, I didn’t let myself have high expectations of his progression to the first team, but his performance against Hector Bellerin in the August 2018 pre-season friendly gave me that dangerous feeling to a football fan. Hope.
Hudson-Odoi is still only 20 years old, you could argue he is young and has time to work his way into the Chelsea squad. Unfortunately, to quote Phil Knight, for the sake of his career, Hudson-Odoi must “grow or die”. The principal reason why any youth player is promoted into the first team is that their development alongside their talent has exceeded the standard of youth team football. Thus, they must be thrust into the deep ocean of first team football to answer the proverbial question – Sink or swim? Hudson-Odoi passed this test and rather than looking out of place in the first team, began to look like the better option.
No one but Maurizio Sarri can say for sure whether it was the interest from Bayern, the pressure from fans or simply the performances of Hudson-Odoi that helped him overcome his aversion to playing young players. To continue his growth from exciting young prospect Hudson-Odoi needs minutes. What is becoming increasingly obvious is that to secure a place in this competitive Chelsea squad, Callum must perform at a level where he is no longer knocking on the door but grabbing a sledgehammer and battering it to smithereens. With the equity Pulisic has built up in Lampard’s eyes, and the wizardry of Hakim Ziyech enough to fill a vault in Gringotts, this seems like the only option. If the door won’t acquiesce to the sledgehammer it may be time to consider his options.
It was evident to me that against Spurs, Chelsea’s attacks were focused on the right-hand side and, all in all, it was far too comfortable an evening for Serge Aurier. With everyone expecting Spurs to sit back and look to counter, this would have been a great opportunity for Hudson-Odoi to consistently receive the ball in advanced positions and look to create. Aside from a few excursions forward from Ben Chilwell, Chelsea didn’t take Aurier to the byline. Everything was in front of him. The guile and trickery to evade Aurier’s attentions is not Werner’s strength. A duo as potent as Reece James and Ziyech mirrored on Chelsea’s left flank may have opened up more space. Anyone who has watched The Blues regularly this season will recognise the creative threat from the right-hand side, it is almost as if our right flank creates while Werner and Chilwell are there to finish.
The stats against Spurs reflect this, with 15% of shot’s taken from the left side of the pitch, and only 8% coming from the right. Chelsea also attacked primarily down the right, with 38% of attacks down this side, compared to 33% down the left and 30% through the middle. (whoscored) It felt a little predictable. Nonetheless, replace Tammy Abraham with Giroud and it is conceivable Chelsea take 3 points at the bridge, this was a game made for Giroud, with Spurs sitting in a deep block, the pressing game that he lacks the mobility for would not have been as much of a factor. I am of the belief the wily Giroud would have had too much in his locker for the debutant Rodon.
Marcos Alonso and Fikayo Tomori, are among the list of those who have found their minutes limited this season. I am no fan of Marcos Alonso, but seeing Chilwell go down clutching his ankle forced me to consider a reality where he is out for an extended period of time. How would Alonso fare, after not playing for weeks, or Emerson who has only played 8 minutes in the Premier League this season? In the case of Fikayo Tomori, it seems the mistakes he made last year were enough to wipe out the equity he had built up early last season. It would appear Antonio Rudiger’s purported personality, leadership and height advantage are worth more to Lampard than Tomori’s pace and potential.
At the time of writing, Chelsea sit third in the Premier League, two points off the top of the league, key players are in form and it seems like there is a settled first eleven. These are all positives. Yet, with Pulisic fit again, the busy Christmas period approaching and Giroud angling for a move in January, the balancing act begins. Frank Lampard must balance the books at Chelsea. With the team Roman Abramovich has bankrolled, expectations are high and I don’t have to tell you that with the Bank of Abramovich, only cold hard silverware buys you equity.