Frank Lampard is starting to figure out his best Chelsea line-up but there are many new questions for him to ponder in the coming year.
His job this season in merging the elite talent of Timo Werner, Kai Havertz, Hakim Ziyech, Thiago Silva and Ben Chilwell into the XI is starting to show signs of huge promise. Yet as we approach 2021 there will be at least 10 player situations to address, with big decisions to make over transfers for January and next summer.
Some choices will be easier to make than others. For example, goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga and full-back Emerson Palmieri have no long term future in his side and there are plans to find new clubs for both. Then there are the cases of Antonio Rudiger, Jorginho and Olivier Giroud - who all have clubs waiting to find out if they will be available for moves in January.
But more complicated are the circumstances around Callum Hudson-Odoi and Ruben Loftus-Cheek, who were supposed to be poster boys for the club's academy but are going through a rocky patch. And then there is Ross Barkley, who has been loaned out to Aston Villa but has done so well that the club are already starting to wonder if he might fit in after all.
On the transfer front there is the pursuit of Declan Rice to make a decision on too....
THE BIG CALL: GO FOR RICE, OR WAIT FOR BELLINGHAM?
Declan Rice talks to Jude Bellingham as England play Republic of Ireland at Wembley
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Lampard would still love to sign Rice but the valuation from West Ham remains high - and there is another name that is starting to be whispered around Stamford Bridge. If they can't get Rice, sources are indicating there are figures at the club who feel it could be worth waiting for England’s newly-capped wonderboy Jude Bellingham instead.
The Rice transfer will probably make most headlines in the build-up to January as Lampard considers him a perfect addition to the current set-up. The board realise how much the manager admires him, and figures around the club are perfectly aware of Rice’s strengths and personality as he grew up in their youth ranks.
Midfield is Lampard’s area of expertise, obviously, and Rice's ability to read danger, intercept possession and dictate play are all key assets that have him earmarked for a big transfer. Yet there are some questions being asked inside the corridors of power about whether Chelsea truly need the West Ham man right now.
A £70 million price-tag will need negotiating but there are a couple of other key points being considered too before any offer in 2021. One of those is that they already have N’Golo Kante. The 29-year-old French World Cup winner and two-time Premier League champion has recently been the anchor of a midfield three for the Blues, and has played well.
There are some doubts about how long he will remain at the Bridge but there is also a trail of thought that if the side can get through the next 18 months with Kante, it could be worth biding time to make an offer for Dortmund midfielder Bellingham in 2022 instead of Rice.
Chelsea are going to keep close tabs on the player’s development at Signal Iduna Park but are very aware that he is one of the most promising teenage midfield players around. Bellingham had interest from the Premier League before moving to Germany, particularly Manchester United. Chelsea have always monitored him though, and like the fact he can play as a number six or number eight. The Blues have confidence they can convince almost any player in the world to become part of what Lampard is building.
A RETURN FOR ROSS BARKLEY?
Ross Barkley of Aston Villa during the Premier League match between Aston Villa and Southampton
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Then there is the case of Barkley to analyse as he makes a big impact at Villa.
Sources say Lampard has already touched base with the player to let him know just how impressed he has been by early performances, and there could still be a way back for him if the loan spell continues to go well.
There have always been factors of Barkley’s game that Lampard has been fascinated by. However, on the back of Chelsea’s big summer spend he could not guarantee game time for the player and it was decided he would be better off having a full season of Premier League football.
The door will remain open for him to work his way back into the plans - but there are others that will not be so lucky.
THE PLAYERS ON THE WAY OUT
One such player is goalkeeper Kepa, who was identified as a problem by Lampard at the beginning of the year. Since signing Edouard Mendy it has become even more clear that Kepa needs a new club. A loan move in January is almost certain, as it is the easiest way to get around his fee and wages in the short term. They would be happy to let him leave temporarily for this season, then work on a permanent plan for the summer.
Similarly Emerson, who should really have left before this season began, is available and ready for a fresh start. Chelsea are also preparing to field enquiries on three other players who sit on the fringe of the side: Rudiger, Jorginho and Giroud.
Rudiger’s stance is that he would like to leave. He has not played a minute of Premier League action this term and does not feel he is being treated fairly, sources say. There has been interest from previous club Roma about a possible return, though there will be other options on the table too.
Jorginho of Chelsea arrives at the stadium prior to the Premier League match between Chelsea and Sheffield United
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Jorginho has had more of a role this season, though that is beginning to change. He has been a substitute in the past two league matches and has also lost his role as penalty taker. Interest from Juventus has faded but sources say he has other options opening to return to Serie A.
Meanwhile, striker Giroud has played just 70 minutes of football across Chelsea’s 11 Premier League and Champions League matches and talks will take place over his future soon. Inter Milan are expected to table an offer in the January window for him to be reunited with Antonio Conte, and there is a feeling the player will push for the move to go through.
UNCERTAIN FUTURE FOR ACADEMY GRADUATES
Hudson-Odoi and Loftus-Cheek both have work to do over the coming months.
Loftus Cheek has been sent on loan to Fulham to recapture his form and confidence, yet is not in their starting XI at present. It’s a concern but Chelsea will scrutinise his future properly at the end of the season.
Hudson-Odoi has similar pressure to prove himself. Sources say Lampard has no doubts about his quality and class, but has had some concern about the way he applies himself and that has continued into this season. A loan move in January is not out of the question.
Lampard is still growing as a manager - yet he is preparing to make big calls that will impact the Blues for years to come.