Chelsea’s players crowd together on the Olympic Stadium pitch in Baku. The mood is one of jubilation; Arsenal have just been dispatched 4-1 in the 2019 Europa League final. A few metres away from the celebrations, Eden Hazard conducts a post-match interview. It’s an important one.
“I think it’s a goodbye,” the Belgian told BT Sport. “My dream was to play in the Premier League and I’ve done this for seven years at one of the biggest clubs in the world. So now maybe it’s time for a new challenge.”
Hazard would get his wish in the weeks that followed. A move worth £130million was struck with Real Madrid, the transfer was another dream fulfilled for the Belgian. Yet it proved a subplot of a transformative summer for Chelsea, one that would set the Blues on the path to Champions League glory and further success under Thomas Tuchel.
Not much of what followed was by design, however. There were several forks in the road along the way. Chelsea were simply fortunate to take the right path almost every time.
Hazard’s departure from Chelsea that summer wasn’t the only big one. Head coach Maurizio Sarri, a divisive figure, also opted to walk away from Stamford Bridge and take charge of Juventus, who he would lead to the Scudetto during his sole season in charge.
Make no mistake, the Chelsea job was not hugely appealing at this point to many top-level coaches. Hazard had gone, the squad was ageing, and new signings couldn’t be made that summer as the Blues had to serve a transfer ban.
And so Chelsea turned to Frank Lampard, a club legend with just one year’s managerial experience under his belt. It was a huge gamble.
“It’s clear playing 13 years at the club helped me get the job, but also in my own way I think I deserve it for the years I put in as a player,” Lampard stated at his unveiling. “I’ve taken things on board and I know the club and I’m going to absolutely do my best to do well so I think in that situation I understand the pitfalls.
That summer was one of evolution for Chelsea. It had to be. Lampard changed the face of the squad by incorporating several of the club’s own: Mason Mount, Reece James, Tammy Abraham and Fikayo Tomori. Christian Pulisic also joined up with the Blues having signed from Borussia Dortmund the previous January.
There were two big departures, club stalwarts Lampard could’ve kept around. Still, the decision was taken for Gary Cahill and David Luiz, two former teammates of Lampard, to move on. Davide Zappacosta and Tiemoue Bakayoko, big-money signings of the past, were also loaned out.
These are the decisions that are often forgotten when reflecting on Lampard’s period as head coach at Stamford Bridge. He could have gone with the tried and trusted, he wasn’t forced to turn to youth. It was a conscious decision and one that resulted in a fourth-place finish in the Premier League.
It was the same in the summer of 2020. Again, Lampard let important figures depart. Willian joined Arsenal on a free transfer, Pedro opted to head to Roma. Bakayoko, Zappacosta, and Michy Batshuayi were again loaned out.
With the money from Hazard’s sale not spent and Atletico Madrid paying £50.4million for Alvaro Morata, Chelsea undertook an incredible recruitment drive. The Covid-19 impacted transfer market was very much a buyer’s one.
In came Timo Werner (24 years old), Hakim Ziyech (27), Ben Chilwell (23), Kai Havertz (21) and Edouard Mendy (28). Thiago Silva also joined on a free transfer; the Brazilian was an outlier given he was just weeks away from his 36th birthday when he arrived at Stamford Bridge.
Chelsea started last season well, only for the side’s form to collapse in December. By the end of January, Lampard was gone. The Blues considered several coaches to replace the club legend, including Ralf Rangnick. Yet they eventually settled on Tuchel, a choice that paid off in a fashion few imagined.
Victory in the Champions League final over Man City in May came two years to the day of the Europa League final win. Only 11 players were involved in both finals, a sign of the dramatic squad overhaul at Chelsea. Further changes occurred this summer as Chelsea fashioned a squad capable of challenging for the Premier League title.
As mentioned above, there was no long-term plan that got the Blues to this point. Luck has played a huge role.
If Chelsea don’t serve their transfer ban in 2019, perhaps the Blues spend big to back Lampard and the likes of Mount, James and others don’t get their chance. That in turn means the club don’t have the cash reserves the following summer during the pandemic to fund the signings of Havertz, Werner and more.
What if Tuchel wasn’t turned to and instead another coach was recruited? What if Lampard wasn’t sacked at all or hired in the first place, where would Chelsea be now?
It is, of course, impossible to answer any of these questions. The only thing that we can be sure of is that night in Baku put Chelsea back on the path to the top of European football.