The banner draped over the top tier of the Shed End served as a reminder that it will be a long time before Chelsea’s fans give up on Frank Lampard. Although results have been poor, they remain behind one of the finest players in their club’s history. The message, delivered at a social distance, was emphatic: “In Frank We Trust. Then. Now. Forever”.
Whether it is enough to alter the thinking of Chelsea’s board remains to be seen. Sentimentality is unlikely to be a factor if this underperforming side continues to eat away at the goodwill. Lampard’s legendary status will drift into irrelevance if results remain poor and although Chelsea ended a tough week on a positive note by reaching the fifth round of the FA Cup, they were unconvincing at times, mixing bursts of quality in attack with mis-steps at the back.
The positives for Lampard began with Tammy Abraham scoring a hat-trick to subdue Luton Town and combining well with Timo Werner. Hakim Ziyech, Billy Gilmour and Mason Mount all caught the eye, offering creativity and intensity. Over the course of 90 minutes, though, Chelsea remained too inconsistent. They lost concentration at 2-0 up, gifting Luton a way back when Kepa Arrizabalaga a soft goal, and there was disappointment for Werner when he wasted a chance to lift his confidence, spurning a late penalty.
“Expectations are that we go through,” Lampard said. “But we had to get it right. Tammy gets three goals, which is great for him and us. We had a lot of threats in our play. The players need to continue with that attitude and level of performance. With Timo, I’m disappointed for him. He gave a lot to the performance.”
For all the talk of Chelsea’s players having to fighting for the cause after a dismal run of form, slight tactical tweaks made a difference. After suggesting that desire would matter more than the system, Lampard did alter his approach, switching to something close to a 4-4-2 formation, with Werner buzzing around Abraham up front.
The switch gave Werner more room, leading to Chelsea’s breakthrough in the 10th minute. The snowy conditions did nothing to slow them down and Luton were already showing signs of strain before Werner, released down the right by Ziyech, produced a clever cutback for Abraham to stroke a composed finish beyond Simon Sluga, Luton’s goalkeeper. Although the visitors protested, arguing that there were two balls on the pitch at the start of the move, the goal was not against the run of play.
Chelsea, who will visit Barnsley in the next round, were dominant. Gilmour, who surely deserves a chance in the league, was smart and feisty alongside Mount in central midfield. The youngster’s blend of hunger in the tackle and artistry in possession impressed, while Mount offered his usual energy, underlining his importance to Lampard after being handed the captain’s armband.
It was not long before Chelsea, who host Wolves in the league on Wednesday, pulled clear. Reece James found space on the right before chipping a ball into the middle. The quality of the cross was such that Abraham only needed to add a subtle touch to skim a header over Sluga.
Yet there was still a fragility to Chelsea. While Lampard was louder on the touchline than usual, defensive flaws lingered. There was a laxness at the back, a lack of organisation summed up by Abraham belatedly charging back after failing to remember that he was required to help out when Harry Cornick hurled a long throw into the area.
Then there was Arrizabalaga. Filling in for Édouard Mendy, the Spanish goalkeeper had a nervy moment with his distribution early on and was at fault when Luton scored after 30 minutes. Jordan Clark met James Bree’s cross and although Arrizabalaga was slightly unsighted by Kurt Zouma, his attempt at a save was weak.
The goal changed the mood, lifting Luton. The Championship side almost equalised when James sold himself on the hour, allowing Dan Potts to break. The ball reached Cornick but Arrizabalaga redeemed himself, saving at his near post.
Sluga saved from Christian Pulisic at the other end and Luton ended up regretting Cornick’s miss when Callum Hudson-Odoi, introduced in the 70th minute, played a one-two with Gilmour before providing Abraham with a tap-in.
A goal crafted in the academy eased the nerves and it should have been 4-1 when Werner won a penalty. Yet the German aimed his spot-kick too close to Sluga, reminding Lampard of the work that needs to be done.