BRIGHTON, England -- What did we all realistically expect from Chelsea at the beginning of the season? This was a team with a new manager, one whose previous experience extended to one season in the second tier, where he finished sixth; a team whose best player had departed and they were not allowed to replace him; a team who weren't allowed to sign any players in the summer, in fact; a club whose owner seemed to be losing interest after 16 years of lavish funding.
Even with the ostensibly disappointing 1-1 draw against Brighton on New Year's Day, Chelsea begin 2020 quite firmly in the Champions League places. If you were being harsh, you would say this was par. But any fair judge would say that, in comparison to what we expected in August, they are over-performing.
The trouble with over-performing is that expectations change. Having made it beyond the halfway stage of the season in the top four, it's not much good shrugging and saying, "Well the first half was great, so let's not worry too much about the second." Chelsea are in a good position, better than most expected, but now they have to maintain it.
And as this result emphasised, they almost certainly won't do that if they simply carry on as they have been.
Criticising Chelsea's recent form actually doesn't really qualify as criticism. Given the circumstances, their inconsistency is inevitable. It's a little like pointing out that it was cold in Brighton on Wednesday. But as things stand, Frank Lampard's side are simply too inconsistent to maintain their spot in the top four.
You could write off the draw against Brighton as a relative freak, the result of a sensational strike from Alireza Jahanbakhsh, an overhead kick from a man who hadn't scored a goal in 18 months before this week, the sort of thing it's impossible to legislate for. But if Chelsea had done their jobs properly, then that strike would have been relegated to glorious consolation, the sort of goal the Iran forward would remember but not many others would.
And Lampard recognises that too.
"It was an incredible goal, that's for sure, but I think we deserved it," he said after the game. "In the first half, if we were ruthless, then the game would be out of sight. We had control, we had opportunities ... but we allowed them to feel like they were still in the game."
At about the hour mark, the tally of shots was 14-4 in Chelsea's favour. Throughout the first half they dominated the ball, and they pressed Brighton well so that their attempts to build play from the back looked less like constructive play and more the manifestation of a death wish.
But after Cesar Azpilicueta's opener, turning home when unmarked in the six-yard box in the 10th minute, Chelsea took on the air of a team that just assumed more goals would come. They created a series of chances and half-chances but converted none of them. At one point Tammy Abraham drove into the area with Willian unmarked and in yards of space to his right, but instead of a simple pass to give the Brazilian a clear effort at goal, he took a shot himself that went nowhere. Across the experienced Willian's face spread an exasperated look, as if he could sense what would happen over the following hour or so.
In the end, Chelsea were slightly fortunate to even get a point. Kepa Arrizabalaga, singled out for praise by Lampard after the game, had to make a couple of brilliant saves as Brighton took advantage of a retreating Chelsea in the closing stages, one in particular with his feet from Neal Maupay standing out. Seven of Brighton's 16 shots came after the 80th minute: Chelsea looked tired, perhaps not necessarily in body but certainly in mind.
And clearly this game is not an isolated one.
"The Christmas period summed up our season," said Lampard. "Tottenham was fantastic, at Arsenal we showed great spirit and fight for such a young group, against Southampton we struggled to break them down and today when we should have the mindset to take the opportunities we had in the first half, we didn't. We had two great results over Christmas, but we have a lot of work to do."
Lampard emphasised afterward that the work can be done with the players already in his team, but thoughts will inevitably turn to the transfer window now that Chelsea are permitted to buy again. They need another centre-back, probably another left-back (Azpilicueta filled in yet again, but there were at least three occasions in the second half when a natural left-footer could have taken better advantage of an overlap on the flank), potentially a winger given Willian and Pedro are out of contract in the summer, and a striker to support/augment/replace Abraham.
Normally January is not a time to do significant business, but this is not a normal January. Chelsea potentially have to cram three transfer windows into one: they must catch up from last summer, do all the work they would usually do in January, and with those expiring deals in mind also look forward to next summer -- should the right replacements be available. There is talk of £150 million to spend, which doesn't get you as far as it used to but will augment a clearly talented yet flawed squad nicely.
There's plenty of potential in this Chelsea team. In some respects it's extraordinary that they are as high up the table as they are, but if something doesn't change then they won't be there for long.