WOLVERHAMPTON, England -- Frank Lampard won enough Premier League titles as a Chelsea player -- three in six seasons between 2004 and 2010 -- to know what it takes to emerge at the top of the tree when the silverware is handed out. So maybe he knew what was coming when he spoke about the unique challenges of this pandemic-affected campaign ahead of Tuesday's clash with Wolverhampton Wanderers.
Lampard, now deep into his second season as Chelsea manager, spoke about how the league is "getting tighter," how the majority of opponents have strengthened and that his team has already "lost points we wouldn't usually have done." By losing 2-1 to Wolves at Molineux, when the home side responded to Olivier Giroud's 49th-minute opener by emerging as winners following goals from Daniel Podence and Neto, Chelsea dropped even more points they wouldn't usually have dropped. And to support Lampard's point that the league is getting tighter, Chelsea went from top of the table to fifth in the space of 41 second-half minutes between Giroud's goal and Neto's stoppage-time winner for Nuno Espirito Santo's team.
Wolves are a good team, one that is capable of beating any opponent this season, but Chelsea's downfall in this game, and in others in recent weeks, has not all been a result of the improvements made by the other side. Chelsea are creating their own issues and failing to solve problems that have affected them all season, and that is why they were unable to capitalise on the chance to go top, for one night only, ahead of Liverpool's clash with Tottenham Hotspur on Wednesday.
Lampard's team have basically stopped creating chances. They went 62 minutes without a shot on target during Saturday's defeat at Everton, and Wolves keeper Rui Patricio had nothing to do for the 49 minutes in this game before Giroud scored.
There are mitigating factors, of course, in Chelsea's decreasing goal threat. Christian Pulisic, who played in this game but did little, has been struggling for fitness with a hamstring injury, while Timo Werner and Kai Havertz continue to search for the form that prompted the club to spend a combined £109.6 million on their attacking talents during the summer.
Werner scored 34 goals in 45 games for RB Leipzig last season, but has so far managed just eight in 20 in all competitions so far for Chelsea. His Bundesliga strike rate last season was an average of 0.90 goals every 90 minutes; in the Premier League it is a mere 0.32 every 90 minutes.
It is a similar tale of woe for Havertz, the attacking midfielder signed to great fanfare from Bayer Leverkusen. The Germany international scored 18 goals in 45 games last season, but it is just four in 16 this time around, and his average goals per game in England (0.12 per 90 minutes) are vastly inferior to his stats in the Bundesliga (0.44 per 90).
In truth, neither player yet looks comfortable in the team and in their roles.
Werner, who performed best through the middle with Leipzig, either on his own or as part of a two-man strike force, has been used on the left by Lampard, and he was deployed there again at Molineux. The 24-year-old can play in that position and has done so in the past, but he is making little impact in that role in a Chelsea shirt. Perhaps the increased demand for defensive work is blunting his edge, but his lack of appetite for that element of the game is obvious, and it prompted a second-half dressing down by teammate Thiago Silva when Werner was half-hearted in his attempts to press the Wolves defence.
Havertz, who was substituted on 71 minutes, is clearly a talented player, but the 21-year-old seems to want to play at his own pace, and the Premier League is too unforgiving to allow him the time and space to hurt opponents. He has the skill and silk of a Mesut Ozil or Dimitar Berbatov, but too often Havertz displays their questionable work ethic too.
United States captain Pulisic endured a similarly difficult period of acclimatisation following his arrival from Borussia Dortmund last season and took several months to show signs of his best form, so perhaps Werner and Havertz need to be viewed through the same lens as Pulisic. Lampard, for one, believes that the pair need be afforded patience.
"We've got some new players that have come in and people maybe want to look at the price tag," he said. "But at the same time, some of them are young players that are coming to play in this league for the first time, and that clearly needs a little bit of time."
Lampard makes a valid point, but the manager also knows that time and patience are usually in short supply at Chelsea, certainly under the ownership of Roman Abramovich. Players are expected to hit the ground running and deliver straightaway, and the same can be said of the manager and his team.
Chelsea have too much talent to struggle for too long, but their second-half slide from Premier League leaders to fifth, and outside the Champions League spots, was a sign of how quickly things can go wrong in this league. And the only way that Chelsea can get back on track and sustain hopes of a top-four finish is by getting the best from their expensive new signings.
Sooner or later, Werner and Havertz will have to prove their worth.