“I wouldn’t say I’ve made decisions yet,” Frank Lampard said on Sunday. It gave him two weeks to decide, a fortnight to prepare for the first meaningful examination of his choices.
Lampard's Chelsea beat Reading 4-3 on Sunday. He has a pre-season victory over Barcelona to his name, but August 11's date at Manchester United represents the first judgement day.
He begins in adversity, away from home at top-four rivals, circumstances conspiring against a manager hampered by a transfer ban. Chelsea are minus the sold Eden Hazard, lacking the injured Callum Hudson-Odoi, Ruben Loftus-Cheek and, almost certainly, Antonio Rudiger.
The absentees could yet include the indispensable N’Golo Kante, yet to feature in pre-season because of a knee injury, though Lampard said he is “hopeful” that the Frenchman will be fit.
His first line-up will be instructive. It will also herald a change of direction. Maurizio Sarri’s 4-3-3 is set to be jettisoned, even though it was Derby County’s default shape last season. Lampard has used a midfield diamond and two strikers at times in pre-season, the formation he used in the play-off final, but most often he has opted for 4-2-3-1.
It is a system that promises to suit Chelsea better than Sarri's structure. It also sets up two pivotal decisions. In attack, with Michy Batshuayi looking a distant third in the battle for the striking berth, Olivier Giroud has outscored Tammy Abraham, but the Englishman struck against Barcelona. Giroud's superior hold-up and link-up play ought to earn him the nod, though Abraham's pace makes him the superior counter-attacker.
Behind him, there is a similar situation as the No 10. Ross Barkley was another to find the net against Barcelona. Mason Mount is the top scorer in friendlies. Each has excelled in the warm-up games; indeed both could start in a diamond. Yet if it is a straight choice, Mount may have the advantage: he played for Lampard at Derby and, with his new contract, would signal a change of era and ethos.
On the wings, Willian could be fit, but will scarcely have featured in pre-season matches so the newcomer Christian Pulisic and Pedro should start. In the deeper midfield roles, Jorginho is a certainty, Sarri’s favourite son but the recipient of praise from Lampard.
The manager also hailed Mateo Kovacic for his display against Barcelona, but the Croatian has more common denominators with Jorginho; he cannot replicate Kante’s all-action efforts. Yet with Tiemoue Bakayoko struggling in warm-up games and a failure thus far at Stamford Bridge, Kovacic may have to cover for Kante.
Two of the back five are automatic choices: Kepa Arrizabalaga and Cesar Azpilicueta. It is no secret that Marcos Alonso is a better wing-back than full-back so Emerson Palmieri looks likeliest to start on the left.
In the centre, it is realistically two from three out of David Luiz, Andreas Christensen and Kurt Zouma; Fikayo Tomori, the other loanee to flourish for Lampard’s Derby, looks further down the pecking order.
Chelsea’s reluctance to sell the Zouma to Everton, where he impressed on loan, is telling. Despite difficulties at Reading, he seems to have edged ahead of Christensen. David Luiz, a former teammate of Lampard’s and the most used central defender to date, heads the queue. He and Zouma were paired in the second half at the Madejski Stadium, trialling a potential partnership.
Further friendlies against Red Bull Salzburg and Borussia Monchengladbach could alter Lampard’s thinking but, with two games to go, these look the strongest possible sides for a manager picking from a position of weakness:
4-2-3-1: Arrizabalaga; Azpilicueta, Zouma, David Luiz, Emerson; Kante, Jorginho; Pedro, Mount, Pulisic; Giroud.
4-diamond-2: Arrizabalaga; Azpilicueta, Zouma, David Luiz, Emerson; Jorginho; Kante, Barkley; Mount; Abraham, Giroud.