The taste of defeat is never sweet, but Chelsea’s FA Cup Final loss was particularly bitter.
Frank Lampard’s men met London rivals Arsenal at Wembley Stadium, their third final in four years against the Gunners. It was an impressive feat for both Lampard and his opposite number Mikel Arteta, reaching the FA Cup Final in their first seasons in charge.
Chelsea were off to the perfect start inside five minutes, thanks to a nicely worked team move finished off by Christian Pulisic. Another superb combination between Pulisic and Olivier Giroud, as the American’s ninth goal contribution since the restart drew first blood for the Blues.
They were in complete control in the opening quarter of the game, pressing Arsenal and forcing errors. Chelsea were playing energetic and exciting football, worthy of winning a ninth FA Cup in half a century. That calibre of performance was what got them to the final in the first place, sending echoes of the semi-final win against Manchester United.
But from that moment, everything went downhill for Chelsea.
It started with César Azpilicueta – so often the consistent captain – conceding a penalty. He had no chance of keeping up with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, pulling him down inside the box and earning a yellow card. Aubameyang duly dispatched past a helpless Willy Caballero, levelling up a game the Blues were deservedly leading.
Minutes later, Azpilicueta pulled up unchallenged with a serious hamstring injury. For a man who had not been injured since 2011 in his Marseille days, it was a rare and concerning sight. Without the Spaniard binding the defence together, there was an evident lack of defensive shape and present leadership.
Pulisic’s injury was the second big blow, and arguably the biggest of them all. The grimace on his face as he felt his hamstring give way is a painful image, one which sums up Lampard’s day. While Azpilicueta influenced the Blues’ stability at the back, the loss of Pulisic was a damaging loss of creativity, which eventually cost them.
The unjust dismissal of Mateo Kovačić was the final nail in the coffin, just six minutes after Aubameyang had given Arsenal the lead. It was never a second booking for the Croatian, but ultimately one which killed the game and ruined any chance Chelsea had of getting back into the affair.
Controversial and poor decisions all afternoon from referee Anthony Taylor. A contentious call of whether Emiliano Martínez handled the ball outside the box. Pedro – who had come on for the injured Pulisic – dislocating his shoulder and going off injured, in what was likely his final appearance for Chelsea.
Everything that could have gone wrong did.
Every one of those setbacks clearly impacted the game and Chelsea’s display, but at the end of the day, the performance was not good enough. After dominating the opening quarter, Lampard’s side came completely undone. Nothing was the same: the drive, the desire, the organisation. The Blues were clearly stunned, in every way possible.
Losing arguably their three most important players had a costly psychological effect, leaving gaping holes across the pitch. Azpilicueta at the back, Kovačić in the middle and Pulisic up top, each individually brought something significant to the side. But without the trio, the Blues were not the same.
Chelsea were beaten in cruel, devastating fashion, but as the dust begins to settle on Wembley way, it is time to reflect.
There is a lot to learn from the Wembley defeat, in what has been a gruelling domestic campaign, starting with humiliation at Old Trafford and ending with heartbreak in north-west London. Everyone wanted to win the FA Cup, marking the 50th anniversary of their first in style, but it clearly was not meant to be.
To even reach the FA Cup Final is an achievement on its own. With a new, inexperienced manager, slapped with a transfer ban and losing their best player in Eden Hazard, Chelsea deserve praise for being able to walk out at Wembley. Making it to the final always warrants credit, none more so than Frank Lampard’s Chelsea.
It is key to put it into context: if this Chelsea team can finish fourth and reach the FA Cup Final, what can they achieve next season? Despite all the extenuating circumstances – not to mention a global pandemic – the Blues massively exceeded expectations, showing that they mean business going into the 2020/21 campaign.
This is just the start of Lampard’s managerial legacy, and a great sign of what is to come. The additions of Timo Werner and Hakim Ziyech will be welcomed, with Bayer Leverkusen’s Kai Havertz potentially joining too. Chelsea have the time and money to further strengthen their squad, with defensive reinforcements desperately needed.
Losing the FA Cup Final is painful, but the bitter taste of defeat will make Chelsea even more determined for success. We have seen just a glimpse of what this team is capable of, in the first chapter of the club’s new era.
For Frank Lampard’s Chelsea, the best is yet to come.