MANCHESTER, England -- What happens when you spend almost £600 million on new players to bolster a squad that won the Champions League less than two years ago? It's not a trick question, but it feels like it whenever you see Chelsea play.
For owners Clearlake Capital and Todd Boehly, their high-profile public face, year one of their Chelsea project has been like a magical illusion gone wrong. Big investment is supposed to lead to a big return, but with the club under their third manager of the season and a bottom-half finish in the Premier League now confirmed, everyone connected with Chelsea has long since given up waiting for a rabbit to pulled out of the hat.
They weren't far wrong, with this being Chelsea's sixteenth loss of the league season and their eighth in 10 games since Frank Lampard was appointed caretaker manager in March. The Chelsea fans still sang Lampard's name at the end, despite yet another defeat, but their backing of the manager hinted at a dissatisfaction at the players.
And when asked whether the players were good enough for Chelsea, Lampard didn't hide his true feelings.
"It's a question you ask a top player at the top level over a period of bad form and it's answered by how they work and prepare. If I'm honest, that's been glaringly short as a collective.
"Coming in during this short period, you can see when a group is training and pushing together, good things come. But at the moment, that momentum is not there. You can see some shortcomings.
"I don't want to throw a blanket because some did well tonight and will get better.
"There is talent in the squad, but this was another reality day today. Look at United's quality up-front, their nous at the back. It is going to take work for us to correct that."
Next Monday will mark the second anniversary of Chelsea's Champions League final win against Manchester City in Porto. Kai Havertz's goal secured the club's second European Cup and Thomas Tuchel's young team looked set for a successful period ahead. But two years on, Tuchel is a distant memory as coach -- Graham Potter has since been and gone, with Lampard holding the fort as caretaker boss until Mauricio Pochettino is confirmed as the new manager.
Roman Abramovich has also gone, with the Russian oligarch forced to sell the club in wake of sanctions imposed by the UK government following Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
The vast majority of the Champions League winning team are still at Stamford Bridge, though. Eight of the players who started in Porto remain at the club, although only Havertz started Thursday's game at Old Trafford.
Fingers have understandably been pointed at the new owners for Chelsea's nosedive this season. Sacking managers and signing too many players have been their biggest mistakes, but when a team goes from being champions of Europe -- and the world -- in 2021 to one that is now 12th in the Premier League in 2023, the players have to shoulder much of the blame.
At Old Trafford, aside from a brief first-half period when they enjoyed the majority of possession, Chelsea were woeful and United could have scored eight, with Bruno Fernandes and Alejandro Garnacho hitting the crossbar and Scott McTominay and Casemiro going close to scoring in the latter stages.
Second-half substitutes Hakim Ziyech and Christian Pulisic performed so half-heartedly it was obvious that they were merely running the clock down on their Chelsea careers before heading for the exit door this summer. It will probably be a stampede of wantaway stars. With such a bloated squad, Chelsea will have to offload as many as ten players to ensure Pochettino can work with a manageable squad.
Lampard will also be moving on, but his leaving present for his successor may have been his team for this game, which saw Chelsea field their youngest-ever starting line-up in the Premier League with an average age of 23 years and 238 days. Their previous record, against Crystal Palace in Nov. 2019, saw them field an average age of 24 years and 88 days. Youngsters such as Carney Chukwuemeka (19), Lewis Hall (18) and Noni Madueke (21) were given a chance to gain experience and prove their worth, alongside three 22-year-olds and two 23-year-olds.
Ultimately, Lampard's team of relative novices was blown away by a United side that sealed Champions League qualification with goals from Casemiro, Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford and a Bruno Fernandes penalty. Joao Felix's late goal for Chelsea might serve as his parting gift following his loan move from Atletico Madrid.
But if there is one positive from Lampard's disastrous caretaker reign it is that Pochettino will know exactly who he can rely on next season, and who he can't.