Yesterday, Frank Lampard was hapless. Outfought, outthought and outplayed by Chris Wilder, our manager looked out of his depth. Chelsea fans must ask serious questions of Lampard after an all-too-familiar defensive collapse at Bramall Lane.
I love Frank Lampard.
He is my favourite Chelsea player of all-time, scoring iconic goals and always giving everything for the club I love. Always classy, never egotistical – he was, and still is, the model football professional.
I was torn by his return to Chelsea as manager.
First, I believed I would live in constant fear of an aggressive break-up, should our performances and form turn sour. Personally, I could not fathom a break with one of our old guard – perhaps the only constant of the Abramovich era. This has been alleviated, to the credit of the board, by evident backing in the transfer market and building the foundations of the management team around the head coach.
Second, I had my personal doubts. Could I – after everything he has done – truly slate Frank Lampard if serious mistakes were revealed in his management? Could anybody?
This fear has been realised, as yesterday’s reverse revealed a lot that has been unsaid about his management.
The first cardinal sin that was unveiled last night was the starting lineup. It epitomised a season of tactical gambling which, despite occasional success, has produced confusion and an alarming lack of identity.
I cannot understand how Lampard believed that Jorginho could cope as defensive midfielder surrounded by two attacking eights, against possibly the most aggressive midfield three in the Premier League.
It appears, from where I stand, that Lampard considered the retaining of a moderately successful formation above the qualities and attributes of his available players.
It appeared as a haphazard attempt to enforce an identity on a side that has lacked one this season.
Lack of Identity
Strip back the ‘bringing in the youth’ narrative, and there are very few distinguishing features of Chelsea’s tactics this season.
Players have been ‘hot’ and ‘cold’, with runs in the starting lineup succeeded by considerable spells out of the reckoning.
Olivier Giroud started the season in the fold, was demoted to third preference by Christmas, and has returned to the starting XI by March. Similar paths can be plotted for Andreas Christensen and Christian Pulisic.
Jorginho has been perhaps the most alarming evidence of this lack of identity. Lampard stressed the importance of the Italian to his style of football on his appointment as vice-captain. He explicitly spoke highly of Jorginho’s ability to ‘break borders’ on the pitch.
Then, after the alarming reverse against Bayern, Lampard abruptly turned away from the nearly ever-present regista and did not give Jorginho a look-in until the injury crisis hit.
After a year of rigidity under Maurizio Sarri, many of us welcomed Frank’s willingness to experiment and adopt a flexible approach.
However, this flexibility of formation and personnel has deprived the side of consistency and identity.
There has been a stark deterioration in Chelsea’s defensive record this season, in stark comparison to the consistency of the last.
Chelsea possessed the third-best defensive record in the league last season, conceding only 39 throughout the entire campaign. This was characterised by a consistent back-line, consisting of David Luiz, Antonio Rüdiger and Andreas Christensen in the back two.
Chelsea have conceded 49 this campaign, comfortably the worst in the top half of the league. This is already ten greater than last season, with three matches still remaining.
It has been evident that defensive communication has been a hugely significant issue this season. This is glaring in the galling errors in defending set plays, from which Chelsea have conceded more than any other side in the league.
I believe that the inconsistency of defensive shapes has been a vital factor for this.
First, Lampard has rotating between four centre halves this campaign: adding Fikayo Tomori and Kurt Zouma in place of David Luiz. Each has played alongside the other in a back two this season, making six different combinations.
Second, this has been further riddled by delving into the back three, adding Cesar Azpilicueta into the central defensive fold. This increases the number of backline combinations to eleven.
I ask myself how any defender can be expected to know their individual role in a constant revolution of defensive set-up.
Contact this with Sheffield United, the standard-bearer of tactical identity in the Premier League this season. Immediately, the role of overlapping centre backs comes to the forefront – and the responsibility of John Egan and the wing-backs in the defensive phase is clear. I promise, I am no Blades expert!
Many associate identity, or brand, of football with creative players. This, however, overlooks the importance of the defence in building play from the back. Chelsea have been devoid of this all season.
Chelsea have perhaps the most talented midfield in the Premier League. Listing out our midfielders would deprive me of a paragraph, such is our strength in depth in the middle!
However, again, this depth has lead to confusion and inconsistency. First, there was the fabled double pivot. Then, Sarri’s midfield three of Kanté-Jorginho-Kovacic made a short-lived return. Then, the defensive pivot in the 3-4-2-1 emerged from the abyss.
Then, the three-man midfield returned, but avoiding the regista-laden base at all costs. Ross Barkley emerged from the darkness in another pauline conversion of faith in him from Lampard. N’golo Kanté was ushered into play in his ‘natural’ holding role.
The conception of the double eight was born.
The questions I ask, yet again, remain the same.
How are the players expected to have any consistency in their role, and build up, if the rate-of-change in the middle is constant?
How is Jorginho, lauded by the manager as a technical regista in December, expected to become the complete physical holding midfielder without any match experience in July?
The conception of identity again comes to the forefront.
Coming to a Head
The match against Sheffield United brought out everything that has been of alarm in a single game.
Unfamiliar personnel, constant shifts of tactics and a galling lack of role-familiarity and communication in the Chelsea ranks were brutally exposed by Chris Wilder’s well-drilled Blades.
The whistle-stop tour of modern tactics continued in-games, with Chelsea travelling between 4-3-3, 3-4-3, 3-4-1-2 and 4-2-4 in the space of forty-five minutes.
The players were to blame as well, of that there is no doubt. It does not matter which shape you play if you cannot get the basics right. Willian was exposed in a one-on-one, the defence were guilty of Sunday-league ball-watching and Kepa yet again came under scrutiny.
However, it is an unfortunate myth that there is nothing to be desired in our tactical management.
I want Frank Lampard to succeed. More than anything since I started supporting the club.
However, the lack of identity and player role-awareness is likely to cost us a place in the Champion’s League next season.
There have been numerous strokes of genius from Frank Lampard this season, of which tactically outsmarting José Mourinho on two occasions is perhaps the most impressive.
Frank Lampard does have that in him.
However, Frank Lampard must have an honest, all-encompassing and genuine reflection of his tactical mistakes this season.
If we are to progress next season, they cannot be repeated.
What do you think of our current demise? Is the manager to blame? Let us know in the comments.