The appointment of club legend Frank Lampard to the Chelsea managerial role back in July 2019 was seen as the turning over of a new leaf by the high flying London club. After years of spending big on both the playing staff and the manager’s role, Chelsea needed to change their ways.
Club owner Roman Abramovich had indicated that he wasn’t prepared to keep spending quite as freely on the club, given that he couldn’t compete with the petro-dollars flowing into Manchester City. Long time star man Eden Hazard was sold to Real Madrid. A transfer ban exacerbated the shift within the club. With no chance of new signings, the club made a change to its managerial hiring philosophy: instead of bringing in the biggest name with the shiniest resume (who would surely expect to have money to spend), they moved to hire Lampard – armed with a single season of Championship experience – from Derby County.
In his first season in the Stamford Bridge dugout, Lampard led Chelsea to a commendable 4th position. He made great use of the club’s extensive loan system, giving plenty of opportunities to the likes of Tammy Abraham, Fikayo Tomori, Christian Pulisic, Billy Gilmour, Reece James, Kurt Zouma, and Mason Mount. If not for long term injuries he surely would have given Callum Hudson-Odoi and Ruben Loftus-Cheek their chances, as well.
With the transfer ban lifted, for the first time in his young managerial career, Lampard had money to spend; and spend he did. Chelsea doled out a hair under $300 million on Kai Havertz, Timo Werner, Ben Chilwell, Hakim Ziyech, and Edouard Mendy, with a pair of centre backs (veteran Thiago Silva and youngster Malang Sarr) on free transfers thrown in for good measure. All of a sudden, Lampard was for the first time as a manager dealing with another factor: pressure.
Expectations were understandably high with Chelsea importing so much ready-made talent on top of their young upstarts. It’s fair to say that things haven’t gone to plan so far. Thanks to a healthy goal difference, Chelsea sit in 5th though in a compacted top half of the table they’re level on points with 10th place West Ham – both 8th place Manchester City 7th place Tottenham and 6th place Aston Villa have games in hand. Chelsea’s recent form has been somewhat less than ideal, with points dropped to Villa, lowly Arsenal, Wolves, and Everton in the last month alone.
So what’s going wrong in South London? How much is Lampard’s fault? What can the gaffer change?
With so many big money arrivals, Lampard was always going to have to perform a delicate balancing act to integrate his new talent without alienating those that performed so well for him last campaign. Let’s start with a positive: Ziyech has been an unqualified success, injuries aside. Chelsea have four wins and a draw from the five Premier League games in which the Moroccan has started. Since his latest injury against Leeds back at the start of December, Chelsea have taken a mere four points of a possible 18, whilst also drawing in the Champions League to unfancied Krasnodar.
Whilst Ziyech has hit the ground running, it’s fair to say Lampard’s other attacking imports have struggled. There is of course the built-in excuse of players needing time to settle in a new country and a league that is considerably quicker and more physical than any other major European league.
The factors that contribute to a players ‘bedding in’ are complicated: what climate has the player come from; do they speak the language; are they naturally adaptable; are they getting a good run at their preferred position etc and so on. That last point – is the player getting game time in their preferred role – is the factor most in control of the manager, and it’s an area that Lampard is failing in so far this season.
Chelsea’s most celebrated signings were Werner, the speedy striker from RB Leipzig, and the Bayer Leverkusen midfielder Havertz, who if you squint a touch plays a little like a young Lampard. Unfortunately, neither have been used as expected. Teaching a player like Havertz how and when to make late, goal scoring runs into the box (essentially how to be like Lampard the player) would seem like the perfect situation for Lampard the coach, yet in their current system Chelsea don’t really play with a ‘Lampard’. Rather, the young German is being used – alongside Mount – almost as wingers, playing close to the actual wingers.
Throw in that Lampard loves for his full back to attack at every opportunity, and that’s an awful lot of wide men. The consequence of this unusual tactic is two-fold: the space that is supposed to be there for an overlapping full back is filled with extra players; and the space that is created in the middle of the attacking third has nobody to run into it, thus rendering it useless. If the inevitable cross is defended away, by dint of having their central midfielders drift wide, Chelsea aren’t able to recycle the ball and in turn open themselves up to the counter attack.
The focus on wide play doesn’t at all suit Werner, who has made his name on sneaky runs in behind the defensive line. He’s not a small player, by any means, but he’s not all that adept in the air, either – he’s simply not suited to being a target man. In response to that, Lampard has shunted Werner out to the left wing, where he hasn’t exactly shone. The German has started 15 of Chelsea’s 16 games so far but 12 of those starts have come as a wide man. In theory this isn’t a bad thing: Werner’s speed and trickery should be able to see him beat many a full back, and with a big central striker to play off, Werner should be able to feed off of the second ball.
He’s so far looked like a central striker playing out of position, though – unsure when to attack and when to hold, unable to resist drifting inside. Lampard’s stubborn refusal to do anything about that doesn’t reflect well on the manager. Werner’s seemingly permanent place on the left hand side also blocks the progress of academy product Hudson-Odoi – an actual winger – who must be wondering what he has to do to get a regular run out.
Lampard’s get-it-wide- tactics have seen a renaissance from veteran Frenchman Olivier Giroud. The very handsome man and his ‘meaty French forehead’ (shout out to Ian Darke) is now 34 years old. After serving as a prolific super-sub last season, Lampard’s change in tactics has seen Giroud thrive to the tune of nine goals across 15 starts in all competitions. Though Giroud’s Indian Summer is a great story, it’s clearly impeded Werner’s acclimatisation.
It’s also slowed the progress of last season’s top scorer Tammy Abraham. When called upon the youngster has been prolific with 6 goals in 14 appearances – mostly as a substitute – in the league. At this rate, he’ll come close to last season’s 35 appearances, but given he started most of those games he won’t nearly approach the same number of minutes on the pitch. It’s a testament to Abraham that he should come close to last season’s goal tally. Still, with Werner likely to get the nod as the quick centre forward ahead of him, will Abraham begin to cast his eye elsewhere?
The same question could be asked of the young centre back Tomori. A revelation last campaign, he’s seen a measly 45 minutes of Premier League action so far this season and has reportedly made it known that he wants out in the current transfer window. Whilst Zouma and Thiago have made an inarguable case as the preferred centre back pairing, it’s perplexing that Lampard prefers the error prone Andreas Christensen or the inconsistent Antonio Rudiger to the calm and composed beyond his years Tomori. A stat to back Tomori’s case: Chelsea picked up an average of 1.9 points per game with Tomori in the starting XI compared to 1.6 without him. This season they currently stand at 1.61. Play the man, Frank!
Whilst Lampard can perhaps be forgiven for playing Werner out of position given both the system he currently employs and the fact that he’s still to a degree learning about his new player, the same can’t be said of his continual selection of N’Golo Kante to play as a box-to-box midfielder. The Frenchman is as dynamic as anyone in world football when played at the base of midfield. His ball winning ability and seemingly indefatigability (if that’s even a word!) make him a nightmare to play against. Remember, Leicester’s surprise Premier League crown was built around a midfield of Danny Drinkwater with Kante playing either side of him. He’s a very different type of player to Jorginho. The Italian isn’t nearly the defensive force that Kante is, but his calmness on the ball and ability to spot a pass dovetail nicely with his more energetic teammate. Lampard, though, insists on only playing one of the pair at the base of his midfield, forcing the other further up the pitch where neither are suited. Jorginho doesn’t have the pace of physicality to create in the smaller slithers of space in attacking areas and Kante lacks the technique and vision. Certainly neither are going to make regular deep runs into the box to collect a second ball.
The trials and tribulations of the world’s most expensive goalkeeper have been well covered. Kepa’s first campaign in London was frankly very encouraging with the young Spaniard putting in a string of fine performances, though his form since Lampard has taken over has been catastrophic. He was dead last in save percentage last season (backup Willy Caballero was next to last) and his catalogue of errors in the back half of the last and the start of this season finally forced Lampard’s hand, bringing in Mendy from Rennes. To begin with, the move looked a masterstroke, with Mendy proving a much needed calming influence on the back line. Over the past month, however, Mendy appears to have been ‘Chelseafied’. A run of misjudgements – some ultimately harmless, others directly costing his team games – have come to the fore.
What is it that makes keepers lose their confidence under Lampard? Keepers are a different breed and have to be managed as such. It’s a position unlike any other on the pitch – to the point keepers don’t even wear club colours – where priorities are completely muddled in comparison to the rest of the players. A forward can whack one into the top corner and everybody magically forgets their previous misses, poor passes, and blind runs. A keeper can stand on his head for 85 minutes making physics-defying saves, but the moment they throw one into the net it’s all people talk about. In a position where split second decision making makes all the difference, maintaining a keepers confidence is paramount. Lampard’s disturbing habit of constantly blaming his players surely must be having an effect on the decision making of his keepers.
Of course, this is straight out of the manual of his own mentor, Jose Mourinho. What Lampard seems to lack is Mourinho’s ability to create a siege mentality, though. Lampard was one of many that would run through a wall for Jose. Who of this current Chelsea squad would do the same for their current boss?
Lampard has all the tools a manager could hope for. He has talent up and down his list, established veterans and precocious youngsters. It’s up to Lampard to find a way to mesh them all together. So far, the jury remains out.