Much has been made of Chelsea’s defensive deficiencies this season, and with 39 goals conceded in just 29 league games, it is easy to see why. Gone are the days of our legendary defensive steel, with the 2004/05 season – where Chelsea only conceded 15 goals across the whole league campaign – a distant memory. Lots of names have been linked (some more tenuous than others) with a move to Stamford Bridge this summer as Lampard looks to shore up his shaky defence. The list of rumoured interests includes: Nathan Ake, Gabriel Magalhaes, Samuel Umtiti and amazingly David Alaba (supposedly looking for a new adventure after a decade in Bavaria). At first glance this seems an odd assortment of centre backs of varying levels of prestige and from different leagues across Europe, but look closer and there’s a defining trait that links them: they are all left footed! So why is it that a left footed centre back is seemingly so vital to the way Lampard wants his Chelsea side to play in the future? To answer this question we have to discuss the man who changed the expectations for defenders across the league.
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Like it or not, Pep Guardiola has helped usher in a new style of play to England’s top tier. Since his arrival in Manchester in 2016, the way most sides have played has begun to change. Slowly but surely the days of goalkeepers hoofing it long to a big centre forward are dying, with 31% of goal kicks being played short this season compared to 22% the season before Pep’s arrival in the Premier League. His system of playing out from the back that he has implemented at Manchester City has been groundbreaking, and fellow progressive managers Pochettino and Klopp quickly adopted similar approaches. The style of play has rapidly grown in popularity as rival teams have seen the success that City have achieved with it, and now even relegation strugglers such as Norwich and Brighton have adopted it. The former is set to become the first side to average over 50% of possession whilst finishing bottom of the league, emphasising their desire to keep hold of the ball rather than counter-attacking, while Brighton’s Mat Ryan has taken the most goal-kicks ending inside his own box (107 out of 200) out of all of the league’s keepers, highlighting the Seagull’s commitment to building their play from the back. These are teams who have been persuaded to switch from a more traditional struggling side’s style (stereotypically, this is playing on the back foot, clearing the ball long rather than passing it out, and waiting for set pieces to secure goals) to follow the new vogue way of playing.
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Chelsea’s new manager has also taken to this style of play, asking his centre backs to be available to progress the ball whenever possible with quick, short passes around the opposition press or by playing the ball accurately over the press to unmarked teammates. Zouma, Rudiger, Tomori and Azpilicueta all average well over 60 passes a game in the league this season, evidence of the task they have been set by the manager. Chelsea’s philosophy of building up from the back is further evidenced by attempted long balls making up just 9% of the side’s total passes, above only Manchester City’s 6.7% out of all the league’s teams, as we look to patiently pass our way up the pitch as opposed to looking for an outball. This is opposed to the previously tried and trusted method of defenders clearing the ball up the pitch and hoping that their target man receives it, or that a teammate wins the second ball. For a good chunk of the Premier League’s history so far the function of a defender was simply to win possession, whereas now they are being asked to distribute the ball smartly as well. Unfortunately, as with every system, there is a fundamental problem with playing out from the back. With opposition teams pressing more intensely than ever (we have Jurgen Klopp’s ‘gegenpress’ to thank for this) centre backs are more prone to losing possession in key areas of the pitch whilst taking time to pick a smart pass than if they were to quickly clear the ball long. So, with the increased pace of modern attackers and their newfound eagerness to press, it is crucial that a centre back is comfortable picking passes and therefore it is extremely helpful if they play on their stronger side. If played on their weaker side (i.e. a right footer as a left sided centre back) the angle is often against them when playing out and they are forced to pass with their weaker foot, making accurate long balls over the first line of opposition press extremely difficult, as well as increasing the likelihood of an inaccurate pass that misses its intended target. This has made left footed centre backs a hugely valuable commodity as they can fill the left sided slot naturally.
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Left footed centre backs are of growing importance defensively too, due to the ever increasing number of inverted wingers in European football. These are wide men playing on the side opposite to which they naturally would, allowing them to cut inside the centre back and shoot (think Arjen Robben in his pomp or more recently Riyhad Mahrez). A centre back relies heavily on instinct when defending against quicker opponents, and a right footed, left sided centre back will regularly have to twist and turn to their weaker side in order to stop their opponent, with the split-second of hesitation in doing something so unnatural giving the winger the time needed to beat them. Additionally, if a winger is running down the line then said centre back will have to attempt to block a potential cross or tackle his opponent with his weaker foot, leading invariably to the attacker getting the upper hand.
You may wonder after reading all of this how John Terry managed to play as one of the outstanding central defenders of his generation when he frequently occupied the left hand side of central defence. One reason for this is that Terry played most of his career in the pre-Guardiola era when teams were not expected to build from the back, and another is that he constantly worked on his weaker left foot in order to play as strongly as possible in an unnatural position. It must also be noted that some of the best central defenders in the world right now, such as Virgil van Dijk and Sergio Ramos, play in the left-sided central defender slot even though they are both right-footed players, so having a left-footed player play there is not an essential prerequisite. In fact, due to the relatively small number of high quality left-footed centre backs currently playing (most of whom have been linked to Chelsea), playing two right-footed centre backs is often unavoidable. If these players are well practised at playing the ball out under pressure on their weak foot, then there is no reason why they cannot reach a high level on the left hand side of a centre back duo. However, it is clear that Lampard does not completely trust any of his current centre backs (who are all right-footed) to play on the left hand side and so it seems he is in the market for a left-footed centre back.
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Whilst Pep Guardiola frequently coaches tall central midfielders already extremely capable with the ball at their feet (in the ilk of Martinez and Rodri) to play in defence in order to facilitate his playing out from the back system, Lampard will most likely look for a left footed centre back this summer in order to play his own brand of football. Ake has a £40 million buy-back clause in his contract and looks capable when it comes to distributing the ball, but his 2.3 tackles and interceptions per game whilst at a Bournemouth team constantly on the back foot doesn’t make for impressive reading: for comparison teammate Chris Mepham averages 3.1 in the same metric and Norwich counterpart Grant Hanley stands at 3.7. Gabriel (valued at around £30 million) averages an impressive 3.7 accurate long balls per game, as he bypasses the opposition press effectively, but he is much more of an unknown quantity and has no Premier League experience. Whilst Alaba and Umtiti would both be upgrades on our current central defensive options, with the former making a huge average of 87 passes every game (10 more than the most of any Chelsea player this season, Tomori has 77), they are both highly unlikely to come in the summer. So who will be Lampard’s much sought after left footed centre back? Pep has arguably the best in the world with Laporte and we have seen this season just how vulnerable City are without him. If Lampard can find someone with Laporte’s skill set then Chelsea will be a much stronger side next season and our build up play could be frightening for any opposition team. Whoever is brought in (even if that is no one), Lampard will likely be drilling his centre backs on their left foot in training so, like Terry, they can be confident distributing with it. 2020/21 could be the start of something special for Chelsea, and if all goes well we could look back and thank Guardiola for proving the inspiration behind our style of play.
Photo credit: Bleacher Report
Written by Daniel New