Two hundred and eleven goals in the blue of Chelsea. Thirteen trophies gathered during his playing career at Stamford Bridge. One European Cup won as captain of London’s finest. Countless memorable displays. Frank Lampard is not so much a part of Chelsea, as he is Chelsea itself. It is beyond this writer’s understanding that anyone could be calling for the head of our greatest ever player after all he has given this club. But putting sentimentality to one side, in this piece I will try and outline a case for Frank Lampard remaining as manager of Chelsea Football Club, as well as suggesting where and how he can improve his side in the coming weeks.
A glance at the Premier League standings is enough to make any Chelsea fan grimace, the Blues are languishing in 9th place at the time of writing, behind the likes of Aston Villa, Southampton and Everton. But that is not to say that the lowly standing is deserved. Had the likes of Timo Werner been more clinical in front of goal and Edouard Mendy been available instead of the hapless Kepa Arrizabalaga to keep goal in games against West Brom and Liverpool, the table could have a very different look about it. As it stands, the Blues’ big-money summer signing (hot off a 28-league goal campaign) has failed to find the net in his previous 9 league outings. However, if his 5 efforts on goal which had rattled the woodwork gone in, the German would have been hailed a resounding success and the Blues would be further up the table. Thanks also to Kepa’s inability to do the absolute basics of goalkeeping, Chelsea conceded 5 goals and dropped 5 crucial points in the three aforementioned games. Put simply, Lampard and his team have not had the rub of the green so far this campaign, and to further demonstrate this, Chelsea sit 2nd in the expected points table so far (via Understat). As it stands, the Londoner’s are 6 points and 7 places below where their performances deem them worthy of. It is likely that with time Chelsea will go on a hot-streak and overperform their expected results, balancing out their luck over the course of the season and firing them up the table.
A 3-1 victory over Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds United temporarily put Chelsea top of the table in early December, following a 9-game unbeaten streak in the league. However, those three points came at a hefty price as the majestic Hakim Ziyech succumbed to injury, keeping him out of the next 5 league games, 3 of which Chelsea lost. Before that it seemed Lampard was on to something with his 4-3-3 system, Ziyech being the main beneficiary of the set up. Both full backs were able to bomb forwards, in turn providing space for the wingers to cut in and shoot – or in Ziyech’s case provide left footed deliveries to the back post from the inside-right channel – or feed Reece James or Ben Chilwell on the overlap, who have both provided excellent balls into the box this season. With the loss of Ziyech occurring at the same time as Callum Hudson-Odoi picking up a knock in training, Chelsea were left with only one fit senior winger in Christian Pulisic. As Timo Werner has struggled to adapt his game to the left wing, Lampard’s side lacked any real cohesion in attack, with no width provided outside of the full back duo. The game plan seemed to change to cross and hope, even against Manchester City where all 5-foot-9-inches of Timo Werner were helpless against the comparatively towering duo of Stones and Dias. Crossing may be in vogue at the moment – with Liverpool leading the league this season with 391 attempted so far – but Chelsea need another option in attack for when opponents crowd out box. Slick linkup play and passing patterns will develop as a very young and freshly put together attacking unit gel and get to know each other’s games. When the Blues eventually have a fully fit squad and hit the top form that they showed glimpses of in wins against Burnley and Sheffield United, Lampard’s side will start to play in his image.
Naturally given the busy festive period and the increased frequency of games during this pandemic hit season, many of the squad look jaded and in need of a rest. However, with Lampard’s job on the line he has not been able to afford his key men time to recover which has resulted in their games often looking flat and lacking energy. Perhaps Lampard could afford to rotate more given the quality and depth of squad he has at his disposal. N’Golo Kanté, for example, has been way off his best in appearances against Manchester City and Arsenal – being caught out of position regularly and uncharacteristically careless in possession (see his intercepted blind pass which led to City’s third goal) – and is in need of a rest. Lampard fortunately has the incredibly talented Billy Gilmour ready and raring to go in the Frenchman’s place. Similarly, quality internationals such as Olivier Giroud and Emerson Palmieri as well as talented youngsters in Tino Anjorin and Henry Lawrence are all of sufficient quality to play in the Premier League and could give valuable rest to Timo Werner, Ben Chilwell, Mason Mount (among others) and Reece James, respectively. Utilising the large squad at his disposal is key to Lampard keeping his players fit enough to play his ideal high-energy pressing game as well as ensuring the players on the fringes of the squad are kept happy and do not revolt when the going gets tough (*cough, Marcus Alonso, cough*).
In his first season at the helm, Lampard looked to have a clear idea on how he wanted his Chelsea side to play. The side pressed aggressively and high up the pitch, bringing their defensive line close to the halfway line in order to compact the opposition in their own half. The results of this modern, progressive game plan were mixed, with Chelsea sparkling in attack – achieving the second highest expected goals scored over the course of the season (76) – but a mess in the defensive transition as teams frequently ripped through them on the counter, contributing to the massive 54 goals conceded throughout the campaign. Having strengthened defensively in the summer with the acquisitions of Mendy, Silva and Chilwell, Lampard would have hoped for a thorough preseason in which he could drill his side on the intricacies of his pressing style and how to efficiently switch shape when possession is lost before opponents can fly up the field. However, with the COVID-19 pandemic wreaking havoc on the fixture list, the manager was given limited time to integrate his 6 summer signings into his system. It is difficult to adjust for that number of signings in any normal season but given the circumstances it has proved a trying task. On top of this, regular domestic and European midweek matches have left little to no time for intensive, detailed work on the training ground. Not only are regular starters fatigued from the workload, but the coaches are unable to properly drill their sides and make the improvements necessary to turn form around. The board must stick by Lampard and give him time to work on his sides set up now that the hectic festive period has come to a close.
Lampard cannot blame all his defeats on a lack of luck and a congested fixture list, however. Injuries and profligacy have hindered Chelsea, but a lot of the harm caused this season has been self-inflicted. A worrying trend has emerged recently that I feel is in desperate need of being rectified. In recent games against Arsenal and Manchester City especially, Chelsea’s entire midfield seems to have vanished for most of the game. It is clear that a three-man midfield unit of Mount, Kanté and Kovacic is not good enough when facing top-half opposition. Both Kanté and Kovacic have very little positional discipline, whilst the latter does very little meaningful pressing or defending – his 1.7 tackles and interceptions per league game this season proving that (for context, Kanté stands at 5.2 in the same metric). Lampard needs to address this issue as a matter of urgency. It could be that playing Billy Gilmour as a deep-lying, disciplined number 6 to break up opposition counter-attacks and to set our attacks in motion could be an option. The 19-year-old Scott is a promising talent and superior to Jorginho in most – if not all – aspects of a midfielder’s game. This could see Kanté returning to his position as a ‘free 8’, given license to roam and destroy opposition breaks before they get going. Another alternative could be to deploy a midfield pivot of Kanté and Mount in a 4-2-3-1 to allow Havertz to play in his favoured role as a number 10, however, this would rely on the Frenchman holding back his natural urge to cover every blade of grass and for Havertz to fully commit defensively. Whatever the solution is, it is obvious that this is a major area Lampard has to look into, and one which could hold the key when it comes to changing Chelsea’s sorry record this season against teams in the top 8.
A major worry for owner Roman Abramovich will be the struggles of summer purchases Timo Werner and Kai Havertz. The German duo were bought in for a combined £120 million and were expected to lead Chelsea’s title charge as Liverpool and Manchester City have faltered this term. However, neither has truly replicated the scintillating form that saw them contribute 36 and 18 Bundesliga goals respectively last season. Having broken the bank to bring the pair to west London, Abramovich is well within his rights to question why Lampard has failed to get the best out of them so far. Whilst the usual excuses of struggling to adapt to a new country and a new league are valid (not to mention Havertz was left reeling following his time out with the COVID-19 virus), it seems that Lampard’s system has not been adjusted to facilitate the Germans. Havertz thrives in the final third, playing high risk, high reward football and making late runs in to the box – as was his manager’s trademark back in his day – to finish moves. Therefore, his positioning as a number 8 on the right of a midfield trio will have frustrated him as he spends much of his time tracking back and tackling and less of it contributing to goals as is his strength (his 3 goal contributions from 15 league games is underwhelming for a player of his calibre). Perhaps a move to a number 10 role where he is able to link play and attack without worrying about defending – and giving the ball away deep in his own half as we have become accustomed to – so much could see him rise from his meagre 0.6 shots and 0.7 key passes a game this season to the 2 he managed in each metric last campaign. Similarly Werner has been forced out of his natural position to facilitate Lampard’s use of a 4-3-3, and although he has been getting into dangerous positions (his 6.8 expected goals from 17 league games is respectable), his ball retention and crossing abilities are nowhere near the level of a natural winger. Playing Werner with one of Giroud or Abraham to feed off – as he did with Yussuf Poulson at RB Leipzig – in a front 2 could help the German rediscover his best form. Feeding off knock-downs and running into the space left by centre backs occupying themselves with his strike partner will help him to find his feet in this league. Managers who have been unable to facilitate their star players have not fared well under Abramovich (see Carlo Ancelotti with Fernando Torres and José Mourinho’s first spell with Andriy Shevchenko) and so it is essential Lampard can get Werner and Havertz playing to the best of their abilities.
It is important to remember that when Lampard was appointed he was not expected to deliver immediate success. Hit with a transfer ban, the young manager was unable to make signings to mould the squad to his liking, and perhaps more importantly, he was unable to replace Chelsea’s greatest player of the last decade in Eden Hazard. Scoring 16 goals and laying on another 15 for his teammates, Hazard directly contributed to 49% of Chelsea’s league goals in his final campaign at Stamford Bridge. It is rare to have a side so overwhelmingly dependent on one talismanic figure, and so losing the Belgian was a massive blow to Lampard. The board decided that Champions League qualification was sufficient in Lampard’s first campaign, with his second focussed on showing further improvements before an expected title charge in his third. It is easy to forget the incredible work Lampard has done thus far at Chelsea and it is reasonable to think that he should be given time to enact his philosophy and push for silverware next season as his three year plan comes to a conclusion.
Fans who have been following Chelsea over the past couple of decades will have been refreshed by the idea of owner Roman Abramovich sticking behind an exciting young coach for the long run. The culture of hiring and firing instilled at the club since the Russian Oligarch’s takeover in 2003 may have bought with it 18 trophies (if we stoop to Arsenal’s level by including our brace of Community Shields), but it has left fans yearning for more stability. In the 16 years that preceded Frank Lampard’s appointment, Abramovich ran through 11 managers (twice welcoming José Mourinho and Guus Hiddink) and yet it is difficult to remember any notable academy graduates breaking through and starring regularly for the senior team in that time. Given the immense pressure to deliver success in the short-term, managers were unable to plan ahead and therefore were reluctant to put their neck on the line for youngsters. Frank Lampard has changed that culture and finally shown everyone why Chelsea’s academy, led so ably by Neil Bath, is renowned worldwide. Promoting Mason Mount, Tammy Abraham, Reece James and Fikayo Tomori to the first team and playing them regularly signalled a huge change in the Chelsea philosophy. No longer were the club going to go out and spend £50 million on a player when an academy graduate who could do their job was working hard for their chance. With Gilmour, Anjorin, Lawrence, Valentino Livramento, Lewis Bate and many more likely to follow their fellow academy graduates to the first team, this progression shows no signs of slowing down. If Lampard were not manager, it is feasible to suggest that none of this would have happened. Yes, we knew Abraham, Mount and James were quality players, but would another manager have stuck by them when they struggled and they had the likes of Giroud, Barkley and Azpilicueta waiting in the wings? Any new arrival could still decide he has no room in his side for Mount, Abraham et al and revert to type. This academy revolution has brought the fans closer to the club than ever before, seeing their own starring week-in-week-out. Lampard is the man who will keep this going, and many fans will massively appreciate that.
Narratives in football change quickly. Coming off the back of a highly respectable debut season at Chelsea which comprised of a top four finish and an FA Cup final, Lampard hit the ground running with a 17-game unbeaten streak in all competitions. A sticky patch of form over a month has seen Chelsea go from ‘title favourites’ (take Klopp’s word not mine!) to midtable mediocrity. But the story can reverse for Lampard just as easily. You only have to glance up North to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer to see how quickly fortunes can turn. In early December as Lampard was heavily praised by the media, his counterpart was widely criticised following an early exit from the Champions League and a difficult start to the season which had seen them lose 6-1 at home to Tottenham. A month on and the Norwegian has led United to top of the league with a game in hand. Similar turnarounds have been witnessed at Arsenal and to a lesser-extent Manchester City, as Guardiola has gone from under the radar to apparent favourites for the league. In this highly unusual season, Lampard’s side find themselves a mere 3 points off the top four, albeit having played one or two games more than most sides above them. The compacted calendar means that a few weeks of hot form can result in a long winning run which in turn can fire a side up the table. Should Lampard make a few tweaks to his midfield, get Werner firing again and sort out his press, I have complete faith that the Blues will rocket back up the table. It should be every Chelsea fan’s dream to see a club legend succeed at Stamford Bridge, and fortunately for us Frank Lampard has what it takes to lead us to the top. He just needs time, something which right now seems to be in short supply.
Written by Daniel New