Try as hard as you like but you can never get three players into two positions. Harder still is getting three into one. This is the situation Frank Lampard currently finds himself in, as he struggles to select his starting wingers. In Hakim Ziyech, Christian Pulisic and Callum Hudson-Odoi, Lampard has at his disposal arguably one of the most talented unit of natural wide men in Europe, but finding a way to keep them all happy has proven difficult. The main spanner in the works is Timo Werner’s inclusion on the left wing, meaning Pulisic and Hudson-Odoi are forced either to their weaker flank or to the bench. Finding a solution to his problems on the flanks could lead to Lampard getting his Chelsea side to click, but a number of issues must be solved before he can do this: deciding whether to deviate from the 4-3-3 he knows and trusts, getting the best out of the misfiring Werner and managing game time of all three wingers to avoid consistent injury issues.
Breaking down the game time of Chelsea’s four main flank options highlights a startling statistic: Callum Hudson-Odoi has started just 16% of the side’s league games this term. This seems like a very low proportion for such an incredibly talented player, not least when you consider his reported £120,000 per week contract and that the club rejected an offer of a loan with a £70 million option to buy from Bayern Munich for him last summer. So, the 20-year-old must find it strange that he can barely get on the pitch under Lampard despite the European Champions showing interest in acquiring his services. More startling still is the fact that Pulisic and Ziyech have started only 47% and 37% of league games so far, meaning Hudson-Odoi is not being kept out by two more experienced wide men. Mason Mount and even Ruben Loftus-Cheek have been preferred to Hudson-Odoi in a wide role at times this season, perhaps hinting at a lack of faith in him from Lampard. More confusing still were the manager’s comments made post-Fulham match about the winger, ‘Callum deserved to start today, to be fair. It’s not easy selections for me on that side of the pitch at the moment.’ Those comments infer a lack of meritocracy at the club. Incidentally when Hudson-Odoi did come on in the 75th minute of that game, he immediately sparked Chelsea into action and was integral in Mount’s winning goal just three minutes after his introduction.
As Chelsea have slumped into the doldrums of midtable following a chastening run of form in December and January – which has included just 2 wins from 8 in the league – very few players have stood out for the right reasons. One of the select few is Hudson-Odoi, who has made a huge impact when fighting lost causes against Arsenal and Manchester City, and in changing games such as the aforementioned Fulham match. The youngsters brilliant assist from his unfavoured right flank against Arsenal almost led Chelsea to an unlikely comeback, before a certain regista missed yet another penalty. His clever run in behind Zinchenko and composed sliding finish to score a consolation goal against City were testament to his footballing intelligence, pace and composure. Put simply, if Lampard wants to revitalise his side, putting his faith in Hudson-Odoi is a good place to start. Recent lacklustre performances from last season’s post-restart talisman, Pulisic, who has a solitary goal from 786 minutes of league action so far this campaign, should open up a slot on the left flank for the Englishmen to get a regular run of games. With fixtures against Luton, Burnley and Wolves coming up, now is as good a time as any for Lampard to throw him in.
Whilst Ziyech, Pulisic and Hudson-Odoi have struggled for game time due to a lack of fitness or trust from the manager, Timo Werner has had no such worries. Starting 82% of Chelsea’s league fixtures to date, with the majority (63%) of these starts on the left flank, the German has the third most league minutes for the Blues behind Mount and Kanté. It is obvious that Lampard is desperate for his summer signing to succeed but he is not suited to a role on the left wing in a 4-3-3. A modern-day Premier League winger must be creative, a good crosser and able to maintain and progress possession, traits which Werner does not yet possess. This is highlighted by his lacklustre 0.8 key passes and 0.2 successful crosses, as well as his huge 3.2 combined poor touches and times dispossessed per game, illustrating his lack of creativity and his inability to keep the ball let alone do anything dangerous with it. He still has a very respectable 7.16 expected goals to his name after 16 starts (his actual tally of 4 goals shows a lack of confidence in front of goal), as he manages to pop up in threatening positions. When compared to Hudson-Odoi’s 1.2 key passes, 0.5 successful crosses (a figure which could still improve) and 0.9 combined poor touches and dispossessions per game, it is clear that Chelsea could do with a natural winger on the left side.
A vital aspect of Lampard turning his side’s form around is getting the best out of £54 million signing Werner. The German has caused selection headaches for Lampard, with his ability to play in an alien 4-3-3 formation under question. Not physical enough to hold the ball up as a lone number 9 and nowhere near progressive enough to play as an out-and-out left winger as discussed, Werner does not seem comfortable anywhere in the current system. It is now well documented that the German enjoyed his most successful period at Red Bull Leipzig as part of a two man centre forward partnership, often paired with the tall and combative Dane, Yussuf Poulsen. Fortunately for the Blues, in Olivier Giroud and Tammy Abraham they have two centre forwards who fit the Poulsen mould and if anything should strike up a better partnership with Werner as they are much more rounded players than his former teammate. Playing Werner as a second striker (whoever his partner is) would also free up room on the left flank for one of Pulisic or Hudson-Odoi.
Werner was always going to take time to adapt to a new country and league, but one factor not spoken about enough is the new playing style he has been forced to adapt to. His frightening pace – topping out at an impressive 35 km/hour in the Bundesliga, quicker even than Pulisic! – made him perfect for a counter-attacking side shy on possession and desperate to transition from defence to attack as quickly as possible in Leipzig. At Chelsea he has still been able to break away past high defensive lines (see his late miss vs Fulham) but has also been expected to be a part of more patient build up play, something which will take time to adapt to. Playing as a second striker, he will have less responsibility when it comes to progressing the ball and tracking back, two of his least favourite parts of the game, and more opportunity to sit on the shoulder of the last defender and run in behind defences when possible.
When chasing results recently, Lampard has shown that he is not scared to switch up his tactics. An exciting 4-2-2-2 formation has been experimented with, most notably when chasing the game against a ten-man Fulham. This system would involve two holding midfielders covering an awful lot of ground to avoid the Blues losing the midfield battle, but if a pivot of Mount and Kanté could do the work of three men (given their work rates I wouldn’t put it past them) then it would open up an exciting world of opportunities for Chelsea’s forwards. Two of Pulisic, Ziyech and Hudson-Odoi would start on the wings with a front two of Olivier Giroud, Tammy Abraham or perhaps even Kai Havertz, partnering Timo Werner. This set-up could of course prove to be too open and may require two lights-out holding players (Declan Rice return anybody?) to properly function, but given the current system seems to be flawed it might be worth a try for Lampard, with winnable fixtures against the aforementioned Burnley and Wolves, as well as strugglers Sheffield United and Newcastle in the coming weeks.
As the Blues limp on, glancing nervously in their rear-view mirrors at Arsenal gaining on them and staring longingly up the table at the likes of Leicester City and Everton, it is obvious that a lot needs to change to kickstart their season. There are a lot of flaws in the team: a huge drop off in pressing, a worrying difficulty to transition between attack and defence (costing the side dearly against counter-attacking sides), as well as a lack of any tangible game plan other than to cross and hope in the final third. One quick fix is to play two natural wingers and select them based on merit, and to reposition Werner to a more natural role as a second striker. Now is a time for Lampard to be bold, with his future very much in doubt. There has been a suggestion of certain players downing tools under the current regime, and so the manager is fortunate that in Hudson-Odoi he has a potential game changer whom he can trust. The odds are stacked against Chelsea’s greatest ever player, but this writer is sure he will come back fighting. The next month is crucial, and with a few tweaks and a bit of luck we could see Chelsea emulate both Manchester clubs in soaring up the table. There is always hope.
Written by Daniel New