As Olivier Groud ended a scintillating move to put Chelsea 2-0 up against Wolves in the final match week, there was a sense that the top four was signed, sealed and delivered. Frank Lampard, I’m Yours. Mount jumped with joy, Rudiger sighed in relief, and Lampard unlocked an achievement that no one expected of him. A year after losing at the last hurdle with Derby, Lampard led another team of young foles, only this time, it was Chelsea, and only this time it was a promotion of sorts, to the Champions League. In what can be looked back at a pivotal season in Chelsea’s modern history, Frank Lampard has overachieved on every expectation, and he could yet prove to further better this result.
The post-pandemic period has exposed Chelsea’s weaknesses, as well showed it’s courage under fire. Comic defensive shambles and makeshift midfields should be viewed in somewhat of a vacuum. Lampard has kept this team a top-four regular for nearly the entire season and has well deserved the plaudits he’s received (as well as the favourable coverage during periods of real trouble). It’s a culmination of a process that saw Lampard complete two years of management, visually ageing him more than that time would suggest. He wasn’t given a prayer, and now he orchestrates the church organs. His journey so far has been a baptism of fire, and it’s a worthwhile examination to see how he and Chelsea have their destiny firmly within their own hands.
From herding sheep to being thrown to the Wolves
Overturning a 2-0 deficit to beat Leeds 4-2 in last year’s Championship play-off semi had all of Derby delirious. A buzzing Lampard opined,
“In terms of personal achievement, the feeling is as much as I’ve had in football, it’s not the personal achievement of being able to win stuff at Chelsea, but in terms of how I feel right now, it’s up there.” – Frank Lampard
The elation was short-lived, however, as Lampard’s colts fell to Aston Villa, as a dejected Frank watched his longtime teammate John Terry head to the premier league as a coach. The sadness was short-lived as Lampard was soon announced as Chelsea’s new first-team manager, following on from Europa League winning tactician Maurizio Sarri.
Lampard wasn’t given a blank canvas and an open cheque book. He was given a smile and a shoeshine, and a fleeting hope that he could harness his ability as a player, and build a team to keep Chelsea strong. Tomori, Abraham and Mount, who’d all been recalled from the brilliant championship loan spells, were still young lambs, who from the outset looked to be thrown to the slaughter of top tier of the Premier League
The arrival of Christian Pulisic (a deal agreed in January) as well as singing Kovačić to a permanent deal aided Lampard, however with Hazard’s inevitable departure, the transfer ban scuppered any hopes of bringing reinforcements, forcing Lampard to turn to Chelsea’s unused, but lethal weapon – The youth. Brining in Mason Mount and Fikayo Tomori from Debry and recalling Tammy Abraham from Villa gave the youngsters a golden opportunity; Top-level Premier League minutes without much expectation.
The expectation, however, was muted, as even the most ardent of Chelsea supporters who cried for the team to play the youth for half a decade, were now pensive when that policy was being put to practice.
Fire to the furnace
Chelsea’s early results put weight behind the fears. A 4-0 loss to United on opening day, a draw to Leicester, a narrow win vs Norwich put Chelsea in an unfavourable position, yet there were sparks of a fire starting, one which needed to be tempered. A 2-5 victory over table-topping scalpers Wolves saw Tammy Abraham net his first hattrick, prompting an uptick in the Blues’ fortunes.
Early results could have foreshadowed a horrific league spell for the west London side – however, Lampard soon got the team to sing his tune, as they went on a six-game unbeaten run during the months of October and November. The positivity ended as soon as it began, with losses to City, bogey team Bournemouth and Everton had the side looking deflated.
Time and time again, however, Lampard proved that while he couldn’t craft a tactical masterclass, he knew how to arrest a fall before it reached terminal velocity. A 2-0 win vs Spurs brought them back in control of their top four fortune. In the post-match breakdown, he responded to Mourinho’s comments that Lampard was playing a system that his players were used to under former manager Antonio Conte. While formationally true, Lampard’s response showed that he was a man learning to play to his teams’ strengths rather than covering for weaknesses.
“I’m not trying to clone anyone’s system. In fact I think. . .The message I give is different. . . It’s not as simple as if you play 4-3-3, you’re cloning someone otherwise we’re all cloning each other. It was more can this be a system that helps us defensively and offensively against Tottenham. It was my choice to play it, not whether the players understood it.”
The declaration wasn’t emphatic, but it was with purpose. Frank was flexing his tactical muscle, and it worked, especially against a man he owes a great deal of his playing career too.
Burning bright but burning Out
The story of Chelsea’s season has been about breaks in momentum. The aforementioned purple patch turned into shade murkier. Their continental performance left a lot to be desired. The Blues started off the competition with a disappointing 1-0 defeat against Valencia, before going to beat both Lille and Ajax away from home. A chaotic 4-4 against the Dutch side then followed, featuring two red cards, a penalty and a disallowed goal in the second half.
A lift in their transfer ban enabled them to make mid-season signings. To Lampard’s chagrin, none of them materialised, precipitating a rain of bad form seeing them winning three, drawing three and losing three from boxing day to the end of February.
The errors were a confounding mix of individual errors and tactical setups which Lampard persisted with, despite multiple failures. Set-piece defending, or lack thereof, has been a sticking point in Lampard’s defensive set-up. Goals conceded from corners accounted for a whopping 8.2% of all their goals conceded, nearly 4% higher than the next worst team Manchester United. Having initially favoured a zonal defending system at the season’s start, goals from Victor Osimhen in the Champions League, Wilfred Ndidi and Firmino in the Premier League, exposed deficiencies in their defensive setup.
Lampard had problems between the sticks too, as Kepa looked bereft of any control, confidence and candour in high-pressure situations. A keeper is only as good as his defence, however, and each of Rudiger, Christensen, Tomori and Zouma have deficiencies which makes finding a suitable pairing a tenuous, and tedious exercise. The lack of a real leader to step up, cover slack and dominate the 12-yard box is something that Chelsea cried out for multiple times this season, and it would seem —almost perplexingly—that this doesn’t seem a high priority on his transfer list.
COVID, Chaos and Closure
Contextualising the effect of a pandemic on any team is a turbulent task, but given the task ahead, Lampard’s vision was clear—a top-four finish at any cost. With a slender one-point lead over a resurgent Manchester United, Chelsea’s post-pandemic campaign started with a shaky 2-1 win over Villa, a match that preceded Chelsea’s zenith under Lampard–a thrilling 2-1 win over City.
As was the season’s custom, Chelsea’s bubble burst as soon as it formed with a chastising loss to David Moyes’ West Ham, where Chelsea’s defensive frailties were on full display. The blues were spared the blushes as Thomas Soucek’s earlier shot from a Bowen Corner was tenuously ruled out by VAR, only for the same two Hammers to convert again, only this time the goal stood.
Lampard sounded worn down by the problem in the post-game interview –
“When a team is bigger than you, as (West Ham) were, you can work all week… if someone is much taller than the opponent and out jumps them, then they are going to score goals,” he said.
“That’s what happens, so we were aware they were bigger than us and they were going to try to score goals or win the game. But the players have to deal with that on the pitch.”
With the games coming thick and fast, Lampard tactically adjusted for the loss of Kante, by giving Kovačić a starring role in midfield, and counting on Giroud’s experience upfront to finish to maximise their threat in attack. The moves brought more flexibility to Chelsea’s setup, enabling greater transition from midfield to attack, and proving that when pushed to make a change, Lampard has the ability to make the most of what he’s given. An inspiring 3-1 demolition of Manchester United in the FA Cup semi-finals, a convincing victory at home to Wolves, all employing an unfamiliar 3-4-3 system had ensured Chelsea’s position in the top 4. An FA Cup final loss to Arsenal bookend their domestic campaign with a loss, and without a trophy, but Lampard had succeeded in showing that he can reach there.
Blue skies ahead
With Lampard clearly overperforming on nearly every conceivable metric, it was up to the club to bolster the glaring weaknesses in the squad. What we saw from January onwards, however, seemed like side-ways moves, but one’s that raise arms in excitement, then eyebrows in doubt. Deals for Hakim Ziyech and Timo Werner were both completed before the season’s end, and with rumours of Kai Havertz’ imminent arrival, Chelsea could yet boast the most fearsome attack in the league next season. The signing of Leipzig ace Timo Werner was a real statement signing by the club and Lampard. With double-digit goals and assists for the East German side, Werner will enable Lampard to play a variety of attacking setups, where Werner can operate from the centre or drop wide and let a player like Giroud or Ziyech shine.
That, however, raises more questions than it answers. Chelsea’s paltry goal difference of +15 came down to the 54 goals they conceded, their worst total since 1997. With a shortened ‘summer’ transfer window ahead, Chelsea will have to work as decisively to shore up their backline, with a new keeper, and commanding centre back, and a left-back if they truly want to challenge for more than fourth place. With talks for the likes of Chilwell already taking place, it seems it’ll be a matter of when, and not if Chelsea make those defensive signings.
Whoever is signed, will be aided by the resurgence of Mateo Kovačić, a man whom Lampard has transformed from a predicted substitute for Barkley to one of the most well-rounded centre-mids in the English game. Pivotal to everything good at Chelsea since January, Kovacic often covered for both Kante and Jorginho, turning the ball around from defense to midfield with a single move, and progressively bringing the ball forward into more threatening positions. In defence, he’s rarely if not ever caught out. Performances like these have gone a long way to strengthening his oft-forgotten status as heir apparent to Luka Modric in the heart of the Croatian midfield.
Whatever emotions Lampard might conjure up in fans both neutral and neurotic, Lampard’s first season with Chelsea leaves us with a feel-good story. One that we’ve really needed in times like these. Overperformed on every expectation. Chastised by losses, plagued by niggling injuries and inconsistency, Lampard arrested impending declines and swallowed his pride to make the tactical decisions needed to see his team over the line. With Chelsea’s transfer dealings still to be complete, it would seem that Lampard will have even greater tools at his disposal, enabling him to develop his tactical nous and keep Chelsea at the threshold of success, if not achieve it outright.
The winds of change blowing Lampard’s sail have set the groundwork for a young, exciting side, that’s driven equally by homegrown and foreign talent. The pressure will be on Lampard to improve on this further, because even the club’s most beloved son isn’t bigger than the club, and Lampard knows that all too well.
Written by Ritwik Sarkar | Feature Image by Julian Finney/Getty Images
El Arte Del Futbol is an official content creator for OneFootball. Find more Original Features, Player Profiles, Manager Profiles, Retro articles and Tactical Analysis’ on www.elartedf.com. If you are reading this on our website, we’d like to thank you for your continuous support! Follow us on twitter to stay updated with all the latest content.