It’s not a stretch to say that even the most ardent Frank Lampard supporters are pleasantly surprised by the club legend’s acclimation to management at Chelsea.
Months into his maiden first-tier managerial spell and amid the hindrance of a two-window transfer ban, Chelsea sit fourth in the league and have one foot in the Champions League last 16 ahead of Tuesday’s test with Ajax.
Inexperienced and at-times wide-eyed in the second tier with Derby County last season, Lampard’s inability to register new players and owner Roman Abramovich’s U.K. exile seemingly had Lampard working on borrowed time from the start.
Instead, Lampard’s largely flourished.
With more than a quarter of the league campaign in the rearview and Chelsea’s return to the continent’s elite competition going to plan, it’s worth examining what Lampard has gotten right.
Enabling and empowering the kids
Perhaps it’s ironic that a club slapped with a transfer ban due to its recruitment of 29 foreign players aged under 18 is thriving thanks to its kids.
Lampard wasn’t afforded many choices in terms of player management, but the decisions he’s made have worked out. The club’s standout individual, the irreplaceable Eden Hazard, completed a long-rumored move to Real Madrid. Chelsea had one hand tied behind their back while the other held the door ajar for the crafty Belgian.
Academy products Fiyako Tomori, Mason Mount – both of whom played under Lampard at Derby – and Tammy Abraham were recalled from loans in the Championship. Expectations were understandably tempered.
Instead of shielding the precocious youngsters from the rigors of Premier League football, Lampard placed faith in the kids.
Despite Antonio Rudiger still recovering from a long-term injury to start the season, Lampard sold the German international’s central defensive partner, David Luiz, to rival Arsenal. Luiz and the manager bumped heads, and instead of ceding to the Brazilian, Lampard shipped him out and handed Tomori the job. The 21-year-old Canadian-born defender has started eight of 11 league matches and all three ties in Europe to rave reviews, prompting a call from England boss Gareth Southgate.
Mount and Abraham were offered similar opportunities, and both have repaid their manager’s faith; the latter, specifically, sits second in the league’s goal-scoring charts with nine. Naming Olivier Giroud or Michy Batshuayi as first-choice striker would have been a safer pick; instead, Lampard empowered Abraham, who, like Tomori and Mount, soon received the England call.
Lampard’s immediate inclusion of the trio has differed from the protracted introduction of Christian Pulisic. Either way, it’s worked.
The former Borussia Dortmund winger was glued to the bench, immediately labeled a £58-million bust, and for some, daftly cited as a ploy to sell kits in the United States. Pulisic has since been slowly introduced to the first team, and the 21-year-old has bagged four goals in his last two league outings.
Considering Lampard played under 11 managers during his 13 years as a player at Stamford Bridge, it’s little surprise that the former box-to-box midfielder exhibits a varied tactical approach.
Lampard’s flexibility stands in stark contrast to his predecessor, Maurizio Sarri. The Italian’s sole campaign in English football was a mercurial affair. “Sarri-ball” was engrossing when functional but frustrating when not. The brand of attractive, attacking football highlighted by swift counters and terse passes was received with adulation before eventually spawning chants of “F— Sarri-ball.”
Time was Sarri’s greatest enemy. Chelsea started the 2018-19 campaign in good form, but opponents, emboldened by the manager’s stubbornness, increasingly profited from predictability.
Chelsea are now a more incalculable package. Lampard’s Blues play high-octane football that demands peak fitness and exemplary energy. The use of three different formations this season (3-4-3, 4-3-3, and 4-2-3-1) based on the opposition has been a refreshing change. In two matches against juggernauts Liverpool, Lampard has ditched an attack-minded 4-2-3-1 set-up for a more balanced 4-3-3 aimed at limiting the exploits of Jurgen Klopp’s front-three. Instead of a swarming press and high line, Chelsea sat back. They lost both matches, but there were enough signs that a flexible approach is a strategy with long-term benefits.
Lampard can only do so much with the players at his disposal, and with 17 goals conceded through 11 league matches – most among teams in the top half of the table – patience is a virtue.
It took Pep Guardiola a season to eliminate erratic behaviors from Manchester City’s squad, and Jurgen Klopp needed several transfer windows to sculpt a squad with his preferred materials.
Football played at a blinding pace that promotes creativity from all midfielders can expose gaps, and at times, Lampard’s Chelsea have appeared porous as the players unlearn Sarri’s scrupulous approach. Permitting players to be both freed and measured will be key to sustained success; it’s a harmony that’s not easily established.
Maximizing Jorginho and Kovacic
Lampard’s appointment has unleashed the inherent abilities of several players in the first team, but none have benefited more than midfield duo Jorginho and Mateo Kovacic.
Stashed in former Napoli tutor Sarri’s luggage, big things were expected of Jorginho as a regista in the Italian cigarette connoisseur’s setup. Sadly for Jorginho, he became the on-pitch scapegoat for Sarri’s diminishing returns.
Jorginho sat deepest in Sarri’s midfield, pushing N’Golo Kante into a more attacking role. Why take arguably the world’s best defensive midfielder out of his best position? Well, Sarri-ball didn’t require a DM. Supporters, understandably, hated it. Instant persona non grata.
Sarri went back to Serie A, Jorginho stayed, and under Lampard, his virtues have been unlocked. The Italian’s statistical returns have been astounding.
|Accurate passes (opposition half)||398||2nd|
|Passes per game||69.5||1st|
|Possession won (midfield)||58||1st|
|Possession won (final third)||12||3rd|
Like Jorginho, Kovacic’s 2018-19 campaign left fans and pundits alike wondering what exactly he was good at. Wonder no longer.
Platooning with Ross Barkley can’t help with morale, yet Kovacic has shaken off last season’s jitters and constant switches at the hour mark for the misfiring Englishman to fit the profile of a footballer exuding confidence. The two were substituted on 22 occasions last season. That’s basically footballing polygamy.
Last season, Kovacic played the full 90 minutes in just two of his 21 starts. Now, whether as a right-sided midfielder in a 4-3-3 or in a holding gig alongside Jorginho in a 4-2-3-1, Kovacic has thrived, completing the second-most passes on the team with 563 and leading with 26 take-ons, 10 more than any other Chelsea player. The 25-year-old’s 157 touches and 135 passes versus Watford were the most of any player in the Premier League this season.
Kovacic’s 22 tackles are also third on the team behind Cesar Azpilicueta (28) and Jorginho (27), more than adequately filling the void left by Kante’s injury.
When Kante returns to full fitness, Lampard will have a difficult decision to make, but one that would be the envy of most managers. It’s early days, but there’s reason to trust that Lampard will again make the right call.