Frank Lampard – Chelsea – Tactical Analysis (Post-Sacking)

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Frank Lampard enjoyed a successful first season with Chelsea F.C., despite no new summer signings coming through the door. The Blues hovered around 4th for the majority of the season in behind Leicester City, and eventually secured 4th behind Manchester United. Lampard relied heavily on young talent in 2019-20 and the club were rewarded with fantastic performances from the likes of Mason Mount, Tammy Abraham, Fikayo Tomori and Reece James.

In preparation for the 2020-21 season, Chelsea went on to spend millions, securing the signatures of players like Timo Werner, Kai Havertz, Ben Chilwell and Edouard Mendy, plus Thiago Silva on a free transfer. For a short period of time, it worked. With nine games in, Chelsea were showing great signs of promise, sat second in the table, and were well in the hunt for the Premier League title. Frank Lampard himself was making some astute tactical changes, and appeared to be coping well with the dilemma of how to show faith in his youth, while integrating the summer signings. But as the season wore on, Chelsea failed to make an impact. At the time of his sacking, the Blues sit in ninth, with many nearby teams holding games in hand. Losses to Leicester, Manchester City and Arsenal likely handed Lampard a premature managerial sacking; along with the fact that Thomas Tuchel was out of a job, waiting at the door for a call. So a day after a 3-1 FA Cup win against Luton Town, Frank Lampard was sacked as Chelsea manager. Here is our Tactical Analysis of Frank Lampard’s Chelsea in both of his seasons in charge, and the events that led to his sacking. 

system of play: 4-3-3

Throughout his time at Chelsea, Lampard shifted between a 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1. The 4-3-3 always appeared to be his preference, for perhaps greater midfield presence in build-up phases and defensive transitions. The lineup saw some significant changes between year one and year two, most notably at goalkeeper, left-back and defensive midfield.

Due to a horrific time in Lampard’s first season in charge, Kepa Arrizabalaga lost his place to Edouard Mendy toward the start of the 2020-21 campaign. Mendy had an exceptional start to life at Stamford Bridge around the time of Chelsea’s climb up the table, but has since gone a bit cold. Mendy’s a good goalkeeper, but it appears as though the Blues haven’t made the same step up that might have initially been perceived. The back four on the other hand have been consistently solid, but never brilliant as a unit. In our tactical analysis of Chelsea a few months ago, we questioned the omission of Cesar Azpilicueta from the lineup this season, despite Reece James’ success. Rather suspiciously, Chelsea’s drop in form coincided with Reece James’ omission instead as Azpilicueta came back into the fold. So that argument doesn’t really hold much weight anymore. Kurt Zouma’s been a solid partner for Thiago Silva, but the back-line hasn’t statistically improved in certain areas from when Zouma was partnering Fikayo Timori and Andreas Christensen last season. Ben Chilwell’s been a great addition at left-back, and has added some nice dynamism in attack, although it hasn’t necessarily helped the Blues improve their defense as they would have liked.

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Ahead of the back-four, Lampard’s 2019-20 success came with the experienced trio of Jorginho, Kante and Kovacic in midfield, just as Maurizio Sarri had implemented the season before. This season, the manager’s preferred Mason Mount ahead of Jorginho, returning N’Golo Kante back into the ‘number 6’ role that he performed alongside Nemanja Matic for Antonio Conte. The wings have been the least consistent for Lampard, but a mix of Hakim Ziyech, Timo Werner, and Christian Pulisic have been given the most freedom to perform so far this season. Kai Havertz has remained an option from the bench, while Willian was Chelsea’s consistent starter on the right in 2019-20. Up front, Lampard’s meddled with the form of Tammy Abraham in 2019-20, reinstalling greater faith in Olivier Giroud this time around.

The 4-3-3 for all its strengths, struggled to get the best out of Chelsea’s new signings like Timo Werner and Kai Havertz. It pushed Werner into a wide position where he was on the ball less and unable to link up with others in the same manner, while Havertz didn’t have a role at all. That’s not to say that the formation won’t work in the future, as each manager can implement a different style of play to accompany the same formation. Thomas Tuchel might for example have more success implementing a gegenpressing approach and/or reinstalling Timo Werner into a central attacking role. But this tactical analysis is all about Frank Lampard, and we will now move on to a discussion on what might have gone wrong for the Chelsea boss, and his tactical dilemmas since taking over.

the jorginho-kante debate

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It seems strange that the past three seasons for Chelsea have been characterized by the debate about how to get the best out of Jorginho and N’Golo Kante. It’s even more perplexing given that both Sarri and Lampard achieved relative success with Kante and Jorginho as part of a midfield-three, alongside someone who balanced them very well in Mateo Kovacic. For whatever reason, neither manager attempted to play them together in a midfield two, as though it would be too defensively minded to have two natural number 6’s (who offer very different qualities) in a double-pivot rather than a ‘6’ and an ‘8’. So when Lampard decided the best approach for his team moving forward would be to play Mason Mount in a central midfield role, it meant that one of them was going to be pushed out of the side. Naturally, that was Jorginho, who you could argue was not only a key leader for the team, but one of their best players two seasons in a row. Even last season, when playing out from the back, everything went through Jorginho. With Thiago Silva’s arrival, Chelsea had someone with similar passing qualities, so they opted for Kante in the role instead. Jorginho went from first to eighth in Chelsea’s roster in terms of passes per 90 minutes, and was no longer any more important to the build-up than Mateo Kovacic. But all of Chelsea’s success two years in a row when playing out from the back came through Jorginho. So the debate still lives on today and it’s a bit of a mystery exactly how Lampard was going to get the best out of both without going back to what both he and Sarri did two seasons in a row.

So although some Chelsea fans would argue it’s for the best that the Italian’s been left out this season, it’s possibly been one of Lampard’s fatal errors. Mason Mount’s been brilliant and you can’t necessarily look upon him with any fault. But Kovacic and Kante have struggled to find their footing as a duo alongside Mount, much more than they did alongside the pass master in Jorginho. This was compounded by the fact that Kante’s form dipped in December and January, and he struggled to offer the same defensive stability that he was brought back into that role to achieve. For whatever reason, the balance hasn’t been right and Lampard never shifted formation to try and change that balance.

lacking individual quality?

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Chelsea are a possession-based side, who make a lot of short passes in comparison to longer one’s. Only Manchester City and Liverpool have made more short passes per game than the Blues both this season and last. It could be posited that perhaps they’ve had an over-reliance at trying to play through their opposition with short passes, rather than individual quality and dribbling. They’ve beaten opposition players with 8.2 dribbles per game as a team this season, the joint-fifth lowest in the league. Kovacic and Werner’s numbers in dribbling are way down this season, and only Christian Pulisic carries any degree of Eden Hazard like twinkle-toes. But to even compare the two in the same sentence feels wrong. He’s been something of an Adama Traore this season, with no end product whatsoever, and even that comparison flatters the American. Hakim Ziyech possesses quite a bit of individual passing quality, but Chelsea have no desire to engage Ziyech in build-up phases whatsoever. Someone like a Ross Barkley could have even added more quality here in helping Chelsea break through lines of pressure and disturb opposition defenses through his natural running and dribbling power. But they loaned him out to Aston Villa. So this is something that Tuchel or the next Chelsea manager will likely need to consider when the dust settles. The Blues have by in large struggled to “break the lines” when playing out from the back, and the amount of time the team spend passing the ball around in their own half exceeds the amount of time they spend passing the ball in and around the box. That needs to change moving forward, and it’s one of Lampard’s fatal flaws leading up to his sacking.

mis-management of the front three

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Before the season began, I questioned Timo Werner’s ability to fulfill the same target man role that Tammy Abraham had done such a wonderful job fulfilling last season. Those concerns ended up being validated. But for a short period of time it didn’t really matter given Werner’s positive link up play with Ziyech and Abraham from a position on the left. Ziyech was creating chances, and Abraham and Werner were to an extent, banging some of them into the back of the net. Then all of a sudden, it seemed as though Werner got in his own head about how good of a player he actually is (which is a very good one) and lost confidence in himself. He’s now gone cold in his last eleven Premier League matches, only scoring one time in the last sixteen he’s featured in for the Blues in all competitions. Then Tammy Abraham was left out of the side, through no fault of his own but the stellar form of Olivier Giroud (mostly just via one Champions League game in which he scored four). The British striker is Chelsea’s top scorer and there was perhaps too much hype around the Frenchman’s return to the side, which wouldn’t have been nice for Abraham to feel after doing so well for his side. Hakim Ziyech meanwhile started the season brightly with a goal and three assists but then suffered an injury and hasn’t really been the same since. Again, Chelsea have no desire to play longer passes into someone like Giroud to knock down for Ziyech, and so he’s been pretty ineffectual, even if he has the ability to be effective. Werner, Abraham and Ziyech had great chemistry earlier on in the season when Chelsea were second in the table, and it’s a shame that things went so wrong so fast for all three.

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What Lampard should have done, undeniably, is work to find a solution to give Timo Werner a chance at scoring more goals again. That’s easier said than done, but the Chelsea boss was far too persistent with the use of the 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1, in addition to keeping Werner on the left. One such way to try and fix these concerns would have been to test out a front two, which worked to a degree in Chelsea’s first game of the season. Werner and Abraham would have been a perfect partnership, and then having the likes of Ziyech and Havertz on the wings in a 4-2-2-2 could have fixed Chelsea’s lack of midfield balance and Werner’s scoring issues simultaneously. It’s a real shame that Lampard didn’t adapt his system of play when it wasn’t working. Sometimes he shifted to a 4-2-3-1, but the difference between the two formations was minimal and Chelsea’s problems persisted. The 3-4-3/3-4-2-1 or 4-2-2-2 could have been excellent options for Lampard to use, or even as we suggested pre-season, a 3-5-2 might have done the trick perfectly. This would have allowed Werner to play alongside another striker, allowed James and Chilwell less defensive responsibilities, and even Kai Havertz might have been given a role as a lone attacking midfielder.

But it wasn’t all negative all the time for Lampard and his side were genuinely good at finding the back of the net throughout 2019-20 and the first half of this season. They cruised through the UEFA Champions League with 14 goals and only 2 conceded in 6 matches, and the Blues’ tally of 33 goals in 19 league matches equates to nearly 2 goals per game. They never looked like a side that couldn’t score goals, even if some of their individuals looked like players who couldn’t score goals.

When the front-three were working well together, Chelsea had six genuinely dangerous players in their attack. The fullbacks would both get up the pitch together, as opposed to one at a time, and Mason Mount would contribute in central attacking areas to add to the opposition’s misery. This sort of 2-2-1-5 shape made Chelsea a very dangerous team at the height of Frank Lampard’s Chelsea career. This was particularly deadly against sides deploying a mid to low block, as Chelsea were exceptional at finding gaps in wide areas, crossing the ball into the penalty area and either creating chances or forcing corner kicks. Chelsea scored eight goals from set-pieces in the league before his sacking, almost all of which came from corners. But as nice as that is, if you’re the manager of Chelsea, attacking set-pieces can’t be your greatest strength.

defensive issues…solved or not?

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When Chelsea were second in the table, it appeared as though they had solved their defensive issues of 2019-20. But as it turned out, they didn’t solve them, they just created new one’s that would cruelly be exposed as the season wore on. In 2019-20, Chelsea’s defensive issues came in three key areas. Firstly, Jorginho struggled in transition, and Kante’s high position in a 4-1-4-1 defensive system meant that he was often too far away to help. The left side of defense was also a bit of concern, and so Chelsea didn’t have much stability when it came to defending wide areas as well. The final concern was that of the goalkeeper, which they worked to resolve through an inexpensive transfer fee of Mendy this season. In theory, Lampard made strides to fix all of those concerns and at the start of this season, it worked. 

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But then new defensive concerns appeared in Chelsea’s midfield. Jorginho’s omission from the side meant that a lack of balance became apparent in transition between Mount, Kovacic and Kante. The trio haven’t had the same compactness in shutting down central areas as they had when Jorginho was in the side, and Kante’s shared too much of the burden trying to screen the back four. The balance hasn’t been right, and positionally they haven’t been able to cover the same space with the same level of seamless fluidity. They’ve struggled to block off passing lanes into the opposition’s key men, and failed to track midfield runs from players like Ilkay Gundogan, James Maddison and Youri Tielemans, who all masterfully exposed them in transition. The fact that they struggled to break defensive lines of pressure could also be a contributing factor, as opposition sides no longer had to adjust everything they were doing to stop Jorginho from receiving the ball. Instead they could remain more compact and worry about Chelsea as an entire unit, rather than focusing their attention on one key individual. How Lampard could have fixed that issue beyond changing formation or reinstating Jorginho is a bit of a mystery. Again, Mount is an excellent presser and does a lot of hard work defensively. The same could be said about Kovacic, although he is slightly less aggressive than the other three. Admittedly, it’s difficult to change the balance of the team over-night. That said, a change of system to a high-pressing 4-2-2-2 or a back-three might have been one way Lampard could have resolved the concerns before they took off to extreme heights. So although it’s a puzzle that didn’t necessarily have one right answer, Lampard should have done more to address their defensive concerns through more than just new additions. He didn’t, and the writing was on the wall for his inevitable sacking as the season progressed. 

CONCLUDING THOUGHTS

Frank Lampard came to Chelsea with a heart full of hope and had a relatively successful first season. Unfortunately for Frank, he’s been caught in a series of unfortunate events in 2020-21. The Blues spent millions of dollars to secure stellar signatures that the manager didn’t necessarily ask for, only to struggle to fit the attack-minded additions into his system. Everything appeared to be okay until a few months ago, and then everything went wrong for the Chelsea boss in bad defeats to Arsenal, Manchester City and Leicester. With Thomas Tuchel waiting at the door following his strange sacking from PSG, Chelsea obviously felt the time was right to move on from their former club legend. But the manager’s time in charge will not necessarily be remembered as a failure. Perhaps it will instead be remembered as one of transition and youth, as Lampard allowed a chance for Abraham, James, Mount and others to develop, when other managers simply would never have given those same players a chance. He also always knew what Chelsea’s weaknesses were, even if he failed to properly address them in the past two months. Bringing in Mendy, Chilwell and returning Kante to a ‘number 6′ role were all signs that demonstrated Lampard knew exactly what he was doing and how to fix some of the Blues’ weaknesses. For that, Lampard deserves credit. He is certainly not a bad manager by any means and perhaps came into his dream job a bit prematurely. Frank Lampard is still a legend of the club and will be heralded as one of their greatest players for years to come, even if not their greatest ever manager.


So there it is! A Tactical Analysis of Frank Lampard’s Chelsea following his disappointing sacking. Be sure to check out more of our Tactical Analyses, including where we left off the last time we spoke about Lampard’s Chelsea when everything was going well. Also be sure to check out more on his impending replacement – Thomas Tuchel – in our three part analysis. Finally, be sure to share your thoughts in the comments below or on Twitter @mastermindsite. Thanks for reading and see you soon!

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