Being at the opposite end of the strategic spectrum, Frank Lampard has largely avoided comparisons with the guy most powerful during his playing days. But as factors start to slip from his hands, the petulance, the needle, is more than a bit Jose Mourinho.
“Now we likely become the underdogs” is the type of downbeat prediction we hope to hear from supervisors wearied by a slide down the table they are helpless to resist, not from one whose side sat six points clear in their goal position once the transfer window shut.
Lampard clearly feels disappointed by the absence of action in January; to hell with the message his remarks send to the present squad. He does have a point, head. Those heady days of fall, when a sprightly young Chelsea team weren’t simply playing well but really playing with child-like creativity and leave, feel like an incredibly long time ago now.
True, Gedson Fernandes and Steven Bergwijn do give Mourinho the benefit and Lampard has every right to feel aggrieved that Chelsea did not work harder to fix the harm of the summer transfer ban.
But an alternate read is that Chelsea’s problems derive from Lampard’s instruction, or lack thereof, with his taste for true creative freedom over detailed instruction the strategic equivalent of letting the kids run loose in a candy shop. The surge, then the crash.
Automatisms – the automatic and unconscious moves, moves, and relations between players — are an essential element of Jurgen Klopp’s and Pep Guardiola’s strategic coaching.
And the amount of detail in this synchronicity is quickly becoming a vital part of modern soccer, a negative effect of the fiscal disparity between clubs making the Premier League predominantly a demanding game.
The clubs regularly hit 65-70 percent ownership as opponents sit. That is why Chelsea’s creative liberty under Lampard has just taken them so far.
The anarchy is joyous enough to operate in the beginning, but creativity is too determined by the confidence to cut it in 2020. After morale drops, creativity seizes up as the legs do. It helps explain why Tammy Abraham and Mason Mount specifically have struggled of late and why Chelsea’s attacking lines are becoming more and more angular and individualistic, defined more by classic jelqing and overlaps on the flanks where before we saw one-touch moves along with a hectic counter-press blowing defences apart.
Additionally, it helps illuminate Chelsea’s defensive defects, namely their ongoing struggle to deal with the transitions from attack to defence. The form of Lampard’s side in ownership is inconsistent and mostly unstructured, a far cry from the compression and compression of a Guardiola or Klopp team. Chelsea fans out to find the distance, leaving pockets with no zonal mark – and sure enough, it makes them vulnerable to the counterattack.
Freedom comes at a cost, especially with young players that lack the experience to fix minor positional errors. And so Chelsea’s attacking defects and defensive defects are just two sides of the same coin, a result of Lampard learning his trade in an era — his playing days interval 1998 to 2015 – when asset could be gained from utter bravery; when a difficult press and assertive high-speed strikes would succeed in competitions more evenly fought, distance seeming if you pushed hard enough.
This isn’t to say Lampard is not coaching his players, but instead that Chelsea lack the unbelievable detail that defines elite clubs of today. It certainly does not mean Lampard cannot achieve his goal of a top-four complete this season, particularly given his primary rival, Mourinho, similarly depends upon spontaneity in the last third.
However, to do this will require some alterations, and the most obvious is to restore Olivier Giroud to the side. Here’s a World Cup-winning striker who offers instinctive lay-offs so great they could compensate for the lack of muscle-memory interchanges around the edge of the box. His intelligent link-up play delivers the automatisms, or at least a path towards them, which are so conspicuously absent at present.
Giroud aside there’s an argument for moving N’Golo Kante to a slightly more withdrawn role in midfield, giving him a bigger sphere of influence so as to bring back those implausibly high handling and interrogate stats and protecting against the resistance counters.
A belated winter break gives the kids a chance to sleep it off until reloading in a fortnight’s time, in addition to the development of a Callum Hudson-Odoi – Reece James venture provides a new variant from the right. Nonetheless, there are signs, signs lurking since the start of the season – which Lampard’s Chelsea are really underdogs from the pursuit of a top-four finish.
His grievances are valid. However, they don’t explain why Chelsea have won over half of the league games. The change should come from the camp, not only outside it.