Frank Lampard

I do not think that Frank Lampard was anyone’s first choice for the Chelsea job, but gradually we all warmed to the possibility. The idea that a rookie coming off his first season in management will be handed the reigns at the bridge would have been laughed off a few years ago when Ancelotti was sacked after a second-place finish. The youngest hire in the Roman Abramovic era had been treble-winning André Villas-Boas but he had spent his football life working with José Mourinho and had held two jobs with two different clubs. 

Roman had been chasing a different dream though, a dream of self-sustenance for the club, a dream of footballing linearity. A dream where an academy he had invested so much in would earn passage into the first team to display why Cobham has produced the most successful youth team in England for years now. 

Frank Lampard had done an admirable job at Derby County, using his Chelsea connections to secure coaches, loans and some shrewd signings (nine) as the team lost its best players. The Rams had finished sixth in the 2017/2018 season and had done the same under Lampard as they crashed out in the play-off final to Tammy Abraham’s Aston Villa. 

His team played attacking and vivacious football, they had shocked Manchester United in the cup and had given Chelsea a terrific battle. They stayed in the good places in their league table too which gave them a shot at promotion. The flaws of Lampard’s football were already there to be seen; naivety, disjointedness, and a lack of structure/positional awareness attempted to derail their season. The team would aggressively press and leave a ridiculous amount of space behind to be exploited. There was no sense of structure as the gap between lines and even players on the same line looked horrendous. Mason Mount was an important glue in the team as it fed off his energetic press and movement between the lines. He isn’t the most aesthetically pleasing midfielder in the game, he does not possess the silkiness of David Silva or the vision of Christian Eriksen, but he possesses energy and unstoppable enthusiasm. 

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Much like the man who was coaching him, he would be defined for functionality rather than aesthetics. Frank Lampard lost two of his first three league games but would go on to lose just four in the following four months. When by midseason, the form had depreciated, Lampard’s tactical ineptitude and inability to drill a structured pressing system that did not give away so much was glaring. His response was to constantly change shapes while the same problems with the press remained. The Chelsea job was this, but on a grander scale. Losing Hazard, a transfer ban and with loanees returning, Lampard had to fashion out a reasonable season at Chelsea. Ride the storm. 

There was a storm alright, the Chelsea squad was highly unbalanced with incompatible players, unathletic players and irrational defenders. For all the talk about a lack of leaders, good players give a team personality, just look at Real Madrid. 

Yes, there is Sergio Ramos but there is enough quality everywhere to see through a game even without their charismatic leader. Lampard’s lack of a structured press brought out the worst in Jorginho’s athleticism and left far too much unmarked space for already suspect defenders like Antonio Rüdiger, Andreas Christensen and Kurt Zouma to marshal. Andreas Christensen is very weak aerially and struggles with undefined space. Rudiger at the first sign of danger veers into tackles often looking braindead when he takes himself out of the equation he was so zealously looking to solve. Zouma’s awkward touch in the buildup phase makes things complicated, limiting vertical play with miscalculated controls and some very skeptical gait. Pound for pound the best defender, he looks the best defensively but also has moments where he is dragged too far out from where he needs to be. 

Lack of a coordinated press

In the weeks since football’s restart, they have blown hot and cold. Playing perfect counter-attacking football against Manchester City, they played a game of football bingo with Crystal Palace, displayed apathetic performances against West Ham, Liverpool and Arsenal. The Liverpool first half was shocking from a tactical point of view as they fell into pressing traps set by arguably the deadliest team in transitions. 


From image 1.0 you can see Trent Alexander-Arnold is at the back with Robertson, this is a strange occurrence. Liverpool generally buildup their play in a 2-3-5 shape that sees both fullbacks operate high up the pitch. There is only one reason for this, it is a trap. The image below this is what Liverpool’s shape looks like when they build out from the back, altering it to a 3-2-5 if the opponents press with 2 aggressive centrally positioned attackers. Why then do they drop Trent and Robbo back? They were counting on Chelsea’s uncoordinated press steaming forward and they would be sucked into an avalanche. Chelsea did not stop to consider halting their press, to cover their spaces well enough in front first. Liverpool continuously sucked them in and exploded unto a boneless backline.


image 1.2

Image 1.1 shows how Liverpool structure themselves when building out from the back. They generally prefer to use their two centre-backs while pushing their fullbacks up. Image 1.2 shows how the ball arrives in the final phase in a “perfect” attack and you can see how the shape is maintained until the final sequence. This is how a team should play. With form and structure and not reckless abandon. In image 1.0, Chelsea get sucked into a perfect trap. Giroud is sucked into the triangle, Mason Mount follows, Kovacic and Jorginho step up to cover the space left behind the two attackers. 

Here is the thing, Liverpool like to arrive at the opposition box with five people (ceteris paribus), but they took the bet that their front three would be enough, that’s why the bait was set. They dropped their fullbacks to bait Chelsea. By the time the ball is back with Trent, the space between the midfield pivot and the defense is stretched. In true comical fashion, Rüdiger the first pressure to meet the ball slips, and the sequence ends as shown below.

Image 1.3

Against Arsenal in the FA Cup final, Chelsea kept getting sucked into the bait for the first few minutes, the press was strong enough but after Pulisic scored, their levels dropped, they kept getting drawn into David Luiz and Kieran Tierney’s bait. Chelsea would push ahead with Giroud, Mount and in what is another harrowing show of spatial ineptitude, Reece James would follow Ainsley Maitland-Niles.

Another team betting that if they could stretch Chelsea wide enough in the front, they could expose the deficiency at the back. The flat four at the back that Liverpool uses, stretches across the first line. The line that the Arsenal back three used in image 1.4 stretches across the backline. The ball is regurgitated backwards from right to left. Giroud is left chasing shadows, Arsenal have far too many players in that cluster and proper spacing should allow Chelsea to engage a press without irresponsible spatial giveaways. If Giroud stays in front of Luiz, he can block the lane to Xhaka, which will help Jorginho and Kovacic to be further back. If this press is dropped just a few metres, the space to Aubameyang is closed for their penalty. They press heartily but not well enough and Aubameyang can attack the space left by the pressing midfielders and James.

Aubameyang is extremely dangerous in space, Arsenal would drop Maitland-Niles into their own half to colour the bait but also allowing more space for Aubameyang to attack. Chelsea were continuously reckless with this space and paid for it miserably. Sure, Anthony Taylor damaged the game, sure injuries demoralized the team but the basic use of spacing was poor. It has been poor for the entire season if you have been watching. This is a game of manipulating the ball to achieve time and space and if your players keep being erratically positioned. The ease with which teams can sweep through your press because of its disorganization will increase and this is Chelsea’s first problem.

image 1.4

Even when building out from the back, the same positional issues rear their head with players clustering, clogging space that can be better maintained with better positioning. The beauty of football is that you can just steal ideas from other teams and shape your squad around its own misgivings. More and more teams are betting on sucking Chelsea into their own half which is creating more chaos at the back. Worst of all, the press is almost never accurately planned, just vivaciously executed. They do not move as a unit, they almost never do, the press does not work in unison and the reason is simply because of the space. Chelsea focus more on winning the ball back rather than cutting passing lanes. If you cut off passing lanes for long enough, you can push your opposition into a comfortable position to win the ball back rather than giving them territory with a headless press. 

Chelsea’s best performances have come when they have used a mid-block, shadowing players and limiting space while being compact then engaging in a press when the space behind is limited. The Super Cup performance against Liverpool, the 1-0 win against Ajax and the win against Manchester City after the restart are prime examples. Chelsea do not have the most athletically gifted midfielders, so it is hilarious when they leave all this space while pressing and even with athletic midfielders, giving away far too much space ensures they will concede. Having four players that can collapse the space around the ball is good, but in image 1.4, there are almost six players in a very small zone and even though they limit space around the ball, they are not limiting the ball. Mount should be covering left footed Tierney from the other side, and if Giroud is in front of Luiz and shadowing the space to Xhaka, James should then be able to hold his line and not vacate the space to press Maitland-Niles. The midfield has to step up because Giroud and Mount get sucked into a very obvious bait.

Truth be told, many Chelsea fans would have taken a top four place and FA Cup final at the beginning of the season and that shows that there is potential. The problem is that Lampard can’t sustain this lack of a structural scheme. Even the better players of the world would be exposed by a structural scheme that involved changing shape every other game. Sure, a team can run upon multiple shapes (see any team ever managed by Thomas Tuchel) but there are underlying principles of compactness and spacing. The compactness Mourinho would berate Lampard’s team for at the beginning of the season when they lost 4-0 to Manchester United on the opening day. Chelsea would press Manchester United heedlessly and that would play into the hands of Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford and Daniel James. This is not an issue that better players can fix even if better players can paper over the cracks for a while. 

This is a problem Lampard should be seeking to correct on the training field. 

Reported target Declan Rice is a terrific tackler and physical presence in midfield but even he won’t solve the issues that continually arise due to improper space and the lack of a coordinated press.

Daniel Ochei
August 7, 2020
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