Chelsea, Frank Lampard, and maybe, the start of a new era

Assessing Frank Lampard’s first season at Stamford Bridge.

It’s the only managerial change in the Premier League’s top six this summer: Sarri out, Lampard in. In this article, we assess Lampard’s task at hand by diving into some stats, covering the squad options and ponder whether Frank Lampard can steer Chelsea into a new era.

Written by Ashwin Raman.

Throughout most of the Roman Abramovich era, when you take a look at the different adjectives used in the media to describe the way Chelsea have played, you will mostly see words like ‘ruthless’, ‘efficient’, and ‘clinical’. That is, as opposed to words like ‘elegant’, ‘attractive’, ‘free-flowing’, and ‘attacking’, which are used to describe the way most other superclubs play. In general, with their success under managers like José Mourinho and Antonio Conte, Chelsea have been associated with a results-oriented approach on the pitch rather than playing pretty football.

Abramovich has seemingly been conscious of this, and has always looked to overhaul the way Chelsea play on multiple occasions during his ownership. A notable example of this was when Chelsea sacked the secure Carlo Ancelotti after a middling season to take the unsuccessful gamble of hiring the young, exciting André Villas-Boas. 

In 2018, after Chelsea parted ways with Conte after finishing fifth, the new head coach coming in was Maurizio Sarri, who had won hearts with his attractive football and success at Napoli, where he finished second in 2017-18 with a record 91 points. Napoli’s style of play, nicknamed Sarrismo – ‘Sarriball’ for English-speakers – generally consisted of rapid passing to bait the opposition press followed by swift vertical progression, leading to some very compilation-worthy goals. In terms of results, Sarri’s start in London was definitely impressive, and it included a twelve game unbeaten streak to open the 2018-19 season.

But the dynamic changed for Chelsea as the season progressed. 

In February, they were given a two-window transfer ban, and in the summer transfer window, they their prime offensive asset in Eden Hazard. Sarri, already attracting interest from Juventus, was looking at having to continue without the player who had carried the attack for years and without an option to replace a lot of the deadweight at the club. There was simply not much incentive for Sarri to stay. 

So as things generally go at Stamford Bridge, a new manager has been brought in.

Most managers would find it difficult to take control of a side in this kind of a transitional period. But it helps that the new manager is none other than Frank Lampard, coming off his first season in management at Derby County. Although very inexperienced and possibly a terrible option for every other Premier League side, Lampard has the reputation and influence among fans and the players to withstand subpar results and keep and use the club’s talented youth without much risk. Sarri is the better coach, but Lampard is the guy to see a tough transitional period that can also see a restructuring of the club, with an overhaul of the coaching and analysis staff and the club’s legends returning in different kinds of roles.

With yet another change coming to the West London club, let’s take a look at what’s changing. What was the way Chelsea set out with Sarri in charge, and how did Derby do under Lampard? 

Chelsea under Sarri

In general, Sarri’s Chelsea used most of the fundamentals of his Napoli: playing out from the back, keeping possession in the final third, a high defensive line without the ball, and pressing from the forward line. The players often had specialized roles too, with Jorginho being the deep playmaker, N’Golo Kanté as a box-to-box whirlwind who ended up having far more attacking responsibilities than expected, either Marcos Alonso or Emerson as the attacking full-back, and Cesar Azpilicueta sitting relatively deeper and more tucked in. 

Although this was influenced by an easy set of fixtures, Chelsea started well, albeit a bit hiccup-y in games like the home fixture against Arsenal in August, where Chelsea were highly vulnerable to cutbacks into the center of the box. Chelsea won fifteen points in their first five games, and remained unbeaten until late November. But as the year progressed, Chelsea’s automatisms started to become predictable for the opposition and some teams began intensely pressing Jorginho and the center-backs in the early stages of Chelsea’s build-up. Chelsea’s tactical hitches reached their peak when they were thrashed 6-0 in February by Manchester City. 

All in all, it does not look like Sarri fully implemented his style in his first and only season. Chelsea did not reach the verticality in attack that Napoli had achieved. The main issue was that Chelsea did not have enough players who made good runs without the ball. Apart from Kanté of course, who – ironically given the debate in the mainstream media about his suitability to a possession-based system and in an advanced role – made most of the trademark third-man runs and rotations on the wings that Sarri used at Napoli. As a result, Chelsea’s expected goals per shot (xG/shot; often used to describe a side or a player’s average shot quality) was just 0.103, which was the 6th-lowest (!) in the league.

Moreover, Chelsea were imperfect in playing out from the back, leading to unplanned long balls and early passes out wide. Without the ball, the forward line (even with hardworking players in Willian and Pedro) was not very adept at pressing the opposition defenders, leading to the first line of the press being bypassed often, putting pressure on Jorginho and the center-backs. A lot of Chelsea’s attackers, like Hazard, Willian, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Kovacic, and Kanté, specialize in dribbling and carrying the ball to attract pressure. This is not very significant in a system that focuses on players taking very few touches of the ball before passing it. 

But soon after the maul at the Etihad, Sarri seemed to start making the more sensible decisions. The squad started to be rotated more, and players like Callum Hudson-Odoi and Loftus-Cheek started to have a larger role. Plus, like in the home fixture against West Ham in April, Chelsea played some exciting football with dribbling to attract space having a larger part in the proceedings. 

Even with a finish in the top four and a Europa League win, it is likely that Sarri would have proved to be more successful at the Bridge, considering that the players would have learnt the circuit-based game better with more training sessions. But with the transfer ban and a Hazard-shaped hole in attack, in addition to interest from Juve, Sarri’s spell at Chelsea was shortened.

Derby under Lampard

While Sarri’s tactics were largely based around passing circuits, Derby were a more conventional possession-based side. That being said, a lot of the key features of Lampard’s Derby County were similar to Chelsea’s. Their most distinctive stylistic trait was their high, intense press. They started applying pressure on the opposition right from the start of their buildup, and when the opposition took the ball into midfield, Derby would look to close them down early, pressing from a 4-5-1 block. 

Derby’s defensive line was always high, their press worked pretty well, and their ball progression was slow and focused on ball retention rather than quick penetration. Sounds familiar, anyone?

Their attacking structure usually involved two narrow wingers and overlapping When a wide player, most of the times a wing-back, runs outside to fill in the space left by a winger going inside with or without the ball, this is called overlapping. fullbacks to cover the wide areas. Like most other possession-based units, Derby looked to control the central areas of the pitch, and then moved it wide as the attack progressed. 

When Derby lost the ball, however, they had problems. Their attacking structure, with the fullbacks and the central midfielders moving forward, led to issues when the opposition launched counterattacks that exploited Derby’s spaces behind the fullbacks. 

In attack, their standout feature was that to score the goals, they frequently took long shots. This was most probably a conscious attacking decision rather than a Plan B, as they had excellent long-range shooters like Harry Wilson, Mason Mount (on loan from Liverpool and Chelsea respectively), and Tom Lawrence. Derby’s xG/shot was just 0.087, the second-lowest in the division, after Bolton Wanderers. 

When Derby reached the final stages in possession, they often didn’t pass it around much in the opposition box. It’s difficult to understand whether this was a tactical choice – they were a long-shooting team after all – or a result of the imperfect execution of the plan, as you don’t really know the manager’s instructions. Similar to Sarri’s Chelsea, they didn’t manage to convert their advanced possession into high-quality shots. 

As a result, there is evidence to suggest that their attack last season was heavily unsustainable. Derby scored 69 goals from 51.6 xG, which was by far the largest attacking overperformance of the underlying numbers in the division. While Derby actually finished 6th and reached the promotion playoff final, their xG figures pointed to a lower-midtable finish. Where Derby ended up definitely had an effect on the way we think about Lampard as a manager, but this case might be one of the best examples of the league table lying to us about how well a team played. 

Goals like these are fantastic, but you shouldn’t count on them going in long-term.

How will Lampard’s Chelsea look?

Hazard’s importance to Chelsea cannot be understated. Especially since the departure of Diego Costa, the Belgian has been the main reason for most of Chelsea’s goals. Not only does he score or assist them frequently, but the chief feature of his game is that he attracts the opposition defenders with his dribbling, creating space for his teammates. Hazard is without a doubt one of the best in the world at this, and it is difficult to imagine what Chelsea’s attack will look like with him completely out of the picture.

The only new player at the club is Christian Pulisic, who arrived from Borussia Dortmund for a hefty €64 million. The American 20-year-old is, like Hazard and Willian, an excellent ball-carrier who also has the potential to be excellent, even though there are doubts about his end product (Pulisic has scored and assisted 33 goals in his 6,790 minutes of his top-flight career, which is just 0.43 goal contributions per 90 minutes) and his possession retention.

From what we’ve seen in pre-season so far, a 4-2-3-1 formation looks highly probable. With Hudson-Odoi, the club’s highest-ceiling player, out for the start of the season, the likely combination on the wings towards the start is Pulisic on the left and Pedro on the right, with Willian occasionally filling in on either one of the sides.

In midfield, a Kanté-Kovacic double pivot would be perfect – both are very good passers, Kovacic can attract defenders with his dribbling, while Kanté can move into open space with the ball very well, and both are good, mobile defenders. Not to mention the fact that Kanté might be the best midfielder at winning the ball back in the world. There’s also room for Jorginho and either Bakayoko or Drinkwater, depending on who’s moved out of the club. 

The fullbacks are arguably Chelsea’s weakest position, and definitely require reinforcement next summer, but there’s future potential with players like Reece James and Ian Maatsen. Chelsea have lots of options in central defense, with David Luiz, Antonio Rüdiger, Andreas Christensen, and Kurt Zouma all capable of starting, and Fikayo Tomori can pick up minutes in Europa League and cup fixtures, too. 

There is more ambiguity for the two central attacking positions. For the number ten spot, both Ross Barkley and Mason Mount have been excellent in pre-season, with the former more likely to nail down the spot. And injured till later in the year is the impressive Loftus-Cheek, which makes the competition for the role very interesting. 

The striker’s spot is in doubt too, with three fairly different options in Tammy Abraham, Olivier Giroud, and Michy Batshuayi. Batshuayi is excellent at getting into good positions while being deficient in linking up passing, while the World Cup-winning Giroud is wonderful at passing it around, but lacks the extra bit of pace that most elite strikers have. The 21-year-old Abraham is good at getting into scoring positions while also being an adequate passer, and looks the more probable starter based on pre-season. But the most likely option looks to be heavy rotation at the top, a bit like how Mourinho handled things with Fernando Torres, Samuel Eto’o, and Demba Ba in 2013-14. 

An exciting thing about Lampard and ex-Chelsea academy manager Jody Morris is the prospect of the club’s young talent being used more. Too many first-rate youngsters have left the club over the years in search of more playing time. Lampard’s arrival has played a part in keeping some youngsters like Hudson-Odoi and Juan Familio-Castillo in Chelsea’s books. Under Lampard, it probably won’t just be the obvious superstars like Hudson-Odoi being used frequently, but there is the possibility of playing time for players like Reece James, Mount, Abraham, and Tomori too. 

This is generally what makes the fans not despise the idea of an inexperienced manager being at the helm. With good man-management and himself being someone that the fanbase can get behind, Lampard can keep things stable as Chelsea make an attempt at transitioning into the future.


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