The Premier league season is upon and thank God. Another few weeks of friendlies would’ve been the end of me at this rate. Funnily enough the current text will directly speak about a very pre-season topic. There’s a new man at the wheel at Chelsea and he’s a little known chap called Frank Lampard. Never heard of him right?
The ex-Chelsea midfielder had quite a decent first season at Derby, at the very least results-wise, getting them into the the top 6. A major topic however is how well will he cope the managerial duties at a club of Chelsea’s stature and size. Pre-season is absolutely never a great indicator how things will go down but at the very least it should give us a clue what the core ideas will be. So without further adu, let’s get into this analysis of Lampard’s tactical tweaks.
Build up and offensive structure
Losing Eden Hazard will undoubtedly have changed Lampard’s core strategy at least a bit. Without a player of that caliber it seems logical that Super Frank has decided to take short build up as the way to go, at least in pre-season. While largely criticized at times (somewhat rightfully), short build has a very natural strategic advantage when having a squad that’s filled with very good players but no one in the offensive part who’s a genuine superstar that will work wonders in any conditions. Inviting opposition pressure is a natural way of freeing up space further up the pitch to allow your good but elite players to work with more space as opposed to being jammed inside 30 yards against teams that won’t come out.
A big part of Chelsea’s build included wall passes from the the defenders to attackers and back to the midfielders. This is a consequence of having the idea to allow you midfielders to play with their face turned to the opposition goal instead of with their backs to it. Means more passing options to get the attack going and more less opportunity for the opposition press to clatter the MF’s when facing their own goal. This also causes the headache for the opposition to have to run back and readjust their positions ones the midfielders can play facing the entire pitch.
This set-up would normally help a player like Jorginho play the 1-2 touch football he’s normally suited to, without having to try (unsuccessfully) to turn under opposition pressure. The engine of the team’s build up however will rightfully be named Mateo Kovacic. The Croat struggled massively under Sarri last season when tasked to play a very unfamiliar and uncharacteristic advanced 8 role. Kovacic is neither as good when receiving high up the pitch between the lines nor does he offer significant end product to his game for that idea to ever work.
In Lampard’s 4-2-3-1 set-up however the midfielder is a man reborn, using his ability to turn away from pressure, good first touch, excellent dribbling and ball-carrying ability, as well as very tidy operational speed to get the ball to the forwards and swiftly and efficiently as possible. His influence will probably go up another level once Kante returns to the side, so I’m pretty much putting my head on the line here when I say Kovacic will have a breakout PL season. Should be fun.
Latter on in the offensive phase, once the opposition is back defending in a settled shape comes the next part of the plan. Lampard seems to be very similar in the way he sets his 4-2-3-1 to the way Pochettino and Emery do. He tasked his wide players in pre-season to play very narrow, asking for the ball between the lines and taking an important role in ball-progression. There was a very common rotation, which saw the wide men coming inside, whilst the FB’s take up higher positions once the rotation occurs. The full-backs will prohibit the opposition FB’s from coming infield and clattering the attackers from behind to win the ball and will thus allow the likes of Pedro, Pulisic, Barkley and Willian to turn and drive with the ball.
Whilst at first site you may thing this system has too little movement In the depth that wouldn’t quite be the case. That’s where the number 10 comes into play. Lampard has during the friendlies predominantly used Mason Mount and Ross Barkley as the options for the spot behind the striker. Both players offer some similarities but as well glaring differences to their games.
Mount is the type of player that would probably fit Frank’s system better at this moment of time. His ability and potency to make daring runs from deep beyond the opposition’s last line makes him a valuable asset in a team that could struggle for width and depth occasionally. One of the great features of Chelsea’s game were the interchanging movements between Mound and Abraham, sometimes meaning the striker would drop between the lines and Mount would charge forward.
Barkley, on the other hand, offers a slightly bigger tactical problem in this case. The Englishman is player who would much rather receive between the lines and be able to turn and drive at the defense. He’s not one of those players you’d usually associate with runs in behind. That’s why I’m probably looking at Mount being quite a regular feature in the starting line-up this season, particularly if he keeps producing the goods. Great awareness in tight spaces and a class ball-striker. Not altogether different from a Dele Alli stylistically.
Last but not least there’s a very noticeable upturn in the intensity of the pressing under Lampard. For much of last season Chelsea pressed high up the pitch but not inherently with the required aggression and intensity. Pre-season has seemed to been the perfect remedy as Frank’s men looked reinvigorated at winning the ball back high up the pitch and it’ll definitely only improve once Kante is back in the side. The Blues used a 4-4-2 press, very man-orientated, which was exploited on occasions but as well produced a very fine goal against Barca in the early stage of the friendlies.
Altogether there are lots of things to this dynamic Chelsea team on the ball which are to be liked. They certainly showed they can play through a press and Lampard and his staff picked great opponents for that exercise in Gladbach and Salzburg. My bigger worry is how do they fare against the majority of teams in the PL, which will surrender possession and play a mid/low block. Those are usually the situations where a player of Hazard’s quality is most greatly missed and only then will his worth to the team be fully assessed.
Defensive shape and man-marking
Pre-season Chelsea defensively gave me a bit of Mourinho flashbacks for different reasons. Particularly when talking about the man-orientated marking in midfield. Lampard had tasked his MF’s to defend the man and not so much the space, at least for most part. This isn’t as bad of a concept as defending in the PL requires a degree of man-orientation but mixed with some zonal awareness. This was by no means the extreme man-marking all over the pitch that a Neil Warnock team will offer but certainly has some elements, which could cause trouble against the big boys who can keep the ball for sustained periods of possession.
Inferior teams won’t really test Chelsea’s defensive shape because they’ll struggle under the intense pressing. The top 6 however would be grinning at least marginally wider after watching some of Chelsea’s pre-season defending. In Lampard’s defense, a fair few of the mistakes during defending in a block were a result of miscommunication, which is to be expected. No one really builds up an imperious defensive structure in the space of a months and half of work and the coordination will improve.
As well as that it can’t be discounted that players realize how completely meaningless pre-season results truly are. As much as they have the ambition to prove themselves as potential starters under Lampard the concentration and desire will definitely fall off as the games go on. Last but not least having Jorginho next to Kovacic instead of Kante in a pivot ultimately regresses the quality of ball-winning and overall defensive nous by quite a bit. There’s no doubt Chelsea’s work off the ball in midfield will improve once the Frenchman is back in action.
Issues on corners
A friend of mine watched a few Derby County games last season and wrote a bit about the defending on corner kicks, which was pretty interesting – full man-marking with not 1 but 2 players on the posts. That could probably explain why everyone says Derby had a set-piece problem last term. I was interested to see how this had transferred to Chelsea and for what it’s worth it’s not looking very rosy. In the 3 and a half games I watched Chelsea conceded 2 goals from corners, whilst looking disorganized and shaky on nearly every cross from corners that came in. Photo images will provide an easier platform for dissecting the errors.
Firstly Chelsea defend under Lampard in mixed fashion. 5 players man-mark, 2 zonal mark and 1 man goes on the near post. Most of the time there are 2 players around the edge of the box waiting for second balls to start counters. Issue number one on the goal, conceded against Reading, stems from the man on the post and the players on zonal duties.
The 2 players, marking zones, have the tough task of covering basically the width of the penalty box just by themselves. This leaves a massive gap in the back post area, which is easily exploitable only through a well lofted cross over Luiz’s head. Luiz being positioned so close the edge of the box prohibits him from controlling the space in behind his back. The cross is too high for the Brazilian who misses the header, allowing an easy tap-in on the back post. The player on the near post meanwhile can do absolutely nothing and instead of Chelsea using 3 players to mark the width of the area, they use 2, with one player having zero purpose more or less. Very easily exploitable error because this leaves the back post protection depending on the man-markers winning their individual duals. Haphazard strategy.
The second glaring issue is how poorly the man-markers are organized. 4 Chelsea players against only 3 Reading counterparts yet the furthest of the 3 Reading players isn’t guarded by anyone. 2 Chelsea players have no access to opponents and are basically looking around aimlessly for support. The last Reading player uses the distraction form the other 2 to find space at the back post and score a simple tap-in. Calamitous. This surely will be targeted early on in the season because there were plenty of other situations I intentionally left out.
Pre-season is there for people to give overly assertive judgement off of games with little to no meaning. I’ll step away from that and give Lampard the benefit of the doubt. The issues at defending in a block and on corner kicks are things that will certainly hurt Chelsea’s top 4 ambitions if no rectified. Lots of teams will be smiling at the prospect of exploiting these issues in the earlier phases of the season.
On the other hand i liked parts of what i saw in terms of build up, directness and intensity on the ball. Lampard really has no other choice if he’s to make up for the lack of a bonafied world class attacker at the club. Take that with a pinch of salt however. Chelsea will rarely, if ever, have games in the PL where teams come out as aggressively as Gladbach and Salzburg did on the press. Space will be limited and it’s interesting to see what the Blues do when teams start parking London-sized buses in front of goal. The Lampard revolution however is well and truly on.