The Chelsea boss continues to come under pressure, with Sunday’s defeat to Manchester City further exposing his almost archaic tactical ideas
This season was supposed to provide an opportunity for Frank Lampard to cast aside doubts about his tactical acumen; to recalibrate the public’s perception of his talents and limitations as a Premier League manager.
Throughout the last 18 months, Lampard has looked tactically naïve as his side drift through matches without a discernible plan, and while last season the club’s transfer ban shielded Lampard from receiving major criticism, there is nowhere left to deflect blame.
The 42-year-old does not coach with the microscopic detail required at the elite level of the modern game, failing to impose a clear structure with or without the ball and seemingly unable to implement ‘automatisms’: a fashionable buzzword for the pre-set attacking moves that must be etched into muscle memory on the training field.
Following Leicester City’s shock title win in 2016, which proved once and for all the Premier League’s elite clubs were lagging behind tactically, Antonio Conte – then Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp – arrived in England to introduce immaculately choreographed set moves.
In less than half a decade, the English top-flight transitioned from vague notions of formation and mindset to demarcated zones, multi-layered pressing traps, and step-by-step scaffolding when progressing the ball forward.
After Sunday’s emphatic defeat to Guardiola’s Manchester City, it has become clear that Lampard’s coaching is a throwback to the pre-Conte era.
In every detail of City’s victory, Roman Abramovich was shown the value of laying down an ultra-detailed tactical foundation of the sort Lampard clearly cannot provide.
Man City’s press flips the territorial battle
Chelsea clearly intended to sit back and hit City on the counterattack, as they did in their 2-1 win at Stamford Bridge in June.
And whereas Lampard stuck with the same policy from that meeting, Guardiola showed he had learned by tweaking his system.
He lined his side up in a similar formation to the June game, when Kevin De Bruyne also played as a ‘false nine’, only this time Guardiola limited the press to Chelsea’s goal kicks while dropping his team into a deep formation in all other circumstances.
This forced Chelsea to hold the majority of possession (57 per cent) and flipped the territorial battle.
There was no room in behind for Lampard’s side to counter, nullifying the plan to get Timo Werner, Christian Pulisic and Hakim Ziyech racing forward on the break.
City’s unusually deep shape also ensured central midfield was well stocked with bodies and, crucially, was compact enough to cut off the passing lines through the middle of the park.
Mason Mount and Ziyech, when cutting inside from the flank, could not get on the ball, gradually lowering Chelsea’s tempo until there was a mismatch in energy that the visitors could use to explode forward.
Guardiola floods the No.10 space to overload Kante
The compression between the three City lines exemplified Guardiola’s attention to detail. By contrast ,Chelsea were hopelessly open.
N’Golo Kante was fielded alone at the base of midfield as Mount and Mateo Kovacic searched for space ahead of him, and with the forwards erratically pressing while the defenders held a mid-block, Lampard’s lack of positional coaching became a serious concern.
It was as if the Chelsea team were trying to run away from Kante in all directions, fanning out in a circle as the defenders attempted to hold deeper ground while the attackers searched for the ball.
How a team looks when out of possession – how much space they leave between the lines, how coordinated they are in their movement – says a lot about a manager’s tactics. And Kante’s loneliness spoke volumes about Lampard.
Guardiola, anticipating this from watching the same thing happen in numerous Chelsea games this season, overloaded Kante by deploying Ilkay Gundogan in an advanced position and instructing Phil Foden and De Bruyne to join him in the same space.
Chelsea’s centre-backs were confused by De Bruyne’s role as City overwhelmed them through the centre, easily passing through the lines thanks to numerical advantages in defensive and attacking midfield.
City stretch wide to expose Lampard’s 4-3-3
After the game, Foden explained that Guardiola had instructed the wingers to hold their width, which helped explain his unusual decision to field a left-footer on the left and a right-footer on the right.
Chelsea are notoriously light on numbers out wide thanks to the narrowness of Lampard’s favoured 4-3-3 formation, in which the two more attacking midfielders are regularly too high up the pitch to help the full-backs while the wingers are expected to support the striker.
Unsurprisingly, City easily played one-twos throughout the game down the two flanks, outnumbering Cesar Azpilicueta and Ben Chilwell with a simple tactic that, with sharper finishing, could have made the score line a lot worse for the hosts.
What is perhaps most damning, after City flooded Kante’s zone and out-manoeuvred Chelsea on the wings, is that Lampard did nothing to change the game.
His substitutions came late, his formation change even later, and in the first half no instructions were given to the centre-backs to sort out the issue of De Bruyne’s movement off the front.
What now for Lampard?
Guardiola spoke at length after the match about understanding the tempo of how his team play, and how they do not have the personnel to match the counter-pressing or the quick breaks of Tottenham and Liverpool.
“We are a team that has to play in a certain rhythm, we can’t play when everything is up and down, up and down, up and down,” he said. “We have to play our rhythm, a thousand passes, passes, passes and at the right moment attack.”
Guardiola has felt his way into pandemic football. As others give in to the chaos that an exhausting fixture list has caused, his City side have doubled down on control through possession, stepping off the press and cautiously avoiding end-to-end games.
It is exactly the opposite of what Chelsea have done under Lampard, and again it is a difference that exposes the ex-Derby County manager’s tactical simplicity compared with the Catalan.
City have grown into the season, solidifying their base before re-learning how to puncture teams in key moments and tempo changes.
Chelsea, on the other hand, have continued to attack wildly; to fan out and improvise, and it should not come as a surprise that this leads to emotionally volatile performances.
If there is one moment from Sunday’s game that crystallises this thesis, it is City’s third goal – a moment that evoked the madness of Demba Ba’s goal for Istanbul Basaksehir against Manchester United in December as Raheem Sterling was given the freedom of the Chelsea half to race through on goal before De Bruyne provided the finishing touch.
No elite Premier League team should be caught out so badly. It reveals a lack of discipline, a lack of structure, a lack of instruction. It is impossible to imagine a Guardiola team, with all its meticulous scaffolding, conceding a goal like that.
And therein lies the difference between the two coaches.
A run of one win in six leaves Chelsea eighth in the Premier League table despite their influx of tactically sophisticated young attackers over the summer. The club have reached the inevitable ceiling of what can be achieved with an improvisational and individualistic tactical philosophy.While Xpooze can confirm that Lampard is not in any imminent danger of being sacked, if Abramovich was to move for one of football’s modern, automatism-savvy tacticians, such as Julien Nagelsmann, Massimiliano Allegri or even Ralph Hasenhuttl, then it would not take long before supporters realised that, within half a decade, the Premier League has evolved to make even a young manager like Lampard a relic of a bygone era.