The Frank Lampard Question

With Frank Lampard being dropped from the England squad and his mixed performances for the Blues over the past twelve months (perhaps mostly explained by that groin injury while sidelined him for the first half of last season), the internet has been abuzz with opinion on the Chelsea FC midfielder. Some have opted to blame him for everything up to and including the Alvarez impact while others have insisted that a man of his stature at the club can do no wrong by definition. Chelsea, meanwhile, haven't played particularly good football in quite some time.

Obviously, both of the most vocal arguments for and against the continued presence of Lampard miss the mark by some degree - if there was merit to them, those holding said positions probably wouldn't need to be quite so loud about it. The answer to Chelsea's woes does not lie in forcibly retiring Lampard for the likes of Josh McEachran or Raul Meireles, and Lampard is not beyond reproach. But the second clause doesn't mean he's responsible for Chelsea's poor run.

On the face of things, his goalscoring record is still excellent - twelve goals from midfield since the start of last season, despite missing half of it, would seem to imply that his powers are undimmed when he takes the pitch, but at the same time he and Didier Drogba/Fernando Torres are the focal points of a Chelsea attack that appears to be misfiring. Since he plays for the team, some of that blame must be assigned to Lampard. The question is whether enough blame can be assigned Lampard's way to encourage the team to play him less*.

*Less than a 33-year-old would normally play, I mean. Clearly a man with a chronic groin injury should not being playing 100% of every match.

Captain John Terry doesn't think so, warning people off dismissing Lampard in his usual, forceful way:

Write Frank Lampard off at your peril. I have known him for an awfully long time and he was obviously disappointed about not starting but he trained incredibly hard the day after and certainly will continue to do that. I have trained with him for a long time now and he is one of the best players I have played with and one of the best professionals I have ever played with as well.

Because of his age people are tending to write him off but he's still in excellent form at Chelsea, [during] last season and he's had a good start this season as well.

Source: ChelseaFC.com.

I tend to agree with Terry here. Lampard is not yet - despite being as old as the manager - a big enough burden on the team to necessitate his benching for performance reasons. That doesn't mean he should be playing as often as he has been, of course, because hey rest is nice, but he's still a valuable member of the team and should be treated as such, even though he's clearly a lesser player than he was a few years ago.

One of the major Lampard-related talking points has been the obvious lack of a link between Torres and the England midfielder. Torres has replaced Drogba in the Stamford Bridge pecking order, and requires a different kind of service than that which Chelsea are used to providing to their strikers. The 27-year-old has thrived on through balls hit into space, while Drogba does far better having the ball played at his feet. To date, Lampard has completely failed to provide Torres with the kind of service the Spaniard would like - it's telling that the best through ball played to the striker in his Chelsea career has come from a centre back rather than a midfielder.

However, Torres shouldn't be totally useless without said through balls - just because he's used to living off them doesn't mean he requires them. His goal against West Ham United last season came off a pass sent in from a wide forward in Nicolas Anelka, and as I mentioned way back in June there's no requirement that creativity must come from the centre of the pitch. That doesn't mean I wouldn't want a creative midfield player (Javier Pastore, we hardly knew ye), but not having bought one does not doom Chelsea to hopeless mediocrity by any means.

Creativity coming from the flanks has been secured in the form of Juan Mata on the left, and people have very high hopes for Daniel Sturridge on the other side*. I don't think there's any doubt that the wide players will supply Torres at a far higher clip than Chelsea's midfield has - within a matter of minutes of Mata taking the pitch the countrymen had linked up to supply the striker with a header that was, alas, straight at John Ruddy - so the question then becomes a matter of supplying the wingers quickly, so that they can get the ball to Torres. And so Lampard can follow in late and mop up chances.

*I wouldn't bet on him fixing everything, myself, but he's talented enough that it might happen.

For all of the complaints about Chelsea being a naturally very central team over the past few years, the buildup has long relied on the pairing of wide forward and fullback. With Jose Bosingwa apparently back to his best (thank goodness!) the Blues can once again reliably attack down both flanks and set their wingers infield to create chaos. Lampard serves two purposes in such a system.

  • Getting the ball out wide. We've seen in the radial maps just how important Lampard was in supplying the fullbacks. The bulk of the long, fast passes to each flank were supplied by the England man, and he's far better equipped to play that ball than anyone on the team save John Obi Mikel, who doesn't bother with that sort of thing, and Raul Meireles, who is a rotational player. Those passes kickstart attacks down a flank and can serve as an outlet to the other side of the pitch should said attack run into trouble.
  • Score. Chelsea's current system rather relies on Lampard taking the place of a second central striker when the ball in coming in from wide areas. Being able to get the ball to the flanks early allows Lampard the freedom to run into the box when the position becomes more promising, and that's how he scores the bulk of his goals.

In other words, Lampard is the architect and fairly often the finisher of Chelsea's flank attacks. He's had a couple of poor games this season (one and a half, actually), but the lack of thrust in the middle probably hasn't been his fault. No, he's not providing great service to Torres, but he doesn't actually have to. If the wide forwards can create, that is enough - Torres needs to fit into a team that accommodates Lampard, and not the other way around.

There'll come a time, and it won't be too long from now, that Chelsea are forced to switch away from the Lampard-driven midfield that has dominated the club for the better part of a decade. That's fine, and Andre Villas-Boas can play around with different strategies and styles while resting the vice-captain (frequently), but for now, our first-choice team should probably still feature Lampard, creaking and diminished though he may be.

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