Rumours of fractured relationship between Andre Villas-Boas and his players may be overstated; but there was no denying that as Frank Lampard warmed up on the touchline against Birmingham there was a certain disconnection. They may have been sharing a touchline; and they may share similarities in age, but it was obvious when manager instructed player before his introduction, they didn't see eye to eye.
Neither in thirty seconds of dialogue nor in twenty seconds of silence did the English midfielder look at his manager's face, and as Juan Mata was withdrawn boos rang out around Stamford Bridge. They were not for Lampard however, but rather for Villas-Boas for his hooking of the side’s influential playmaker, right when Chelsea desired a winner.
While Mata possesses the craft and guile to produce something out of nothing, he had been largely absent during the game, even when moved behind Didier Drogba in the 4-2-3-1 Chelsea adopted in the 60th minute. Introducing Lampard was to add the player’s ability to drive on to goal with excellent timing; something Wolves fans would rather forget. In the scheme of the game, it was an understandable move.
Villas-Boas may be looking for a more penetrative game based around possession, and it seems he believes Lampard doesn’t fit into his plans. A player who fits more into this ideal, Raul Meireles, has started 21 games compared to Lampard’s 19; not a huge difference, but enough to suggest that the value of Lampard has diminished under Villas-Boas’ reign.
To pigeonhole Lampard into a midfield poacher stereotype and then come to a conclusion that his career is approaching its twilight is to underestimate his abilities. Lampard has always been known for his exceptional goal tally, and while this is understandably so, his array of passing, both short and long, and his tactical positioning add an element of versatility to his game that has seemingly never been utilised.
It seems only a matter of time behind Villas-Boas makes the permanent switch from 4-3-3 to 4-2-3-1 for Chelsea, with the inversion of the midfield triangle a platform for Juan Mata to move centrally. In order for this shift in system to work a functional midfield two needs to be developed – the double pivot is crucial to the success of the formation, and while opponents and injuries will dictate selection, a case can be made for Lampard to shift deeper.
In restricting Lampard’s attacking movement more emphasis can be placed on his passing abilities, and his calmness under pressure, best exemplified in the Champions League semi final against Liverpool in 2008, would make him a suitable choice in a position that requires it. It would be silly to discredit Lampard merely because the player he was isn’t necessarily what Villas-Boas wants; moving deeper could be the way forward for all concerned.
Originally written for Life's A Pitch