It got a little bit lost in the relief over Didier Drogba's 68th minute winner yesterday, but Frank Lampard ended up playing most of the Stoke City match in a double pivot alongside John Obi Mikel. This is the second time he's been fielded in a pivot during this campaign after extensive experimentation with playing him deeper in preseason matches, and he looked... well, perfectly fine. The pairing with Mikel allowed Chelsea to completely control the game, and although things got sloppier when Ramires was pushed alongside him later on, Lampard played very well throughout.
That said, there's still some doubt among Chelsea fans about whether or not Lampard is actually a serviceable player in a 4-2-3-1. Personally, I think he's a good enough player to succeed in a good many roles, but he's certainly not a defensive midfielder and I suspect that's where most of the opposition to him being placed in a pivot comes from. The problem, of course, is that the central midfield pairing in a 4-2-3-1 are, despite what many commentators will tell you, not holding players in any real sense of the term.
It's pretty obvious where that perception comes from - the notation itself implies a deeper-lying midfield band, and from there it's an easy step towards 'defensive midfielder'. But that's by no means true for every implementation of the 4-2-3-1. The shape Chelsea played against Stoke on Saturday was actually derived from a standard 4-4-1-1, with the wide players - Salomon Kalou and Ramires - pushed up to match the line of the trequartista. The 'holding' players, then are actually the archetypal central midfield pairing of a 4-4-2, neither defensive nor attacking by nature.
One of the major selling points of the 4-2-3-1, in fact, is that you don't really need a holding player in the lines of Oriol Romeu or John Obi Mikel, who are forced to guard the defence by themselves. Teams might play two holders in a pivot, but they'll only do so when they're being exceptionally negative, something Chelsea certainly weren't on Saturday.
Of course, none of that says Lampard can actually play there. But while the vice-captain is best known for his midfield poaching ability, he has a range of other skills that can fit in very nicely in a deeper position. His tackling is nothing special, but still playable, and his positioning is typically excellent. Better, he has one tool that fits in superbly with what Chelsea might need from an adventurous pivot player - the ability to stretch the defence with long passes out to the flanks.
The Blues, as currently constructed, rely heavily on the fullbacks for their width, and that means that a player who can quickly switch the point of attack is incredibly useful. We actually saw this when we played against Napoli - Walter Gargano is a pivot midfielder with minimal defensive ability but who dictates play by spraying passes to their wide players. This is exactly the role that Lampard could fulfill with Chelsea, and it's hardly one that prevents him going forward when the mood takes him.
Against teams which Chelsea expect to dominate (which, this year aside, is most of them), the team should look seriously at playing Lampard deeper and allowing Juan Mata to stay in front of him. Partnered with the likes of John Obi Mikel and Michael Essien, there's no reason to think that his inclusion would hurt the team's overall defence, and having the ability to bring Ashley Cole and Branislav Ivanovic into the attack at speed means that Lampard could offer something that none of the other pure midfielders can.
At any rate, it was nice to see Roberto di Matteo giving it a try.