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When do “individual errors” become the individual's error?

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Can Lampard fix the defense?

Chelsea Press Conference And Training Session Photo by Darren Walsh/Chelsea FC via Getty Images

“Individual errors” is an excuse we’ve heard a fair few times in recent years, most notably during the Andre Villas-Boas mini-era, but it’s making a comeback with a vengeance in recent weeks and months. And unfortunately for its biggest proponent, the increasing frequency of the excuse is only starting to lead to questions about his own decision-making and an erosion of his protective aura.

This question, which has been nagging at the back of my mind, was recently explored in an excellent and thought-provoking Twitter thread by friend of the blog @sidcelery. I’ve asked him a few times before to write for us, but he’s never been keen, so I didn’t ask this time and I’m just going to borrow liberally instead.

After all, it’s the manager who picks the team, the shape, and the tactics — the individuals who are tasked with executing his instructions (or not, as it were). The ultimate responsibility rests on his shoulders, rightly or wrongly. Sh*t flows uphill. He might blame time, transfers, pandemics, moon-phases, Projects with a capital P, or whatever else that may force his hand, and he may even have a point, but in this line of work, there’s little room for grey areas. He’s the one who (mis-)placed his trust. You can do it a few times; you can’t away with it forever. You either win, or you don’t.

That’s not to say that the individual errors aren’t actually individual errors — literally, errors made by certain individuals undoing the good work of the team — but if the individuals in question continue making the same errors in the same or similar situations, does ultimate blame rest with them or “the individual” (h/t: Michael Emenalo) putting them into said situations over and over and over again?

If we keep putting players into suboptimal situations for their skillsets, should we be surprised that they’re not executing as we’d like? More pertinently, should we continue blaming them for their obvious shortcomings? It’s not like we’re dealing with new problems here.

As Obi-Wan might say, ”who’s the more foolish, the fool or the fool who follows him”?

Of course, it’s usually not quite so simple in football. Managers don’t exactly get to hand-craft their ideal squad. On the other hand, that’s precisely where and how they earn their keep. A player might look foolish in one situation or setup, but look world class in another. David Luiz was a lost boy under Villas-Boas and a hero of the Champions League a few months later under Di Matteo. See also: Čech, Mikel, Drogba, maybe even Lampard himself! John Terry was written off around the same time, then anchored a Premier League-winning defense a couple years later. And so on.

David Luiz, to bring him up again, was practically the living embodiment of “individual error”, so those managers who didn’t want to see him make frequent catastrophic mistakes, mitigated for those bad habits by deploying him as a defensive midfielder (Benítez, Mourinho), or as third center-back in a back-three (Conte). And just as importantly, they put him in situations where we could still use his good qualities — his aerial strength, his passing, his inventiveness.

That’s not to say that Lampard is incapable of figuring this out. He’s seen and experienced first-hand the likes of Mourinho and Carlo Ancelotti come up with solutions to problems — some lasting longer than others, but successful solutions nonetheless. But their answers were more involved than just “work work work”. That was true even for Antonio Conte, who didn’t know any other word than “work” for much of his two-season tenure.

Yes, individual errors have been made. Perhaps those individuals can figure out how to stop making them. Perhaps not. It’s up to Lampard to make those calls, to deploy a system that works with the players he has available and to place his trust in those he chooses to trust — that’s the job he’s paid for!

I don’t know at what point individual errors become the individual’s error, but we’re certainly trending that way. Lampard needs to start fixing the team’s problems, and actually fix them. Before it’s too late.