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Frank Lampard: Work in Progress

Examining Frank Lampard’s first season in football management

Reading v Derby County - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images

Frank Lampard is my favourite Chelsea player. When I heard he was stepping into management last year, I decided to watch as many of his games as possible. As someone who’s always been hailed as highly intelligent and who excelled on the pitch, was a leader and played under managers of a collectively massive pedigree, there was little reason not to be excited about following each step of his budding managerial career.

So I purchased a RamsTV subscription at the start of the 2018-19 season and watched every game, either live or on replay, from the first pre-season friendly to the Championship play-off final. What follows is a comprehensive assessment of the circumstances surrounding his appointment, how the season played out, and what aspects of his first season in management might translate to his next job.


Background

Frank Lampard was linked with three prominent clubs last summer, Oxford United, Ipswich Town and Derby County. Ipswich and Derby were both at a crossroads, their recently-departed managers preferring experience over youth, and a more direct style of play. I expected Lampard to take the job at either Oxford or Ipswich. Derby seemed like too ‘big’ of a task — a club with their hands tied in the transfer market due to fruitless overspending and poor squad planning, often underachieving in the play-offs but with the expectations of a massive fan-base weighing strong. But Super Frank was never one to shy away from a challenge.

Derby had finished sixth under Gary Rowett, but crumbled in a 2-1 aggregate defeat at their first playoff hurdle against eventual winners, Fulham. Rowett then jumped ship for relegated Stoke City, who seemingly had the stronger promise and financial clout to mount a promotion challenge. Derby were left with a bloated squad (including many on loan) and a number of players entering or already in their 30s and on big wages.

Taking his first steps as a manager, it was important for Lampard to surround himself with a coaching team that would aid the transition. He did just that by taking with him Jody Morris and Chris Jones from Chelsea, and appointing Newcastle and Premier League legend Shay Given as goalkeeping coach — three young, hungry coaches with new ideas.


Squad Profile

The previous season, in 2017-18, about half the team (those with at least 200 minutes played) were aged 30 or above. Three other players were pushing 30 and the youngest, excluding super-sub Chelsea loanee Kasey Palmer, was 24-year-old Tom Lawrence. To raise the average age even more, the Rams also sold a pair of prove 26-year-olds in Matej Vydra (21G + 4A) and Andreas Weimann (5G + 5A) at the end of the season.

The first pieces of business after Lampard’s appointment were the loan signings of Mason Mount and Harry Wilson from Chelsea and Liverpool, respectively. In total, seven players were brought in, including the late loan signing of Fikayo Tomori from Chelsea, while Lampard also had to contend with match fitness issues for Jack Marriott and Duane Holmes.

From the very beginning, promotion wasn’t a must for Lampard in his first season, but he was expected to keep Derby in a healthy league position and oversee a transition to a younger, more financially sustainable squad. Looking at the Rams’ age profile at the end of the 2018-19 season, it’s safe to say he achieved that.

Unlike Andre Villas-Boas at Chelsea eight years prior, Lampard kept the ‘old guard’ of Derby involved, too. Richard Keogh played every match and the likes of Scott Carson, Bradley Johnson, Craig Bryson and Tom Huddlestone featured regularly. Even David Nugent was kept in a rotational role, despite clear evidence of his decline at 34. Curtis Davies probably would’ve been in the thick of things as well, but he missed most of the season with an Achilles injury.

The squad was being bulit with a long-term plan in mind, presumably, to gradually phase out the aging players, yet retain their influence in the dressing room and introduce younger players into more prominent squad roles. The loan signings of Mount, Wilson and Tomori may reek of further short-termism, but they were the first steps in an eventual shift, and also aided Derby’s promotion push.


Transfers

Derby County don’t have a Director of Football and subscribe to a generally restricted scouting policy of signing players from within the United Kingdom. All of Lampard’s recruits followed suit.

Harry Wilson (21), Fikayo Tomori (20) and Mason Mount (19) joined on season-long loan deals from Premier League academies and proved themselves indispensable. Wilson and Mount a combined for 30% of Derby’s total non-penalty xG and xA — a risky dependence on two players with only one and a half seasons of senior football between them previously! That not only spoke to Lampard and Morris’ ability to bring the best out of their young players but the loan pair’s undoubted talent as well.

Strikers Jack Marriott (Peterborough United) and Martyn Waghorn (Ipswich Town) were brought in to fill the goal-void left by Matej Vydra. Both signings ultimately worked well, sharing minutes and scoring a combined 19 goals, outperforming xG by about 7.

Florian Jozefzoon, a wide attacker, had an impressive albeit brief spell at Brentford, but struggled to really make an impact for Derby. Flo-Jo clearly boasted some impressive footwork and could send the opposition defence on a merry dance when he wanted to, but was largely inconsistent and delivered end product sporadically. George Evans, a defensive midfielder by trade, was brought in from Reading and played only a few games owing to injury, but filled in superbly for Tomori and Keogh at centre-back for two games during the end-of-season run-in. Scott Malone, formerly of Fulham, was signed from Huddersfield Town and provided healthy competition to Craig Forsyth for the left-back spot, although Forsyth’s ACL injury meant Malone went on to play the majority of the second half of the season.

Duane Holmes was a brilliant find. Plying his trade as a wide attacker for Scunthorpe United, Holmes was signed in August and eased into the squad by Lampard due to fitness problems. He ultimately proved very crucial as a central midfielder, wide attacker and even right back!

Relatively big-name January additions Andy King and Efe Ambrose barely featured, but Ashley Cole was another astute addition, both on and off the pitch. Cole’s arrival coincided (or did it?) with a massive upturn in form for Jayden Bogle, an 18-year-old full back who was fast-tracked into the first-team despite developmental growing pains. On the pitch, Ash was still reliable at 38, and even deputised at wing-back in 3-5-2 against Millwall.


Tactics & Trends

Lampard’s most commonly deployed formation was a 4-3-3, usually utilizing classic roles of the Mourinho school, but also featuring a lot of progressive ideas and overall fluidity and adaptability. (Some might say too much, even.)

The centre backs, almost always Fikayo Tomori and Richard Keogh, maintained a high line, keeping possession at the back and progressing play in a calculated manner. On occasion, either would look to break into midfield or pass creatively to advanced areas, with Tomori usually the more adventurous (and more capable at being adventurous) of the two.

The holding midfielder, a more aggressive ball-winner than Jorginho at Chelsea, was tasked with dropping back to receive the ball, keep possession ticking over and find pockets of space in behind the opposition defence to pass to. He’d also join the midfield block when required. Both midfielders ahead of the holding player could be loosely described as box-to-box, although the left-sided central midfielder (usually Mason Mount) would interchange positions with the left-sided attacker much more frequently then his counterpart of the right. This would enable an easy switch to a ‘Christmas tree’ shape during the attacking phase.

Both attacking players tended to sit narrowly and engaged in rapid passing and positional exchanges or overloads with their corresponding central midfielder, often attracting the opposition press more centrally and allowing the full backs space to progress in the wide areas, and deliver crosses from the edge of the area.

There were nuanced differences in the roles of the full backs, which varied according to personnel as well. Young Jayden Bogle would often embark upon mazy runs through midfield to get himself into advanced areas, whereas Craig Forsyth would look to progress more often via passing moves instead, as that is where his strengths lay. It remained more or less consistent when Scott Malone was in the side, although he had a greater proclivity for dribbling.

Tom Lawrence (on ball) and Harry Wilson (far right) temporarily operate in central areas, leaving space for full-backs on either side. This particular move resulted in Jayden Bogle receiving out wide and crossing for Jack Marriott to finish.

Other team shapes Lampard tinkered with included:

  • 4-2-3-1 (just a few minor adjustments away from the standard 4-3-3) — the left-sided midfielder assumed more attacking responsibilities would take up a more advanced, central role, with the other two midfielders relatively restrained behind him.
  • 4-4-2 (flat or diamond midfield) — the two-striker formation employed several times, most notably working wonders in that play-off semi-final second leg 4-2 win at Elland Road, Lampard’s fourth meeting of the season against Leeds after losing all three previous games by a combined 1-7 scoreline.
  • 3-5-2 — Derby started with that formation against Millwall, featuring Ashley Cole and Duane Holmes as wing-backs flanking an unorthodox back-three of Tomori, Keogh and Jayden Bogle. They were unlucky to lose 1-0
  • 3-4-3 — the more attacking version of the 3-5-2, seen in the remarkable 3-4 comeback win against Norwich City with Florian Jozefzoon and Duane Holmes as wide players

A stand-out element was Derby’s tenacity to press. While the lone striker would seek to unsettle the opposition defence throughout the game — a quality Lampard valued greatly in the aging David Nugent, albeit only in spells — the midfield press would be carried out in a block of 4 or 5 with Mount leading it most often. The young midfielder’s defensive contributions don’t show up when parsing through readily available on-ball defensive metrics such as duels and tackles, however his consistent exuberance in leading the press was an asset Derby struggled to replace when he was out injured for three months. In an article for Statsbomb (back in November) by James Socik, Mount is singled out as a player who shines through in Statsbomb’s pressure-related metrics. It’s also something Frank Lampard underlined time and time again in his interactions with the press.

Mason Mount vs. Craig Bryson on-ball ‘defensive activity’ map

High-energy pressing and coverage was asked from both midfielders, but Mount sought to win the ball back in more central areas whilst also covering the left flank. Tom Lawrence and Harry Wilson were useful to have as supporting players on the left for this purpose. Another metric that goes some way in indicating intensity of press is PPDA, or Passes Per Defensive Action — a lower PPDA would usually mean that a team is pressing with a higher intensity. As per Wyscout, Derby’s was the second-lowest in the Championship at 8.2 (the leaders were Leeds United at 6.8).

Another feature that shone through was Derby’s willingness to shoot from distance. Right from the beginning, Lampard was open about encouraging his players to try their luck from distance. Ultimately, they ended up over-performing their xG by some distance and finishing much higher than their ‘Expected Points’ had them, which was in lower-mid table. Whether this can be reliably reproduced season upon season is up for debate, but there is always the possibility that Lampard instructed his players to take long shots precisely because they are good at it. Wilson, Mount and Lawrence are known for their ability to find the back of the net from range. To no surprise, these players are the ones who took the majority of Derby’s shots from distance.

Wilson was particularly prolific in this regard, in addition to dead-ball situations, and ended up with a monstrous goal tally of 19 (!). One hallmark of great management is utilizing and maximizing your players’ strengths and talents. Perhaps Wilson and Lampard got lucky. Perhaps it was part of the plan. Neither means that we’d see the same at Chelsea.

Derby Count shot map, 2018-19

Derby’s surprise 4-1 rout of high-flying West Bromwich Albion in October signaled the inception of another tactical tweak to the standard 4-3-3. To replace the injured Craig Bryson, it was not Bradley Johnson but Harry Wilson who took his place on the right side of midfield. Wilson has played more centrally a few times during his time in the Liverpool academy (in an attacking role) but not nearly enough that one would consider him a natural central midfielder but Lampard would turn to this solution on more than one occasion — and also using a similar concept to replaced an injured Mason Mount with Duane Holmes. Deploying a midfield with two highly mobile, creative midfielders enhanced Derby’s ability to transition rapidly and help break the press by carrying the ball out of midfield. The importance of having a pair of such midfielders cannot be stressed enough, as Derby would typically struggle against a team who pressed either their centre-backs (Millwall did it to great effect twice) or the midfielders specifically (Norwich City a notable case there).

Mount’s extended absence through injury brought about the emergence of Duane Holmes in this role and he showed just why he was signed with a number of energetic displays that breathed new life into the side, even if he couldn’t replace the Chelsea loanee to maximum effect. Holmes is naturally a wide player, and it’s a credit to Lampard that he identified another area where his creativity and progressive passing would best suit the team.

Holmes making more passes in the center

Derby’s attacking plan was based on patient build-up early on, with a lot of ball rotation among the back four and the holding midfielder and then aiming to control central half-spaces. However, the team’s high pressing and speed on the counter were also a large source of goals. This 3-1 win over Brentford is a good case in point, where Derby’s second and third goals came immediately after winning back possession.

Another prime example — even though Derby’s block in this game was lower than usual — is Jack Marriott’s goal against Chelsea in the Carabao Cup, where Tom Huddlestone, the deepest-lying midfielder in possession, dispossessed his Chelsea counterpart, Cesc Fabregas and set Marriott through on goal.

Derby’s weaknesses were often quite glaring however, including a major vulnerability to crosses and set-pieces. Roughly half of their goals were conceded from set-piece and crossing situations, in part due to the defenders’ poor marking and positional awarenessm but also due to the full back (mainly Bogle on the right) operating too high up to recover effectively.

The nature of Lampard’s system didn’t help, and the space in behind the full backs was targeted by opponents and exploited time and time again. Similarly, Derby’s rush of players forward during attacks — typically both midfielders, the striker, at least one attacker and a full-back would take up very advanced positions — left them quite susceptible at the back, especially with a holding midfielder whose best days were past him. Luckily for Derby, on most occasions where they would flood the penalty area, the attack would tend to result in dead ball. Towards the end of the season, increased flooding of the area yielded even more goalscoring opportunities, but the team lacked the defensive discipline required, in general, while playing in that gung-ho fashion.

This was a more frequent occurrence in the second half of the season for Derby, who ended among the lowest in the league for touches in the box due to a lack of productivity.

Derby’s Achilles heel however may have been that teams that could press the centre-backs or defensive midfielder, but still maintain a deep defensive line, making it difficult for Derby to break them down. Losses to Bolton, Rotherham and Millwall, all among the bottom four, all took advantage of this. In fact, three-quarters of the Rams’ 12 losses in the league came to teams either in the top-6 or the bottom-4. The midfield shake-up mid-season did help to counter such teams, by breaking the initial press.

Derby’s record against teams in the first and fourth quadrants was 8W, 6D, 10L — a win rate of 33% and all but 2 losses of their entire campaign. The teams on the top-right were the ones most others couldn’t square up against either, but there was a huge issue in dealing with teams that played directly in the final third, regardless of their ability to actually keep the ball there.

Derby were above-average at progressing to the final third, but once they got there there was a huge productivity issue. That’s basically what separates a bunch of mid-table teams from those that finished in the top (except Brentford, who were quite unlucky). Swansea City stood out from the rest, with a clear plan of attack to retain possession, draw out the opposition press, and then break incisively. Derby’s playing style was somewhere between Swansea and Leeds, both teams with rapid movement in advanced areas, but Lampard’s side were nowhere near from making the most of their ball retention.

The silver lining is that the data would suggest that Derby could get into the final third with relative ease, but were missing the proper execution and coordinated movements that were required for consistent success once there. Lampard’s decision to encourage his players to shoot in high volume from outside the penalty area also proved deleterious in this regard.

Without a clear plan of attack, Derby often floundered whereas other teams with more coordinated forays prospered. Aston Villa and Sheffield United, for example, focused on dominating wide areas. Leeds United took full control of the central half-spaces. Derby were reasonably successful centrally as well, but far too often were kept out of the opposition penalty area.

Despite these flaws, Derby remained in the race for a play-off spot throughout the season, never dropping lower than 8th all season. They were fairly consistent throughout the season, too, with a minor blip during Mason Mount’s absence and a strong finish in the last six games.

Image via Wikipedia

The Future

Despite coming within a game of Premier League football, Lampard’s first season at Derby was ... mixed ... at best. The play-off final run does paper over the cracks to a certain extent however, and there’s nothing to suggest that last season’s issues won’t be rectified with time. The fact that this was Lampard’s his first season of management has to count for something as well.

Having picked apart his team in many ways, I’ll be the first one to concede that his methods are far from set in stone. His main principles may have remained constant, but he was making changes and experimenting with shapes, personnel and roles. At this point, it’s best to look at last season as a pure learning experience rather than an indication of exactly what might come next.

Lampard did bring several positive ‘intangibles’ to the team, imprinting some of his own personality and mentality on the squad. Derby developed a knack for “rising to the occasion”, especially in the Cup wins over Manchester United and Southampton. Even against Premier League teams, Lampard stayed true to the way he wanted his teams to play, but with tactical tweaks to accommodate for the level of the opposition. In every such game, including the play-off semi-final against Leeds, Derby took the challenge head on. Lampard tried his utmost to create a positive atmosphere around the team — at one point even calling out the doomsayers in public — and he engaged very well with the fans, too.

Aston Villa v Derby County - Sky Bet Championship Play-off Final Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

His excellent man-management of players old and young, no doubt aided by Jody Morris, is also something that stands out. Teenager Jayden Bogle was rewarded for superb showings in training, pre-season and cup appearances. He made several mistakes along the way, which is natural for someone just starting out in professional football at the age of 18, but Lampard managed the situation adroitly. There were times when Bogle was allowed to ride out the mistakes, and there were times when Andre Wisdom was brought back into the side to deputise. Bogle’s value had surged by the end of the season and Derby will be lucky to keep him for much longer.

The obvious cases of Mount, Tomori and Wilson aside, Lampard was the first person to actually manage the situation of Mason Bennett, now 22, who made his first-team debut 6 years ago but has barely played since, owing a lot to injuries and changing managers. Bennett has a mostly one-dimensional skill-set: he can run at the defence all day long and is built like a tank. Lampard deployed him surgically (33 appearances but just 11 starts), either out wide or even as a striker, often putting him in situations where he could best impact the game.

Players who were on the fringes of the first-team at the start of the season, such as Roos, Evans and Wisdom, all eventually made important contributions, too. Lampard kept the senior figures in the dressing room thoroughly involved throughout, but maintained a firm meritocracy based on not only match performances but effort in training, which not even the prolific Jack Marriott was exempt from.

There are things to take away from Lampard’s first season in management, both good and bad, but he hasn’t definitely proved or disproved any notions we may have held of him since the end of his playing days. It’s too soon for that.

His team last season had strengths and weaknesses. He made many good decisions, and fewer bad decisions. But his first season in management is encouraging, and he’s clearly heading in the right direction at a football manager. With Chelsea’s hands tied in the transfer market for one year, it’s the perfect time to let the club and a manager grow together to a more sustainable future. Having lived and loved every bit of the Derby County campaign gone by, I am fully behind Frank Lampard taking the reins at Chelsea.

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