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Frank Lampard’s Chelsea, Year One: Build-up and the regista

Examining Chelsea at the start of the Lampard Era and previewing the season ahead; part 2 of 4

This is part TWO of a four-part dossier, focusing on the Chelsea FC team Frank Lampard inherits, with an emphasis on player roles and tactics in order to preview the season ahead and try to foresee what to expect.

Part 1: Defensive structure and playing out
Part 3: Midfield two and box-to-box
Part 4: Scoring goals and player power

The midfield shape is probably the most discernible feature in modern football when trying to figure out a manager’s vision of football.

The last three (permanent) managers all had a different view on how they expected the team to play out, and especially regarding the connection between defenders and midfielders to build up play. Last season, one of the players was tasked with a specific role and it is now time to draw conclusions.

The Build-up

Mourinho didn’t put any emphasis on defenders “playing out”, as in trying to play line-breaking passes or driving with the ball into midfield. Instead, he asked one of the midfielders to drop deep to collect the ball short from the central defenders in the corners so that defenders would only have to play risk-free five-yarders.

That would put more responsibility on midfielders (Fàbregas or Matić) to find the pass forward for a player between the lines in a win-win situation: if the opposition was drawn to press Cesc or Matić, they would open up space between the lines. If they didn’t, they left way too much room to operate for the best forward passers in the League.

And that would be based on rotation principles (fullback goes forward, midfielder drops to collect, winger shows up inside) and progressing the ball very quickly with the free man to find Hazard into feet. That would involve player rotations (imagine a triangle flipping around with one player in each tip) and or interchange (Fàbregas and Oscar).

Arsenal v Chelsea - Premier League Photo by Catherine Ivill - AMA/Getty Images

Conte’s three-man defence was very hard to press to begin with, and consequently left one free man to be found with automated circuits:

  • up-back with a wing-back to find one of the two central midfielders
  • up-back with a central midfielder to find a wing-back
  • long pass on the deck for the centre forward
  • David Luiz switching play picking out the opposite side wing-back

It’s the variety of circuits and the level of coordination that made it very hard to deal with, including the peculiar way in which the 3-4-3 was spread on the whole pitch. It was a nightmare for the opposition’s wingers who were always caught in between two or three players.

The system didn’t involve a lot of rotation or interchanging and only very restricted ball-carrying in certain defined situations (sometimes Azpilicueta, sometimes Kanté).

It has to be noted that Conte released attackers in final third from strict instructions, they could either follow the circuits centred around third man runs off of Costa, or instead do their own thing.

Chelsea v Arsenal - UEFA Europa League Final Photo by Alex Grimm/Getty Images

Maurizio Sarri relied on circuits like Antonio Conte, but with a bigger emphasis on possession.

Conte was probably more authoritarian and pragmatic in being able to drill a variety of circuits, including direct play on the big man upfront, so that his team was never running out of options.

It was probably the lack of qualm (because the movement was rehearsed) to play a long pass that had some suggest Conte was keen on “direct football”.

Sarri had less circuits to play the ball out, and therefore asked the team to retain until the opener he wanted was available: as the defenders spread out, and fullbacks got forward, Jorginho was supposed to be the free man behind the opposition’s strikers.

If strikers narrowed on Jorginho to mark him out, central defenders had to drive with the ball or find fullbacks to get around in order to find a midfielder on the half turn (sometimes via Jorginho again).

But Sarri was probably the most rigid Chelsea manager in the final third in recent years, constraining decision-making and expecting attackers to strictly follow the “playbook”. Those movements were a transposition of the type of third-man runs that worked wonders for Napoli, but Hazard or Willian never really got beyond defenders on a consistent basis before or during Sarri’s spell in charge. But we’ll get to that later.

Having lots of possession didn’t automatically mean that Chelsea had “control” over games because they couldn’t quite turn the pace of the game on command — because of individual shortcomings to do so — and play where they wanted to. Opponents funnelled play wide by congesting the centre, and often blocked every option but the least creative outfield player in the team in Azpilicueta.

It is therefore unsurprising to point out that that despite a whopping 59.9% possession, only 27% of happened in the central band of the field (as opposed with 73% in wide areas). This is the lowest proportion of central play Chelsea recorded since 2010/11, despite a +5% swing from season to season in terms of possession.

The closest to Sarri’s season was another attempt to play a fanciful version of possession football (albeit with Meireles in place of Lampard) in 2011-12, with 29%. Amusingly, Chelsea’s highest proportion of central play happened in 2011, 2013, 2015, 2017 and 2018, under Ancelotti, Benítez, Mourinho and Conte two years in a row (31%). And to think, Mourinho’s Chelsea wasn’t even the most Hazard-reliant Chelsea team, judging by 39% of the action occurring on the left wing under Conte, topping even Florent Malouda or Juan Mata’s biggest involvement.


Circuit football enhances the team’s coordination to play rehearsed movements.

When the structure is impossible to figure out and train for in the week before for opponents — like when preparing to play against Conte’s 3-4-3 — and matching up is nothing short of suicidal, it’s a nightmare. Matching up is often the go-to adaptation football coaches chose when they run out of ideas against a particular system — Ronald Koeman switched Everton to a back four at 3-0, half an hour in a 5-0 defeat (which I analysed on TV)

When the structure is much easier to figure out, because it is a variation of the type of football countless Academy teams have been playing all over Europe since 2009 (4-3-3 spreading out to play short through the 8s, with a base midfielder dropping between the central defenders), using a limited amount of circuits (and sticking by them) is more or less asking for trouble.

Unlike one or two decades ago, teams are much more structured in the way they press — helped by the extensive breakdowns that are now possible of each and every opponent.

It is now also accepted to sit off the opposition’s base players because they simply aren’t going to give the ball away even under pressure.

In Serie A, the Italian perspective, in general, relies on automated circuits (implemented with shadow training, 11v0 with plastic mannequins), which makes sense in the context of viewing football games through the prism of system vs system. Italian coaching books and resources are typically built around entire chapters depicting how 4-3-3 is supposed to behave against 4-1-2-1-2 backed up with bullet points of role requirements per position and so on.

Your typically drilled team would then rely on a methodical occupation of zones in possession, and zonal defending by the book, with a massive emphasis on distances between players, again trained through endless sessions based on shadow training.

“It’s not easy, because you run into some pretty strong cultural differences, in terms of mentality, food and doing things, so to a degree you have to show respect and adapt, which means cutting down on training sessions.”

-Maurizio Sarri

Conte and Sarri have been using the same training methodology, and players have felt it pretty much the same way. Endless sessions, lots of circuits repetition, shadow defending with little decision-making involved.

It must be noted that Conte put an extra emphasis on strength work (and seeds at the canteen), and Sarri on small sided games and “fun” (as well as ice cream at the canteen).

But in both cases, it took roughly 6 weeks for both Conte and Sarri’s “system” to deliver what it was supposed to: having professional players execute the playbook.

AFP/Getty Images

In England, teams are not on the fence when it comes to pressing.

They either sit very deep if they don’t feel the opposition pose any threat:

‘[Wolves] defended in the last 20 metres with 11 players. […] it’s very difficult to score with five or six touches against a very physical team with 11 players in the last 20 metres.

-Maurizio Sarri

In case the opposition start dwelling on the ball, it’s not infrequent to see Premier League teams literally running at opponents to force a mistake. Sarri probably expected more teams to do like Watford, in order to bait teams and play behind them.

The peculiar refereeing (no foul as long as the player stands) combined with the individual ability in midfield usually tweaks teams’ collective approach of defending, which is more focused on preventing individuals to get on the turn to face play in the first place.

This is especially true in midfield where many Premier League teams chose to “match up” (go man-to-man).

When teams defend “zonally”, the closest player is supposed to close down only when the pass is played.

When teams decide to “match up”, opposing midfielders already track say Barkley and Kanté’s movements before they receive the ball. Players in possession might move but still might not be available.

“Jorginho, if the other players don’t move without the ball, is in trouble, He is able to play it one-touch, but you need movement from the other players.”

-Maurizio Sarri

Consequently, there are no intervals or space to find in between a four-man midfield for Chelsea’s three midfielders as they’re already “man marked”.

Matching up is a gamble, with the obvious downside being the possibility to be dragged out of position. But forcing opponents to go long isn’t a concern for most Premier League teams, given the type of central defenders they line up (and the stuff they generally get away with).

The Jorginho Question

Luckily for Chelsea’s opponents last season, there was no such thing as a rotating three-man midfield. The base midfield was always the same player. Moreover, the emphasis on playing through Jorginho meant that he was always drawn to the side of the ball and was the one at the start of the moves.

Stating that Chelsea’s build up was figured out by opposing teams is an understatement and some will argue the only uncertainty wasn’t whether someone would do a job on Jorginho but who would be the identity of the player responsible for marking him out of the game. After all, Chelsea were only the sixth best team in 2019, behind Manchester United and Crystal Palace.

In addition to the restricted movements players were subjected to, neither of Jorginho, Kovačić or Barkley were exceedingly creative (and ultimately decisive) when they had room to operate. Barkley notably dropped outside the defensive block, to play five yarders with Jorginho. Kovačić was frequently just as brilliant at getting the ball on the turn and carrying it forward with his feet, as at laying the ball back to square one when he didn’t want to risk giving it away.

As opposed to a peak Fàbregas, Lampard or Essien, who could ping a pass, hit the target or bulldoze their way through with actual end product, Jorginho, Barkley or Kovačić failed to cause issues for the opposition, or really put teams off balance. The fact that Jorginho, Barkley and Kovačić tally 5 goals and 7 assists for a team who played 25,072 passes was not something to get excited for the future.

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

Jorginho has crystallized critics this season, which is frequently the case when players get a transfer to a new club and are universally acknowledged as the manager’s signing (see also our very own Matić at United, who was considered as one of Mourinho’s untouchables by his starkest critics).

Unfortunately for Jorginho, there has been a clash of viewpoints between those who wanted his role getting more recognition and those who were keen to point out that his performances were nothing special at the end of the day, which ultimately raised tensions both at the ground and on the internet unnecessarily.

This over emphasis on a single player and his role was as if a midfield triangle with a base midfielder wasn’t precisely how Chelsea became a dominant force.

Chelsea has been successfully playing with a 4-3-3 formation since the turn of the millennium, with a base midfield tasked to find angles and feed box-to-box players. Makélélé used to be very good at sweeping and playing a quick first time pass after getting the ball back. Chelsea were also seen as the undervalued midfielder’s exit door, once he was deemed not fashionable enough for Los Galacticos at Real Madrid (who incidentally pretty much didn’t win anything again until they brought back the unfashionable Casemiro).

Circa 2008, Scolari wanted to play “more football” and settled on Mikel at the base of his midfield three, technically a few weeks before Guardiola replaced Yaya Touré with Busquets at the base of Barcelona’s three-man midfield in his breakout 2008-09 season.

Just after Hiddink’s spell in charge (in which Mikel could easily make a case for being an even more obvious coach’s favourite than Jorginho), Mikel was equally central to Ancelotti’s 4-3-3 turning 3-4-3: Terry and Carvalho splitting apart, Mikel dropping, Ashley Cole and Bosingwa then Ivanovic bombing forward, Lampard and Ballack roaming to get in the box and an interchanging front three of Drogba, Anelka, Malouda narrowing to link up around the box.

Mikel’s exceptional ball retention skills under pressure (being fouled was often the only way to dispossess him) meant he was often the go-to players relied on when in trouble. And he was quite good to smash passes to find good angles forward.

As far as textbook “regista” players are involved, as in creative playmakers marshalled by more industrious players, we should remember that Ancelotti made Andrea Pirlo his priority in the summer 2009.

We should also remember that Ancelotti played none other than 2004 Ballon d’Or runner up and UEFA Player of the Year Deco at base midfield in early 2010, notably in the demolition of that season’s Wolverhampton (Alex McLeish’s promoted Birmingham City keeping clean sheets for fun).

2006 Champions League winner Belletti also featured as a “regista” between 2008 and 2010 under both Scolari and Ancelotti, as well as Germany’s captain Michael Ballack at the twilight of his career in the FA Cup final.

The underwhelming reactions to Jorginho’s performances this season are a combination of several factors, including the natural expectations of being the most expensive “base midfield” player in history — only topped by Rodri’s transfer to Manchester City last week. Not only did Sarri ask for a specific player, but the club did everything remotely possible to fulfill his wish. The criticism does not come from the transfer fee in itself — Napoli were entitled to ask whatever amount they wanted — but more as in that it was a “get him at any cost” transfer, meaning he would supposedly be worth the hassle at the end of the day.

No excuse could reasonably be raised thereafter, especially going back to the time Steve Sidwell joined Chelsea on a free prompting the famous “omelettes and eggs” quote from Mourinho (especially the part about not being able to buy them).

Deep inside, André Villas Boas is surely still annoyed to have asked for Moutinho and Modric, only to end up with Oriol Romeu and Raul Meireles in 2011. It didn’t matter much when the club asked him to pack his bags and his grand plans as early as March. Neither did the #FreeLuka campaign on Chelsea twitter.

Jorginho is a fairly decent player overall with an undeniable will to do well. But as far as every aspect of his game is taken in isolation, he hasn’t stood out.

He has a decent passing range, albeit not so great in terms of variety, but the weight and technique are nothing special, especially when compared to Lampard, Matić, or Fàbregas smashing passes with the inside of the boot. Jorginho’s involvement had a strong systemic component (12,8% of Chelsea’s passes every game) and was obviously instruction based.

If ever he doesn’t get to play 84 passes per game this season, it therefore won’t mean his talent evaporated. He would just be asked to do different things, which would directly impact the numbers of his involvement.

His one footedness does make him predictable, especially under pressure.

Having lots of touches didn’t necessarily mean Jorginho had “control” over games and there were countless situations where he played the ball backwards despite no pressure from behind, or mishit a first time pass that crashed on Azpilicueta’s knee.

When facing play, a couple of teams decided to not have anyone near him, knowing he would hardly create a dangerous situation with a single ping, as attested in his inability to provide a single assist over 37 league starts.

On the context of goalscoring chances that haven’t been converted, Chelsea clearly weren’t as clinical as in the last three title winning seasons (plus 2012-13, in which Benitez decided to sit deeper and release Torres into space) and needed more than 10 shots to score a goal, as opposed to one goal every 7 shots in Conte’s title winning season.

In 2011, the divisive Florent Malouda created the most goalscoring chances (ie: passes leading to a shot) in the Premier League with 118 and only 4 of them ended up in the back of the net. In 2018, little fuss was made of the fact that Cesc Fàbregas was the third biggest chance creator behind De Bruyne and Eriksen, creating 91 goalscoring chances, including 8 through passes. Only 4 of them were converted (De Bruyne had 16 assists and Eriksen 10). Therefore, it is acceptable not to be offended that none of Jorginho’s 30 goalscoring chances (11 through passes) weren’t converted last season.

“Defensive” Midfield

Defensively, it’s essential to take into account Kovačić and Kanté’s activity to disrupt the opposition in midfield that eased the task of the base midfield. Getting the ball back is a collective process, defenders often rack up numbers depending on how well they’re screened by players ahead of them and Jorginho was no different. But there were countless situations in which Jorginho was beaten in the air, outpaced on counter attacks, dribbled past or simply failed to shield the back four, to close down and prevent players to have room to operate in the D at the edge of the box.

The closest Chelsea have ever been to playing Sarri’s football was between 2009 and 2011, in which Mikel was a consistent performer at the base of Ancelotti’s 4-3-3 — both when Chelsea were having opposing managers throw up after 7-1 defeats (highly functional), and when Jordan Henderson’s Sunderland rampaged to a 3-0 win at Stamford Bridge (highly dysfunctional) the season after.

It’s not easy to see in what capacity Jorginho represents anything other than something we have witnessed before, especially in the much-maligned Mikel John Obi, who was (also) blamed for “slowing the game down and playing five yarders” at the base of Chelsea’s midfield — and incidentally got little credit for being Man of the Match in a Champions League final in the other team’s stadium.

Besides the systemic aspect of the volume of passes played (84 for Jorginho, as opposed to 53 and 64 for Mikel), Mikel trumps Jorginho in every metric, even in 2010-11 during which he was hung out to dry (and Chelsea’s build up figured out as well) at the base of Ancelotti’s 4-3-3.

The elephant in the room (not Calcio Catania) about Jorginho is related to his best position.

He was an anonymous central midfielder at Verona in Serie B and Napoli until 2015. It’s only when he was played in front of the defence in 2015-16 that he started to deliver what base midfielders can do in Serie A: collect the ball deep and find angles forward to release runners — because finding intervals in zonal defences is much easier than in say, England, for the aforementioned reasons.

When chasing the game against Wolverhampton (who were one top corner goal away from getting 6pts home and away from Chelsea), Sarri decided to sub Jorginho for an attacker and explained his move by Jorginho’s inability to play in a midfield two:

“In the last 20 minutes, Jorginho is not suitable for 4-2-3-1, so it was only a consequence of the change of the system.”

-Maurizio Sarri

The ability to play in a midfield-two is two faced:

  • On one hand, it’s purely about being able to do with only two players what a midfield three does: dropping to collect deep or wide, carrying the ball forward, getting in the box, supporting fullbacks defensively. Some players are unable to be up to the standard because the task is hard (as only shared by two). Some players struggle to defend beyond the width of the box: Matić and Mikel often struggled to do so, Ramires and Kanté were really good at tackling on the touchline.
  • On the other hand, it’s about the end game of playing players in a midfield two. Some players are specialists, notably pure base midfielders or pure box-to-box players. Therefore, they’re either offering very little in attack, or feel restricted because they constantly have to keep an eye behind them. We still remember the Mikel-Lampard gruesome twosome that had Mikel forced to get forward and create, and Lampard having to make sure he couldn’t mis-time a run in the box if ever the ball was given away earlier than it should’ve been in the build-up of the cross.

Of course, few teams really play 4-2-4 with two out and out wingers. Most of the time, there’s at least one wide player who tucks inside and helps to retain possession. Chelsea’s third midfielder in possession since 2013 has been none other than Willian.

Jorginho *could* play in a midfield two, because he has done so in the past. The real uncertainty lies in what he could offer at both ends, which is unlikely to be anything different to what he already did in Italy, and triggered his career defining change of position at 25 years of age.

Otherwise, a midfield three is still an option for Frank Lampard but probably with more positional fluidity. We can imagine another midfielder dropping to collect if one is marked out.

Chelsea v Arsenal - UEFA Europa League Final Photo by Etsuo Hara/Getty Images

We can imagine a Frank Lampard midfield as a combination of technical ability to play sharp passes with rhythm, interchange and players going forward without ever compromising on working very hard off the ball. Lampard himself has never been a burden for his team defensively so there’s no way he would settle for having passengers, making excuses for players underperforming blaming other players, or singling out (the same) specific individuals in the process of doing so on a weekly basis.

Sébastien Chapuis a football coach with the UEFA A license. He’s currently coaching Regional U18 in the Foundation phase of a professional club in France, and he’s also First Team Video Analyst, currently completing a MSc in Training and Match Analysis at University. He’s been working as a TV pundit to analyse English football games on Canal+ and SFR Sport since 2013.

For WAGNH, he’s written previously and at length about what went wrong for Mourinho in 2015 (and how he could’ve fixed it), what could’ve gone wrong for Sarri in 2018 (and did), and was one of the main contributors to Joe Tweeds’ Academy Conundrum. You can send written disagreement to @SebC__ on Twitter.

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