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Frank Lampard’s Chelsea, Year One: Midfield two and box-to-box

Examining Chelsea at the start of the Lampard Era and previewing the season ahead; part 3 of 4

This is part THREE 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 2: Build-up and the regista
Part 4: Scoring goals and player power

Frank Lampard never got a chance to play with N’Golo Kanté. A Lampard-Ramires midfield duo did show a lot of promise under Mourinho early on, but never really lasted beyond the first months of the season.

Mateo Kovačić, Ross Barkley, Ethan Ampadu, Ruben Loftus Cheek and Mason Mount are extremely hard working players who probably still can’t believe they’re going to be taught how to play midfield by none other than Frank Lampard. Tiémoué Bakayoko and Daniel Drinkwater have a point to prove and will be eager to do so.

This is a summary of the different type of pairings and perspectives offered to Frank Lampard to set up his midfield ahead of the new season.

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


N’Golo Kanté and Mateo Kovačić are the ideal midfielders for a double pivot.

Kanté proved so at Leicester City, then again for France when winning the 2018 World Cup, offering stability and balance in midfield next to Pogba and behind Griezmann — who also worked hard out of possession.

That said, last season, Kanté wasn’t so much played out of position, as he was played in an old position. After all, he was already playing as an ‘8’ alongside Nicolas Seube and Julien Féret in a 4-3-3 for Stade Malherbe de Caen circa 2015. Sarri’s choice wasn’t really new for him; it was a throwback. The problem was more about Jorginho’s consistent struggles to keep pace and defend actively the edge of the box throughout the season.

Mateo Kovačić has to be one of the most gifted midfielders from a purely technical point of view. But he’s not a creator. It is unclear whether Kanté was initially planned to be the link-man between Jorginho and Kovačić by Sarri. Sarri’s comments after the Tottenham debacle do indeed suggest that Kovačić was originally expected to be the midfielder meant to get in the box and not Kanté.

“Kanté in the last match wanted to solve the match after the first 15 minutes. He lost the position, he attacked too much the other box. And I think this is not one of the best characteristics of Kanté. It was only a reaction to the difficulties. He needs to stay near to Jorginho, especially when the ball is on the other side.”

-Maurizio Sarri

Kanté only ended up as the one getting in the box — and also the one who assisted and scored goals — because he was the best equipped of the three: 4 goals, 4 assists and 1.3 chances created per game.

Kovačić and Barkley have hardly ever been regarded as midfielders with numbers throughout their career. Kovačić has scored one league goal in 1598 days, and it took 76 Premier League games for Barkley to register his first assist, both going back to year 2015. They’ve always been highly gifted athletes able to play under pressure, able to get on the half turn, muscle away opponents, and run a lot off the ball.

Chelsea Training and Press Conference - Cobham Training Ground Photo by Adam Davy/PA Images via Getty Images

In that regard, Daniel Drinkwater is no different. Once a highly promising player coming through the ranks at Manchester United, he’s an all-rounder who improved his defensive game by playing first-team football (and winning the league at Leicester), and who’s always had vision and passing range to keep the flow of the game going. He may not offer anything but steady performances in the middle of the pitch (and defensive activity), but that is still valuable in order to rotate and not run the starting eleven into the ground.

His best position might be in a midfield two for a team not too keen to build up play through midfield, but instead spread the ball quickly to attack down the sides via crosses. He might not have the knack or the dynamism to be the most advanced player in a midfield three and might not offer enough guarantees at the base of midfield, but he could be involved in the middle of a three as the link player between the deepest and most advanced midfielders.

Maurizio Sarri decided to take sides early on with Barkley, Drinkwater and Kovačić.

Managing three similar midfielders who rarely score goals in the context of an 18-man squad means that with substitutions in mind, two of them would be involved every week whilst one sits at home or just behind the bench in a club tracksuit. By not considering the third one at all, Sarri chose to have one situation (player) to handle (upset), rather than having to deal with any of the three’s discontent at being left out of the matchday squad on a weekly basis.

We can imagine the situation being a bit different now with Lampard, who will likely involve Drinkwater either in the rotation for what promises to be a long season, or just enough at least in order to raise interest from other clubs.

Tiemoue Bakayoko of Ac Milan looks on before the Serie A... Photo by Marco Canoniero/LightRocket via Getty Images

After a year on loan at AC Milan, Paris-born Tiémoué Bakayoko is going back to Chelsea, where he’s under contract until 2022. He’s getting a chance to make another first impression, though his debut seasons at new clubs were always clouded with massive question marks over his actual ability based on worrying early performances.

At Rennes, he played in a midfield two behind a throwback number 10 (Julien Féret, him again) or sometimes as a base midfielder in 4-3-3 on the road, alongside the likes of Jean II Makoun (former Aston Villa) but especially Abdoulaye Doucouré (now at Watford). After finally winning supporters over at Rennes, he got a 10 million transfer to AS Monaco after only 24 first-team games.

The story was no different at the start in Monaco, getting hooked on the half hour in his debut game by Leonardo Jardim, at home against Lorient. For a more dominant Monaco side, Bakayoko played mostly in 4231/433 formations alongside Kondogbia or Toulalan, whilst Moutinho would be the player filling zones and changing the shape of midfield.

In 2017, Jardim found the winning formula to play both Thomas Lemar and Bernardo Silva on the sides, whilst playing two out and out forwards in Falcao and Mbappé. Bakayoko and Liverpool’s Fabinho were phenomenal in their ability to cover every blade of grass as box-to-box midfielders. Bakayoko was integral in AS Monaco’s unlikely league title win and also reached the Champions League semi-finals, being named in the Champions League team of the season.

For AC Milan, he has played mostly in a 3-man midfield in the middle of Kessié and Çalhanoğlu, often as the deepest of the three but sometimes in a two with Kessié.

It is interesting how Bakayoko not only won over his early critics in three of his last four clubs, but also pushed attacking midfielders Julien Féret and Joao Moutinho out of the starting lineup whilst building momentum throughout the season. Usually, he would be deployed in more defensive positions at first, but would eventually end up as a box-to-box with license to go forward.

Just like with Michael Essien back in 2005, Chelsea signed the Ligue 1 Champions’ all-round midfielder for a big fee. But it’s often overlooked that Bakayoko was rushed into the team whilst hardly being match fit against Tottenham by Antonio Conte at the end of August, after a knee operation kept him out from May to August. He never really got time to settle or get fully fit. Considering his consistent propensity to start seasons with poor performances until he really settled in, this could only add up and play against him. And it did.

Bakayoko is a modern midfielder like Kovačić and Kanté, able to do everything well: run a lot, carry the ball forward, play short and long with both feet, retain under pressure, get the ball back and score the occasional goal.

Previews - UEFA Europa League Final Photo by Etsuo Hara/Getty Images

Ethan Ampadu has been used in various roles since he joined Chelsea, but his future as a top flight player, especially at Chelsea, probably doesn’t lie in central defence. Ampadu (6ft, 1.83 meters) shares similarities with Nathan Ake (5ft11in, 1.80 meters) in terms of attitude, ball playing ability and aerial jump, though Aké can play down the sides whereas Ampadu is an exclusively central player. If he or another coach sees his future in defence, that would be either in a back three … or in a back four in a different club than Chelsea.

But Ampadu could have a big future at base midfield because his determination and leadership abilities stand out for an 18-year-old player and definitely make him Captain material. He doesn’t hide from challenges, and is surprisingly defends better against opponents running at or near him than in an individual duel where he needs to close down or deal with someone back to goal (where he lacks either upper body strength to win aerial challenges, or shows impatience and commits fouls).

It remains to be seen if Ampadu stays around as defensive cover considering Kanté and Bakayoko (or Jorginho) can play that base midfield role, or if the club decides to seek a loan in the football league. But that would require taking into account the limited roles where he can feature right now, especially in the top flight.

But one thing is for sure, Ampadu can’t spend another season in literal limbo like in 2018-19, occasional development squad appearances aside.

“We have to give credit to Ethan because he needs to play football and probably felt he hadn’t got many minutes recently so he asked to come and play, which we always welcome.”

-Joe Edwards, after Chelsea U23’s 1-0 win at Derby County in PL2

Ruben Loftus-Cheek Signs Contract Extension at Chelsea Photo by Darren Walsh/Chelsea FC via Getty Images

Ruben Loftus-Cheek finally had his real breakthrough for Chelsea, after 2015-16, when it was more a story of “better play Loftus Cheek and Bertrand Traoré, we won’t get any lower in the table anyway”, though the real story behind his sudden inclusion in the team after the turn of the year in 2019 will probably not be known unless someone speaks out at some point.

Maybe scoring the goal that turned Chelsea’s fortunes around after he came on as a last-chance substitution against Cardiff made it impossible to overlook him in team selections. But it is kind of hard to conceive of it being the by-product of Loftus Cheek finally coming to terms with the intricacies of Sarriball, which was already ticking 6 weeks into the season, as circuit football tends to.

For most of the season, including at the very end, Sarri kept ruing Premier League players’ tendency to dribble and rely on individual actions, in barely disguised digs at his own players — even after Eden Hazard’s goal against West Ham (and every other piece of brilliance that unlocked tedious games all season), or Loftus Cheek’s dazzling solo bursts against West Ham and Brighton & Hove Albion.

“There are many players in England who are talented, but they like to hold the ball, so it takes a while to get them to move it quicker and pass it more often.

“They also have these forwards who have a very specific way of attacking and it’s difficult to get them to change their ways. They want the ball passed right to their feet and often go into one-on-one situations. At that point, it’s counter-productive to force them to go against their nature.

“Clearly, Chelsea have more individualistic players than ones who will follow a system like at Napoli.”

-Maurizio Sarri

Considering it is Eden Hazard’s and Ruben Loftus-Cheek’s bread and butter to receive on the half turn and beat several players in order to reach good positions around the box, there was an everlasting question mark over Sarri and his own players’ respective ability to adapt to each other. Then again, what would be the actual benefit of Hazard laying the ball back instead of getting on the turn, or Ruben Loftus Cheek playing in order to retain possession around the box instead of having a go in the corner of the goal?

Having never been a prolific goal scorer at youth level (10 goals in 116 games), Ruben Loftus-Cheek found his way into dangerous positions in and around the penalty are, resulting in 6 very well taken goals and laudatory comparisons to Michael Ballack (“Lewisham Ballack”) for his ability to lurk and head the ball in at the back post — taking over from another slightly banterous “Chelsea’s Paul Pogba” nickname.

Manchester United v Chelsea FC - Premier League Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

The World Cup winning Frenchman offers a good benchmark on how influential towering and skilled midfielders are for their team and the conundrum about their best position, just as Mourinho quickly figured out and Ole Gunnar Solskjær eventually came to the same conclusion as well once he took over:

  • Both players are very influential when they’re facing play and enjoy being able to push forward and beat players on the run. In that regard, they’re extremely helpful in progressing the ball forward as box-to-box midfielders.
  • Both players are very decisive around the box, because their ball retention and eye for goal makes them very reliable outlets in final third as attacking midfielders — Pogba being more about pinging the ball expertly for runners, and Loftus-Cheek about curling shots from the edge of the box.

So ideally, they would be involved both in the early build up and around the box, which is an extremely demanding role over 90 minutes, and of course over a full season. Mourinho wanted Pogba to collect the ball deep, because fewer players pinning the defence back meant that there was more space in behind to run into. Solskjær decided to make sure Pogba would be closer to the opposition’s box, but after a couple of drab performances at home, hinted at the suggestion that Pogba was needed to play the ball out as well.

”Paul is important for us and we couldn’t keep the ball today. We had 50-50 possession at home, you are a bit disappointed with that. [He plays] a bit deeper [role] for [France] so that is something we may have to think about to get him more involved.

-Ole Gunnar Solksjaer

So, back to Loftus Cheek. Playing in a midfield two would be restrictive to his goalscoring ability just like it was for Lampard in 2012-2014.

He could therefore play as the central attacking midfielder in 4-2-3-1 just in front of two of Kanté, Kovačić, Bakayoko, but only as long as the ball progression / ball carrying / turn of pace side of things works out fine. That would allow Loftus Cheek to stay closer to goal in the final third and lurk at the back post for crosses, almost as a second striker. And shuttle between different zones especially out of possession.

But if he plays in front of players like Ampadu, Drinkwater, Kovačić or Jorginho in a midfield two, Loftus-Cheek would probably have to drop to collect the ball and bring it forward himself. And find himself in the same conundrum as Paul Pogba. Influential in final third … as long as the team can feed him there.

Chelsea are currently packed with dynamic box-to-box midfielders and Loftus-Cheek is the best finisher amongst them. Kanté scored 4 goals in 29 attempts (13% conversion) whilst Loftus Cheek scored 6 goals in 28 attempts (21% conversion). Therefore, it’s likely that Loftus-Cheek only gets considered for the most advanced position in 4-3-3 ... once he recovers from his major Achilles injury.

Mason Mount Signs a New Contract at Chelsea Photo by Clive Howes - Chelsea FC/Chelsea FC via Getty Images

Mason Mount is a different type of attacking midfielder, more keen to find spaces and angles to feed runners. Therefore, Mount would ideally play just in front of two other midfielders. And like modern attacking midfielders, he’s disciplined tactically and can work hard off the ball to join a lone striker and make the team a 4-4-2 out of possession to close down central defenders.

Featuring Mount as the most advanced fulcrum in midfield would be possible in 4-2-3-1 (in front of Kanté, Kovačić, Bakayoko and Drinkwater) or in 4-3-3 with Loftus-Cheek as a link-man between a base midfielder (Jorginho, Kanté) and the most advanced one.

What Chelsea could look like in midfield:

  • Playing 4-3-3 with more player rotation, involvement and emphasis on building up play with possession through the thirds. That would favour passers like Jorginho, Kovačić, Mount and also Kanté or Bakayoko as the “middle men”.
  • Playing 4-2-3-1 with player rotations, interchanges, third man runs behind the striker. That would favour dynamic ball carriers in Kanté, Bakayoko, Loftus-Cheek.
  • Playing a variation of 4-4-2 with massive emphasis on winning the ball back in midfield to break quickly. That would favour Bakayoko, Kanté, Drinkwater.

Fàbregas’ short but intense spell delivered 57 assists in 198 games, and he was probably the last midfielder to deliver numbers on a consistent basis for Chelsea, making the transition from the Lampard, Ballack, Essien, Ramires era to the new one to a certain extent.

But the prospect of having Frank Lampard coaching Mateo Kovačić, Mason Mount, N’Golo Kanté, Ruben Loftus Cheek on how to time a run into the box or get the biggest deflection physically imaginable to make sure the goalkeeper is caught the wrong way can only excite Chelsea fans who’ve been deprived for some time of watching midfielders shooting on sight and beating goalkeepers from outside the box.

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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