This is part FOUR 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.
The type of centre forward Frank Lampard will prioritize next season will probably define not only the type of football Chelsea will play, but the player selection (and roles) behind the striker. His options should include Michy Batshuayi and Olivier Giroud, as well as Tammy Abraham after his successful 26 goal-season to bring Aston Villa back into the Premier League.
Ever since Didier Drogba left the club, Chelsea have been filled with diminutive, highly technical and versatile attackers. This season is no different. The experienced Willian and Pedro will be joined by Callum Hudson-Odoi and Christian Pulisic.
Here are the different implication of different associations upfront.
Michy Batshuayi is a penalty area poacher who’s able to run the channels and get beyond defenders. But his involvement in build-up to bring others into play is quite basic.
Olivier Giroud is a focal point who’s grown to become a goalscorer since his Tours FC days. He’s always been extremely good at bringing other players into play with exquisite lay-offs and flicks. His involvement, especially in terms of movement, has never been centred only on creating space for himself. Giroud is able to vacate space in open play, in and around the box with selfless runs, sometimes also providing crosses or cut-backs for a late runner to tap in.
Tammy Abraham offers something in between Batshuayi and Giroud. He’s got the latter’s frame and strength and also scores with aesthetically displeasing first-time finishes like the former.
Frank Lampard must figure out the best way to give a new direction to Chelsea’s attacking landscape, given the Eden Hazard-shaped hole staring him in the face.
Modern top teams are often lopsided to have their best player closest to the penalty area (meaning the one on the other side tucks inside). Sometimes they play a lot of players in front of the ball when they attack. Or they are extremely well-drilled and intense out of possession to make sure there are no weak spot to exploit by opponents.
- The more attackers running in behind (2 or 3), the stronger at ball retention the midfield (3 or 4) needs to be — e.g. the more Sané and Sterling run in behind, the more David Silva or Kevin De Bruyne need to not give the ball away cheaply.
- The more midfielders going forward, the stronger at ball retention the attackers must be — e.g. for every centre forward camouflaged as a midfielder in Wijnaldum, there’s a Firmino who links up and gets to hold up the ball.
Therefore, the mission is to figure out who are the likeliest goal scorers:
- Are Chelsea going to feed the main striker with his preferred type of service: into space for Michy or cross for Abraham and Giroud?
- Are Chelsea going to use the centre forward as a focal point to bring other players into play with wall passes?
Abraham or Giroud upfront means that other players would need to consistently run beyond them, which probably means that Pedro, Pulisic and Hudson-Odoi have to play on their preferred sides to find their favourite situation in front of goal. But having two of those three starting would require a strong midfield three able to retain possession (or prevent the opposition to do so-yoko).
Batshuayi up front would require players to retain possession in the final third with minimal involvement expected from him, so that would make Willian pretty much a guaranteed starter. And he would need to be fed with the type of service he likes, and would rely on Willian, Kanté or Jorginho’s vision to play the ball behind the last man.
The likeliest scenario given last season’s history is that Olivier Giroud gets the nod upfront at the start of the season. Given his skillset, that would mean Chelsea put a certain emphasis on linking up in the final third to use his strengths.
If Chelsea and Frank Lampard were to put goalscoring expectations on another forward rather than the striker, would that be Willian (on his preferred left) or Pulisic and Hudson-Odoi (on their preferred sides)?
Playing Willian on his preferred left wing role would be taking into account he has acted as Hazard’s understudy since 2013, and would now gets dibs on the left wing. That would give Chelsea presence inside, vacate space for a marauding left back (Alonso, Emerson or one of the Netherlands’ golden boys Castillo or Maatsen) and offer an obvious outlet for wall passes and third man runs relying on Olivier Giroud with his back to goal.
Christian Pulisic, Pedro or Callum Hudson-Odoi, possibly also better on the left, would subsequently get a start on the right in order to offer runs in behind and crosses. Despite Maurizio Sarri setting his wide players movement instructions to a lot of third man running, Willian had never really played that role since joining Chelsea and therefore didn’t deliver what would’ve been expected by Sarri.
It’s also possible Lampard sees Willian as the same player he played with, as a winger retaining possession on the inside right. In that case, the left winger would be someone keen to run in behind.
Drilling a modern attacking team with talented players interchanging behind the striker is just one side of the story. The most important thing is to get the players to be disciplined and buy into the idea that the team needs to be cohesive off the ball as well.
In that regard, Frank Lampard, having been a player himself and having played under a variety of managers including José Mourinho, Carlo Ancelotti and Rafael Benitez but also André Villas Boas and Roberto Di Matteo, should be perfectly aware of how a team needs to be organised off the ball.
He also has an unique perspective on the way things didn’t quite work out how they were supposed to — such as when thinking about Villas Boas’ disconnected 4-3-3 off the ball or the short lived “MaZaCar” under Di Matteo (Mata, Hazard, Oscar behind the striker), which left the team wide open on defensive transitions.
For better or worse, Lampard won’t have to worry about finding the best formula to take into account Eden Hazard’s habit of not being any use when his team didn’t have the ball. Most “high block” experiments involving Hazard were quickly binned or adjusted:
- Di Matteo’s entertaining 4-2-3-1 quickly made way for Rafa Benitez relying on Moses, Bertrand, Oscar and … Hazard to shut down the wings behind Mata and Torres.
- José Mourinho’s high pressing 4-2-3-1 / 4-3-3 lasted half a season at the end of the year 2013 and quickly made way for a much more secure and pragmatic brand of football.
- Chelsea played thrilling football for the first half of 2014/2015, then Kurt Zouma’s inclusion in midfield meant that Mourinho set different priorities to clinch the League title and the League Cup.
- Maurizio Sarri’s Chelsea were slightly open down the sides, and that was finally adjusted with Hazard shoved up front as an out-and-out forward in order to have others making up for what he wouldn’t do out of possession, especially in big games.
Antonio Conte won the Premier League in a deep block playing on the counter pretty much from the start. Conte’s first issues with Hazard started only when he asked the player to work on the opposition’s midfielders in the 5-4-1 of the second season.
“Player power” was one of the things that fueled Chelsea’s success in the middle of the 2000s.
Years have gone by, and still, few managers have spoken out against the players in the way the narrative had fantasized. Lampard, Drogba, Terry have been keener to mention instead how driven those Chelsea squads were, and how the emulation of and the competition with each other ultimately contributed to setting new standards in training every day.
Therefore there shouldn’t be any concern over Lampard not knowing his way around the club or worse, not being listened to.
The only question lies over scoring goals.
Who will score the goals?
The last two investments the club made in the centre forward position performed well below expectations, and both failed to come even close to replacing Diego Costa — whose exit was always inevitable, even before the SMS episode (and his performances at Atletico have hardly turned any heads).
Alvaro Morata felt that the burden of expectations on his shoulders, and the way centre-forwards were expected to play in England didn’t allow him to express his abilities.
Getting Higuaín after the second attempt meant that the club acquiesced to Sarri’s wish in the entire pool of centre forwards available in the world, practically with a blank check. After hardly convincing performances confirming on the pitch pretty much every red flag raised before he joined, Chelsea moved on. Higuaín will remain in Chelsea’s history books as yet another once great forward joining (well) after his peak. Someone should keep tabs on Edinson Cavani and Robert Lewandowski for the next two years or so.
The last two seasons acted as a good reminder of what matters when thinking about getting results, well beyond the concepts of philosophy and tactical systems. With a clinical Diego Costa, scoring one goal every six shots (20 goals, 18% conversion), Chelsea scored 85 goals and won the Premier League with 93 points.
When the man up top couldn’t put the ball in the back of the net, the way Chelsea was set up didn’t matter much. Álvaro Morata’s 13% conversion and 11 goals only narrowly beat out Higuaín’s 11% conversion and 5 goals in half a season the season after.
Playing a “boring negative” brand of football relying on 3-4-3 or on the “thrilling and fun” brand of Sarriball with 4-3-3 didn’t matter too much at the end. Chelsea produced literally the same attacking output on every underlying number in 2018 and 2019, ultimately (and rather amusingly), scoring only one more goal (63) and collecting only two more points (72 against 70).
Things didn’t turn out as expected after Chelsea’s last three Premier League crowns.
José Mourinho rued that Djilobodji, Baba Rahman and Falcao were poor options to settle for compared to his initial list of targets in Stones, Pogba and Martial — and that turned out to be one of the main contributing factors to his demise.
Antonio Conte was increasingly frustrated at Chelsea failing to acquire bodies in midfield until very late in the transfer market, and the club failing to bring his first choice centre forward in Lukaku.
For the first time, the Chelsea manager is going to have to deal with a transfer ban, in addition to losing the most influential attacker without an opportunity to replace him. In that perspective, ruing decisions on the transfer market is never productive.
But time will tell if decisions made in the summer of 2018 actually improved the Chelsea squad in terms of quality — loaning Zouma and Bakayoko out, and spending the transfer budget on a goalkeeper and base midfielder when the team could hardly score goals, and shockingly still can’t. Or if it’s the approach of football chosen that led to underperforming, explaining why the addition of 150 million worth of transfers and one (fairly expensive) loan only delivered two more points on the table with the same squad otherwise.
Nevertheless, the vibe of Chelsea’s best ever player taking charge of Chelsea in the Champions League is more than enough to satisfy the fans as for now (and appease the increasingly divided global fanbase, to an extent). The pathway to integrate Chelsea’s academy players looks open for the first time ever, especially as they are now knocking on the door on the back of convincing performances on loan (which was frankly rarely the case a few years ago, such as for Van Aanholt at Coventry, McEachran at Swansea or Scott Sinclair at every football league club not coached by Brendan Rodgers).
The term “transition season” has to be one of the most over-rated buzzwords in football because there’s often nothing structural to back up such claim, but rather the narrative surrounding who is fortunate to get labelled a “long term manager with a plan” as opposed to a “short term result-oriented manager”.
But in the context of Chelsea 2019-20, including the transfer ban, finding a way to organise the team so that Chelsea can make 70 points (or more) and reach the quarterfinals of the Champions League would be a good and realistic aim for a start. That would be a great way to conclude Frank Lampard’s Year One and look for the future with ambition (and get Chelsea back in the transfer gossip columns where we belong).
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.