Long-time WAGNH member CasablancaBlue8 (now known as CB8 Reborn) a.k.a. (UEFA B qualified) Coach Rafi Alsaed, first published this work on his website in August. He’s been gracious enough to update it for us with the events (and signings) of the past two months.
These are no doubt exciting times to be a Chelsea fan. At a time when most clubs are struggling to sign players, Chelsea have moved swiftly and decisively to ensure Lampard has a huge injection of quality to take his budding Chelsea revolution to the next level.
With the signings of attacking superstars Hakim Ziyech and Timo Werner completed early, first choice left back target Ben Chilwell secured in late August, legendary Brazilian centre back Thiago Silva signed on a free two days later and the mercurial Kai Havertz, often touted as a generational talent, added to the fold in early September, Chelsea have had their most impressive window since the early Abramovich era days. The late signing of Rennes goalkeeper and Cech-favourite, Edouard Mendy takes Chelsea’s summer recruitment up to six new first team players, all of whom will be expected to play a significant role this season.
However, before we get too carried away, big questions persist about the team’s organisation and will need to be answered if we are to have any chance of turning this promise and potential into consistent success.
Most pressingly, Chelsea’s defence was no where near good enough last season and sorting this out will be top of the list.
Doing so while incorporating several new attacking talents into a team that already boasts the likes of Christian Pulisic, Mason Mount, Tammy Abraham and Callum Hudson-Odoi, is the challenge facing Lampard.
So how does Frank go about maximising our attacking potential while stopping the leak at the back?
New defensive personnel will certainly be part of the solution. While the likes of Rudiger and Alonso have thrived to varying degrees in other systems and under other managers, their suitability to the more proactive, high-line, high intensity system Frank is implementing has been called into question by several poor performances last season, while Kepa has simply not been good enough across the board.
The signing of Ben Chilwell, famed for his impressive work rate, fitness and acceleration, as well as his ability to contribute in both attack and defence, will give Lampard a less limited option at left back, while Thiago Silva will be expected to provide the sort of leadership and organisational ability sorely missing in defence last season. As for Mendy, his save percentage alone, as well as the incredibly low bar set by the current Chelsea No.1, indicates he should be an improvement between the sticks.
However, just buying new players won’t be enough. Putting those players together into a system that gets the best out of them is what managers are hired to do and this is the task that now awaits Lampard. If we are to be genuine title contenders, a clear, organised game plan with specific patterns and rotations must be implemented.
This article will set out a potential game model built on the philosophy of positional play that I believe is best suited to maximising the potential of this squad.
PART 1: The current state of affairs
Chelsea’s defensive woes over the last 13 months have been well documented. Vulnerability when defending crosses, an abysmal defensive set-piece record and being far too open in transition are among the biggest systemic weaknesses facing this team. These problems contributed to the second worst Chelsea defence since the league went to 20 teams, with last season’s 54 goals conceded only topped by the 1996/97 team that conceded 55. (We conceded 55 in 1994/95 as well, but that was when the league was 22 teams). The overall numbers do not make for pretty reading either.
For this blog, I will be focusing specifically on the latter issue: openness at transition. Unlike the other two, this is intrinsically linked to our attacking game plan and as such must be considered when designing the team’s core strategy.
While Chelsea have often looked devastating in attack this season, achieving a higher expected goals figure this year than under Sarri (2.00 vs. 1.68), despite losing Eden Hazard, this has come with the trade off of being far more open and vulnerable to counter-attacks.
There is an argument to be made that Chelsea needed this opening to a certain extent. While during Conte’s first season we played excellent football, attacking with a front 5 and scoring a respectable 85 goals (the same as Liverpool this season) on the way to lifting the title, we became far too reactive in the second season.
Although Sarri loosened the reigns to a certain extent last year, many fans, including myself, longed for a more proactive style and Lampard has certainly delivered on that front.
However, playing proactive football requires significant organisation in order to be effective long-term (far more than playing a counter-attacking system) and this is where this current Chelsea team have been let down.
Before we delve into exactly why Chelsea have struggled to combat counter-attacks, let’s pause to look at how the best proactive teams do it.
How to stop a counter-attack
There are four key steps to stopping a counter-attack:
1. Counter Press
Who: Players closest to the ball
What: The initial press after losing the ball
When: Immediately when possession is lost
Why: Limits the opposition’s time and space in the hopes of stopping or at least delaying the counter-attack at source
2. Drop off
Who: The back line
What: Defenders drop off a few yards
When: First drop off – When possession is lost. Second drop off – If opposition escape counter-pressure
Why: In order to ensure the team is not caught out by a long ball over the top in transition, the most dangerous counter-attack
3. Delay and Deflect
Who: The back line and midfield
What: Defending technique to push a counter-attack away from goal
When: If a team bypasses the counter-press
Why: To delay the attack just enough to buy your team time to get back into shape
Who: The players furthest from the ball who have pushed up to attack
What: Getting back into an organised shape
When: As soon as possession is lost, if not engaged in one of the other tasks
Why: In order to defend the attack in an organised, numerically advantaged shape
Good positioning is key to all of this. Without clear positional organisation, a team will lack sufficient cover and as a result will struggle to:
- Counter-press effectively and with sufficient players to stop or at least delay the counter-attack at source
- Delay and deflect any out balls that escape the counter-press
- Re-organise quickly and effectively
The back line will be too stretched and left with an impossible decision: Drop off to combat the threat of a ball over the top, or stay up to limit the space for attackers to receive in behind the midfield, from where they can dribble directly at the back line.
This will all lead to a failure to either stop the counter-attack at source or delay it until the team is organised, leading to high quality shots and likely goals conceded.
What does good positional organisation look like?
Modern football teams have tended to rely on a 5-5 split when in possession in order to maintain good balance between attack and defence. 5 players push up in advanced roles, often across all 5 vertical lanes of the pitch, while 5 stay deeper, focusing on recycling possession, switching play and most importantly, remaining in good position to snuff out any counter-attacks.
The exact structure of each set of 5 will depend on both the players available and the opposition, with coaches often following specific rules to ensure they maintain positional superiority in a range of situations.
For example, one of the most common positional play rules is “the one extra rule.” A team facing one counter-attacking outlet will usually only leave back 2 CBs, one to be proactive and defend balls fed directly into the outlet and another to drop off and defend a ball over the top. In these situations, the back 5 will be structured as a 3-2 (FIGURE 1), with 3 “balance” players ahead of 2 “last line” players.
This evolves to a 2-3 base (FIGURE 2), with an extra player in the last line if facing teams that play with two counter-attacking outlets (e.g. 2 strikers, a striker and an advanced CAM, two advanced wide forwards, etc) ensuring there is always “one-extra” to cover all bases.
As for the front 5, teams use varying set ups based on the players at their disposal. Usually the 5 will be divided across the 5 vertical lanes, with 2 players tasked with creating in the half-spaces, 2 players providing width on the wings and 1 player occupying the centre. Players are often given freedom to interchange, but must ensure the basic rule is always satisfied in order to maintain positional superiority:
No more than 3 players in the same line horizontally and no more than 2 players in the same line vertically at any one time.
The vertical lines show the 5 lanes: left wing, left half-space, centre, right half space and right wing. The red line differentiates the front and back 5.
What this spacing allows:
- Positional dominance across the pitch
- Plenty of width AND depth
- Several in-built triangles and diamonds to facilitate passing options
- Most importantly: An integrated defensive strategy that provides a strong foundation to counter-press, delay and deflect in order to limit opposition counter-attacks
Lets look at a scenario to illustrate how this positioning allows teams to combat counter-attacks.
Blue team’s widest right player has escaped his defender and is about to send a cross into the box. Blue front 5 are making central runs to try and score.
The red team defend the cross well, heading the ball out into the path of their left winger, who sets off on a counter-attack. Blue team are well organised with 2 CBs controlling the opposition’s outlet and 3 balance players in position to delay and deflect the counter-attack.
- The front 5, having been bypassed by the headed clearance over the top, are now all ahead of the ball. Their task is to get back into an organised shape as quickly as possible. The back 5’s ability to delay will be crucial to buying them the necessary time to do so.
- The CBs drop off to guard against the threat of a ball being played in behind them. They come more narrow, allowing one CB to track the ST while the other provides cover.
- The right-sided balance player goes out to meet the opposition’s left winger in a bid to delay the counter-attack. His objective will be to press the winger away from the goal and towards the touchline, while simultaneously blocking his in-field advanced passing options. He will be supported by the CDM, who will guard against any opposition CMs who manage to get in behind the ball-near balance player.
- The far-sided balance player will run to get back as quickly as possible. As he does so, he will be tasked with tracking the run of the opposition’s far sided outlet, in this case their right winger, guarding against a quick switch of play, a common counter-attacking move.
- The right-sided balance player has managed to force the counter-attacking winger very wide, delaying the progression of the ball
- He is effectively supported by the CDM, who tracks a player attacking the blind-side, closing that option.
- The CBs have dropped off and come narrow, with one tight to the ST in case of a ball to feet and the other in behind ready to clear any balls over the top, effectively controlling the threat posed by the opposition’s most advanced outlet.
- The far-sided balance player has tracked the opposition far-sided outlet, limiting the possibility of a switch.
- This has all resulted in delaying the counter-attack sufficiently enough to allow the attacking team’s front 5 to get back
Eventually, with no open forward passes to continue the counter-attack, the red team are forced into a back pass, allowing the blue team even more time to get back into a fully organised defensive shape. If the red team try and force the issue, it should be comfortably cleared as every outlet is controlled.
So who goes where?
By now it should be clear how a 5-5 split can give a team the necessary positional superiority to combat counter-attacks. But how do you create the 5-5? Which players go where and how do you decide?
The answer will depend on the players in your squad, most importantly the ones who are most likely to find themselves in the wide units. This refers to three players: the player attacking in the half-space (8/10), the player providing width on the wing (11/7) and the out-side balance player on each side (3/2). These do not refer to specific positions in a formation but rather to specific roles in the positional play game plan, with different teams using different players in each role.
Let’s look at these roles in more detail.
8 & 10: The Creator/Match Winner
The one who attacks through the half-space, trying to score or create. The creative hub of the team, the one with the responsibility to make something happen. Usually either a winger cutting in (e.g. Hazard) or an advanced midfielder (e.g. De Bruyne). Teams will often try and get their best players in the half-spaces.
11 & 7: The Wide Player
The one who creates width by sticking to the wide channels. A vital roll in opening up space inside for the creator to operate in. Usually either a winger tasked with staying wider (e.g. Willian) or a fullback/wingback overlapping (e.g. Robertson).
3 & 2: The Balance Player
The one who stays back and forms part of the first line of the “back 5.” Focuses on retaining possession, switching play, as well as playing penetrative passes from deep if the opportunity presents itself. When coaching this to my own teams, I describe this role as the “switch and feed” players as their objective in possession is either to switch the play or feed the more advanced players with quick, penetrative passes. Usually a CM (e.g. Wijnaldum) or a fullback coming narrow (e.g. Alaba).
Coaches often use specific rotations and set-ups in order to ensure players find themselves in roles that suit them best. These can be highly varied.
To illustrate this, lets take a look at a few examples from the last three Premier League Champions: Pep’s City, Klopp’s Liverpool and Conte’s Chelsea.
Manchester City have routinely played with two attacking CMs in a 1-4-3-3, most famously De Bruyne and David Silva, alongside a CDM. In fact, when Pep started using this pair, many commentators predicted instant doom, insisting the pair were not defensively astute enough to play in the heart of midfield together. City’s rock solid defense has made a mockery of these claims, underlying just how well organised and brave Pep has been in building his team.
In order to facilitate two attacking CMs pushing up into the half-spaces, Pep has tended to instruct his wingers to remain very wide during the build-up phase. This is very different to the role of Hazard at Chelsea under most of his managers (or Ziyech at Ajax for that matter). While Hazard was given license to cut in early during the build-up phase, acting as the team’s nominal CAM while the LB provided the width, City’s wingers are often only allowed to come in at the very last moment, when scoring or providing the assist.
To form his “back 5,” Pep often instructs his fullbacks to come narrow, either side of the CDM. When facing two STs, the CDM drops between the 2 CBs and the fullbacks come even more narrow, creating a 2-3 base.
In City’s record breaking centurion season of 2017/18, Pep began to introduce more variation, at times instructing the fullbacks to overlap, the wingers to cut in earlier while the CMs stayed deeper. This has allowed City to be more versatile and less predictable.
Klopp has also used a 1-4-3-3, but with a very different balance.
The front 5 is created by the two wide forwards and a false 9, as well as both fullbacks overlapping simultaneously. The midfield 3 remain deep, rarely pushing into the half-spaces, instead acting as the balance players, allowing Salah and Mané, supported by Trent and Robertson, to be the match winner and wide players respectively.
Like at City, the CDM is tasked with dropping between the two CBs to form a back 3 when facing two strikers to satisfy the one-extra rule.
Maintaining this balance is the primary reason why Klopp usually fields more defensively solid options in midfield like Wijnaldum and Henderson and why Liverpool have had much better balance since the sale of Coutinho. It has allowed Trent to emerge as a creative force, while also giving Salah and Mané the necessary foundation to remain high up the pitch, always looking to get in behind, rarely having to track back too far away from goal.
Perhaps the easiest system to see the 5-5 split as its built into the team’s default shape is Chelsea’s last title-winning team under Conte in 2017.
The back 3 and double pivot provide a 2-3 base, while the front 3 and attacking wingbacks make up the front 5. When playing against one ST, one of the wide CBs (usually Azpilicueta on the right) would be granted freedom to push up (a role known as the “false fullback”), creating a 3-2 base.
This system famously allowed Hazard to remain higher up the pitch more consistently than under previous managers and to devastating effect. Rather than having to track back as a traditional winger, he could remain advanced, always in position to receive a pass in behind the first and sometimes second lines of pressure, safe in the knowledge that Alonso was providing width and Kante and Matic providing balance in behind.
What did Chelsea look like last season?
Chelsea have routinely lacked the balance players when playing Lampard’s favoured 1-4-3-3.
Far too frequently last season, too many players have pushed up simultaneously, in the process leaving large gaps in our organisation and exposing our back line and CDM. This problem has been especially prevalent when we play with two attacking 8s who are both eager to push up into the half-space to influence the game. Add attacking fullbacks who push up simultaneously and you have a recipe for positional disaster.
While the herculean pressing efforts of Mount and Pulisic in particular have helped cover for this lack of organisation at times, it has not been enough, meaning our initial counter-press is too frequently by-passed, especially when Kante gives in to his natural instincts and presses high as well. Below are a couple screenshots from our match against West Ham post-lockdown that illustrate this, where Willian’s the only one deeper and West Ham able to get in behind easily in transition.
This is then compounded by having several positionally poor, relatively slow defenders who too frequently make the wrong decision between dropping off and staying tight, often ending up in no man’s land in the process.
Without some clear positional rules, this issue is likely to get even more pronounced if we replace Barkley and Willian with Havertz and Ziyech in our starting 11. Not only are last season’s duo significantly harder working than the new additions, they also compliment each other more naturally. Willian is a right footer playing on the right and as such tends to stick to the touchline more often, giving Barkley space to attack through the half-space.
Ziyech on the other hand is a left-footer who prefers to come central early during the build-up, congesting the half-space and limiting the RCM’s ability to push up as well. If he is to work alongside Havertz, an attacking CM who also favours the right half-space, Chelsea will have to be very well organised.
The Van Dijk and Alisson Effect
There is an existing notion among some fans that the only thing separating Chelsea from Liverpool is an elite CB and GK (and LB). The argument goes something like this: “Liverpool were defensively vulnerable until they signed Van Dijk and Alisson, as long as Chelsea can sign players of a similar calibre, they can become title contenders.”
While adding a Van Dijk-esque defender (if one is even available) and elite GK would reduce the amount of goals we concede from counter-attacks to a certain extent, the fact of the matter is Chelsea are still allowing far too many chances from poor positioning to be competitive, Van Dijk-esque defender or not.
Every team will find itself out of position and vulnerable to a counter attack at times across the season, whether that’s due to chasing a game and being more open than usual, coming up against press-resistant midfielders able to consistently escape counter-pressure or simply facing an especially fast, in form counter-attacking side.
In these rare occasions, elite players like Van Dijk and Alisson provide an excellent insurance policy. Van Dijk in particular is one of the few defenders in the world who you’d back when overloaded 2v1.
However, while these moments happen rarely at Liverpool, at Chelsea they occur far too frequently, an outcome of systemic flaws in our organisation rather than rare, specific situations.
As such, relying on individual players to bail us out every single time is not only unsustainable, it ignores the fact that good defense is a collective action, especially in the modern game.
While I fully expect Silva and Mendy to have a positive effect on our overall defensive prowess this season, it won’t be enough. Nor will it be enough if Chelsea go out and sign Donnarumma and Giménez/Rice/Koulibaly next window. Top players are only part of the equation, the fundamental organisation must be there too.
So now that we’ve clarified the problem and the solution, what specific game model can Lampard employ in order to emulate the successful positional teams of recent years?
PART 2: Designing Chelsea’s Positional Play System
By now it should be clear that Positional Play is not a one-size-fits all strategy, the specific system must be tailored to the players available. As such, before we can decide how to design Chelsea’s system, we must take a closer look at the Chelsea squad, in particular our wide unit players. Who are our match winners? Who are our natural wide players? Who are the best at providing balance? These are just some of the questions we must answer.
Chelsea Squad for the 2020/21 Season
Strikers (9): Timo Werner, Tammy Abraham, Olivier Giroud, (Kai Havertz)
Wingers (7, 11): Hakim Ziyech, Christian Pulisic, Callum Hudson Odoi (Werner, Mount, Havertz)
Central Midfielders (8, 10): Mason Mount, Kai Havertz, Mateo Kovacic, (Gilmour, Kante))
Defensive Midfielders (6): Kante, Jorghino, Gilmour
Fullbacks (2, 3): Ben Chilwell, Marcos Alonso, Emerson, Reece James, Cesar Azpilicueta
Centre backs (5, 4): Thiago Silva, Kurt Zouma, Fikayo Tomori, Andreas Christensen, Antonio Rudiger
GKs (1): Edouard Mendy, Kepa Arrizabalaga, Willy Caballero
Lets look at Chelsea’s options in the positions that occupy the key rotating roles, namely the wingers, CMs/CAMs and fullbacks:
WINGERS (7, 11)
Pulisic quickly emerged as Chelsea’s most influential player in post-lockdown, routinely coming up with match winning performances. His 11 goals and 5 assists in only 34 appearances, many of them from the subs bench, is a sign of things to come and, assuming the niggling injuries he’s suffered this year don’t point to any long term issues, he will no doubt continue to go from strength to strength. Although often compared to Hazard, Pulisic is far more direct, often going for the killer move himself rather than predominantly looking to create for his teammates. He is also a lot more hard-working than Hazard and has been a key part of Lampard’s high-pressing system. In many ways, Pulisic is the perfect modern forward: hard-working, creative, direct and able to influence the game in a range of positions and ways.
Ziyech is a left-footer who primarily plays as a RW. At Ajax, he could often be found in the half-space early on during the build-up phase, playing more as a CAM than a traditional RW, in much the same way as Chelsea fans are used to seeing Hazard play on the left. As such, his natural movement will often necessitate an overlap in support to maintain width and is unlikely to open up much space for the RCM to also push up into the half-space. However, he has demonstrated an ability to be dangerous from further out wide as well, where he can focus on using his wand of a left foot to whip in dangerous crosses, making him a versatile option for Chelsea.
CHO is one of Chelsea’s most exciting youth prospects. Unlike Ziyech, he is a right footer, though has also most often featured on the right. When played here, he is much more likely to stay wide during the build-up, going down the line to pick out a cross or cutback with his stronger right foot. That’s not to say that he never cuts in when playing on the right, but we are likely to see more traditional winger play with fewer overlapping opportunities and more space for the CMs when Callum plays compared to Ziyech. When he plays on the left, he is much more likely to cut in earlier, playing as a more traditional inside forward.
Werner is not a modern day winger like Pulisic or Hudson-Odoi (or Ziyech to a lesser extent). He does not possess many of the core winger skills, such as elite dribbling, close control and flair. Although by no means poor in these areas, he lacks the skill and fleet footedness of Chelsea’s other options out wide. In many ways, he shares a lot of similarities with Mo Salah (although he will have to mirror Salah’s physical development and all round improvement these last few years to truly warrant that comparison). Both players do their best work off the ball and rely on their pace, constantly on the move, making difficult to track central runs and in the process wrecking havoc for a team’s defensive organisation.
CENTRAL MIDFIELDERS (8,10)
The main man in midfield last season, the dynamo behind Lampard’s high pressing style. Mount has been the biggest breakout under Frank so far, featuring in all but one 2019/2020 premier league match. Immensely hard-working, well-rounded and technically strong, Mount is the prototypical modern midfielder, able to influence the game in both attack and defence. He is also capable of playing as a forward, a role that allows him to showcase his ability to run in behind more consistently. He is still very young and has a range of areas to still develop, ball retention being high among them. His maturity, versatility and work-rate stand him out among Chelsea’s other options in midfield and will no doubt continue to make him an indispensable part of Lampard’s team.
Although out on loan for this season, RLC could still be a big part of Chelsea’s future, assuming he can recover fully from his long-term injury, so I’ve included him here. Ruben is a more technical, arguably better player than Mount. At his peak before his devastating injury, he was scoring and assisting at will, combining excellently with Eden Hazard down the left hand side. Ruben combines incredible physical strength and power with extraordinary technical ability, a rare combination in world football. His ability to carry the ball from deep, to link up with the striker and wingers and to be decisive in and around the final third, make him a real force when on form and Chelsea fans everywhere will be hoping he will be able to pick up where he left off pre-injury in the new season. He will need to improve his defending and pressing in order to compete with and potentially overtake Mount.
Kovačić won Chelsea’s Player of the Season for 2019-20, having put in several classy, dominant performances for the club. Unlike Mount and Loftus-Cheek, he performs best deeper, in a facilitating role. He is significantly less influential in the final third than Chelsea’s other options, doing his best work during the build-up phase where he can use his dribbling and passing to progress the ball. Kovačić is one of the most press-resistant players in the world, making him an invaluable player against top, high-pressing teams.
Kai, the wonder kid from Leverkusen, shares a similar profile to Loftus-Cheek, in that he is a physically impressive, technical player who does his best work in and around the box. Unlike Ruben, Kai is a left-footer, favouring the opposite side of the pitch (right-half-space). He is highly versatile, able to play to a high level as a centre forward, a number 10, a number 8 and as a winger on either side. While he is significantly faster than Chelsea’s other options in midfield, he does not work as hard, an area he will likely need to improve in to play in central midfield for Lampard.
FULLBACKS (2, 3)
James is an attacking fullback with an excellent delivery from out wide. He has had his best performances for Chelsea as a right wingback or in games in which he’s had the license to attack while being well covered in transition. He is also comfortable coming narrow and pushing into midfield, a versatility that Lampard has commented on in the past. Although he has shown himself to be strong when battling with wingers and defending balls over the top when he is in position, his limited recovery pace and high attacking style mean he can be caught out by poor positioning, while his 1v1 defending has been less than stellar too often. He is still young and no doubt will continue to grow. Future Chelsea captain material.
Azpilicueta is less dangerous from attacking positions than James but is a more well-rounded fullback. He is the best defensively and positionally of any Chelsea fullback, while still able to overlap and push into midfield to pose some threat in attack. Dave’s experience make him invaluable to Lampard and the leadership he provides has been crucial during a period of significant youth integration. His ability to play on both the right and the left, as well as a wide CB in a back 3, make him a key tactical option for in-game switches.
This is an area where had to invest and they did so, signing Lampard’s first choice target and England’s number 1 left back, Ben Chilwell. Chilwell is an elite athlete, blessed with impressive acceleration and physical fitness. Although not the tallest, he is relatively strong aerially and has an impressive shot on him. He does his best work overlapping down the left hand side, where he is able to use his crossing ability to create chances. There are question marks around his positioning and defensive ability, but his age, physical and technical qualities, Premier League experience, and his suitability to Lampard’s system, make him a promising purchase.
Marcos Alonso or Emerson
Chelsea were expected to keep only one of their current LBs and yet the window has shut and both are still Chelsea players. They both provide some qualities as the back up to Chilwell on the left. As a wing-back, Alonso is one of the best in the game, excelling when given freedom to attack. However, unlike Reece James, he is not comfortable pushing more narrowly into midfield, or playing a more disciplined role as the recycler/balancer and can be exposed as a LB. Emerson is more balanced on paper, but lacks the wow factor/match winning ability of Alonso, while not excelling too much more defensively.
The table below will summarise Chelsea’s wide unit players across the 3 main rotating roles in a positional play game plan. I have broken down each role into its specific responsibilities in possession. In reality, there is much overlap between these roles, but for the sake of clarity I will group them into where they are most common:
- Combining in the pocket: This refers to a players’ ability to link-up and create from an inside position, either in the half-space or central lane, between the opposition’s lines.
- Running in behind: A players’ ability to break the last line of defence to score.
- Taking players on: Dribbling ability, in particular in 1v1s against the opposition’s fullbacks.
- Crosses and cutbacks: Delivery from wide, both aerial and driven, to create a chance.
- Central Runs: A players’ ability to make well-timed runs into the box to finish off moves.
- Switch and Feed: This refers to a players’ ability to switch the play from deeper midfield areas, as well as to progress the play and feed the ball to more advanced players. Some players prefer to pass to progress the ball, while others prefer to carry it. A rare few are able to do both at an elite level.
Red: This is the players’ strength, what they naturally do best
Orange: Player is strong here but not what they’re best at
Yellow: Player is okay at this and can do it in spurts, but it is not their speciality or natural play style.
Black: Player rarely if ever does this, either because it is not their style of play or because they don’t find themselves in this situation on account of their playing position.
Some things to keep in mind about this table:
Its purpose is NOT to rate players on their ability but instead to show their respective skillset and style of play.
I’ve included Hudson-Odoi twice, as he tends to play very differently when on the left or the right. This applies to any player really, but with Hudson-Odoi there is still a lot of doubt over whether he will be used as a left winger or a right winger long term and so I’m including both.
I am only looking at in-possession topics in this table. On the whole, the primary out of possession responsibilities for these players during a transition to defence is either to counter-press if near the ball (the first line of pressure), to delay and deflect (if part of the second line of pressure) or to get back into shape as quickly as possible (if the attack is on the opposite side).
What is immediately obvious looking at this table is Chelsea have A LOT of “match winners,” players who do their best work in the half space (Pulisic, Werner, Ziyech, Mount, Havertz, Loftus-Cheek (when back from loan) and Hudson-Odoi when playing on the left.
While previous managers have often just had to think about maximising Hazard’s talents, Lampard will have several more to incorporate. While this may seem like an advantage, and it certainly can and should be one, it also poses Frank with a challenge not felt by Sarri or Conte. While Sarri could play a defensively solid midfield 3 of Jorghino, Kante and Kovacic as well as a defensive winger in Willian, and Conte could use a back 3 and physical double pivot, both systems offering Chelsea and Hazard a solid base from which to play, Lampard will not have these options if he is to field 4-5 of his match winners at once next season.
We also have a few specialist “wide” players (James, Chilwell, Alonso, Hudson-Odoi when playing on the right) as well as several other players who are just as effective on the wings as in the half spaces (Pulisic and Hudson Odoi when played on the left).
However, we are significantly lacking in natural “balance” players, players who do their best work deeper, playing the crucial switch and feed role and providing the team cover. In other words, this team has very few Wijnaldums, Hendersons or Milners. The only two players who are better in a balance role than a more advanced one are Kovačić, world class at carrying the ball, and Azpilicueta, who excels at sending in passes from deep. There is also Kante who has done this role for us in the past, but I haven’t included him as I am assuming Lampard will continue using him as a CDM and not as a RCM when fielding a 1-4-3-3.
This touches on the biggest difference between this Chelsea squad and the current Champions of England: Specialisation.
Liverpool have a significantly higher level or specialisation. Their players tend to do one thing very well, whether its their midfielders who are very much balance players, (e.g. Henderson, Wijnaldum, Milner), their wingers who are very much in-side forwards playing in the half-spaces (Mané, Salah) or their fullbacks (Robertson, Trent) who are very much attacking, overlapping fullbacks tasked with creating width and sending in crosses and cutbacks from out wide.
The Chelsea squad on the other hand is significantly more varied, with several players excelling in a number of different ways. This greater variation can offer opportunities, but it can also create problems. While Liverpool’s system is as clear as it gets, with players unlikely to get in each others’ way or to lose their positional discipline, the greater variation in Chelsea’s squad means there are more moving pieces with greater rotation needed in order to maintain positional organisation and as such, more potential for things to go wrong.
Do Chelsea have players able to carry out the balance role?
Short answer: Maybe.
Long answer: Yes, but only with clear, pre-determined rotations that allow all the players a chance to showcase their natural game, while maintaining good positional cover. In the absence of midfielders or fullbacks who always do the balance role, they will have to share the responsibility.
We have several players who, although not at their best in a balance role, do have the necessary skillset to carry out that role in spurts as part of a larger rotation.
For example, while James’ best qualities are his overlapping and delivery from wide, he is more than adept at coming central, having played as a midfielder in the past. He’d be able to use his passing range and composure to carry out the switch and feed role in possession well, while out of possession, his power and strength would be major assets in guarding against counter-attacks. His lack of pace is also less likely to be exposed in a deeper position. By coming more narrow, he will allow the RCM and RW the necessary freedom to attack into more advanced areas.
Loftus-Cheeks’ displays alongside Hazard and Emerson towards the end of the Sarri era show that he is able to inter-link well in a rotation, staying further back when the LW and LB push up, as well as choosing his moments to push up to be decisive when covered by the LB, but he is not an immediate option. As for Chelsea’s other more attacking CMs, Mount and Havertz, they all have qualities that could, with some coaching, make them good options deeper as part of a positional play rotation, namely work-rate in the former’s case and speed and physicality in the latters’.
Some coaching improvements will be necessary in how to effectively delay and deflect a counter-attack by curving your run, as well as how to carry out the second phase press (the pressing line after the initial counter-press), but these players are all young enough to learn this, the way Guardiola has taught the likes of De Bruyne.
So now that we’ve established that Chelsea’s system will require clear rotation to make up for a highly varied, generalised squad, let us take a closer look at some of the possible rotations Lampard could implement.
PART 3: Chelsea’s Positional Play System
The Formation: 1-4-3-3
Lampard’s preferred formation for the majority of his matches, one that makes a lot of sense considering the profile of player already at the club, and I assume we are likely to continue using it as at least one of our primary formations.
Possible Starting Line-up
This formation requires one big assumption: Werner thriving as a lone forward. This is by no means guaranteed, with Werner’s best performances to date coming as a second striker or, to a lesser extent, as a winger.
Even after this assumption, this line-up still has several possible limitations, namely too many payers who want to occupy the same areas, especially down the right with Havertz and Ziyech both favouring the right half-space. Clear, organised rotations will be vital to making this work, especially down the right hand side.
Rotations – Attacking from wide
Option 1: Winger stays wide, CM pushes into half space, fullback comes narrow into midfield to provide balance - The Classic Man City Option
This set-up most closely mirrors Man City and puts the creative onus on the CMs inside and the wingers outside. It would give the likes of Havertz and Mount the freedom and space to really showcase their talents. The wingers would have to remain wider during build-up, focusing on beating fullbacks 1v1, sending in crosses and cutbacks, as well as making central runs into the box in the final third. Hudson Odoi on the right would be a more natural fit than Ziyech for this game plan. If Ziyech does play, he would have to reign in his natural instincts to come central early. Kovačić would likely not be needed, with the fullbacks coming narrow to provide the balance.
Having players who can be dangerous from both central positions and out wide like Ziyech and Pulisic can be hugely important for a team, as it means fullbacks will have to pull out of position to defend crosses. This could result in a team becoming stretched, in the process creating space for the central players to receive the ball in the pocket through the fullback’s blind-side, from where they will be able to combine to create a chance.
Option 2: Winger cuts into the half space, fullback overlaps, CM drops back into balance role - The Classic Liverpool Option
We see this often at Liverpool, with Mané and Salah cutting in and Trent and Robertson overlapping down the outside, while Liverpool’s CMs stay deeper to recycle possession and stop counter-attacks. Such a rotation would make the wingers and fullbacks the creative focus of the team. This would suit Ziyech the best, allowing him the freedom to float into the centre the way he did at Ajax.
Option 3: Winger cuts in central, CM moves out wide, fullback comes in narrow – Less common, more innovative?
This pattern is a lot rarer but I believe is one that has much potential to create new, harder to predict combinations. I’m a coach myself and have used a similar pattern with my own team last season, albeit from a different starting formation. Playing a 1-3-4-3 diamond formation, I encouraged the wide CMs to overlap the wingers any time they cut in centrally. In my system, I played a right footer on the right and a left footer on the left in midfield to facilitate this. Like in the first rotation, the fullbacks would have to come narrow to provide the balance.
Option Timo Werner: So far we have discussed options with lots of variation. Players like Pulisic, Hudson-Odoi and Ziyech are able to, to differing standards, come central to link up, stay wide and attack the by-line, push up on the last shoulder, as well as to play in the pocket. However, there is another more specialised option on the left, one that will necessitate more rigid patterns: Timo Werner.
Werner’s versatility makes it difficult to predict exactly where he will play long term for Chelsea. Although he’s played his best football as a supporting striker at Leipzig, he’s also featured a number of times as a LW, including in the Champions League fixture against Spurs. He frequently drifts to the left when playing as a ST, scoring the majority of his goals from breaks down the left half space. Chelsea don’t use a two man strike force and so, assuming Lampard retains a one striker game model, Werner’s options are either as the lone striker or as a LW. He has not really played as a lone striker consistently before and Lampard may very well opt against thrusting him in as one in a more physical league, instead choosing to play him on the left alongside another ST, most likely Tammy or Giroud (or potentially even Havertz). We have already seen this a number of times this season and I would be surprised if we didn’t see it a few more times.
The main difference in Chelsea’s play if Werner plays on the left wing compared to if Pulisic or Hudson-Odoi play there is he is much more likely to be central early during the build-up phase. As such, another player will have to more consistently create width, resulting in the 3rd player providing the balance. Assuming it is the left-back who’s tasked with overlapping, that means the LCM will have to play a more disciplined role as the consistent balance player.
In other words, Chelsea’s left hand side would more closely resemble Liverpool, with less rotation and more specialisation. While Kovacic would be the standout choice for LCM in that situation, I could also see Mount doing well in such a system. Although he wouldn’t be able to use his ability to run in behind or get advanced enough to score or assist many goals, his excellent work-rate and recovery pace could make him a good fit to delay counter-attacks in a deeper role (assuming he can learn how to delay and deflect more effectively).
It’s probably already clear that different personnel options would be better for different game plans.
For example, on the right, a game plan that seeks to exploit space out wide and get James into crossing opportunities as often as possible will likely be best with a combination of Ziyech cutting in, James overlapping and Kovacic staying deeper to recycle possession and offer balance.
Meanwhile, a game plan that tries to create centrally will probably better suit a player like Hudson Odoi occupying a fullback out wide in order to creating space for Havertz (or Loftus Cheek) to push up into the right half space to assist or shoot, with James coming narrow to recycle and provide balance.
However, Chelsea don’t necessarily need to change personnel to make subtle changes within a game itself. Signing balanced, versatile attackers and midfielders who are comfortable out wide as well as cutting in, as well as fullbacks who can overlap as well as come more narrow, allows Chelsea to create an unpredictable, well-oiled machine, one that allows Lampard significant tactical scope to affect matches.
If a specific player is on red hot form, or an opposition team is showing an obvious weakness (e.g. leaving lots of space out wide, a CM winning their 1v1s centrally, etc), Lampard will be able to make a number of changes that don’t require subs.
Scenario 1: Opposition defending very narrow, blocking all shots centrally, leaving lots of space out wide
Response: Mount/Ruben and Havertz swapping sides to play on their “right side”
Result: Maximise overlapping opportunities by playing players on the side of their dominant foot, with Havertz able to peel out wide on the left and Mount doing the same on the right. May lead to opposition becoming more stretched, creating more space centrally.
Scenario 2: Opposition man-marking Pulisic and Ziyech/wingers struggling to break opposition down
Response: Pulisic and Ziyech swapping sides to play on their “correct” sides, staying much wider in the build-up
Result: Wingers playing on their “correct side” are a bigger crossing threat, forcing fullbacks to come out to press them more aggressively, creating more space centrally for the midfielders to exploit.
Scenario 3: Opposition playing with a very quick, wide outlet in support of their central striker (e.g. Arsenal and Aubameyang)
Response: One-extra rule - Task fullback or a CDM with staying deeper consistently
Result: More specialisation, fullback can focus on stopping individualised counter-attacking threat by playing a more man-oriented style
Key Patterns – CENTRAL BUILD-UP PATTERNS
While the majority of rotations happen out wide in a positional play system, I’d like to briefly look at some central rotations. Unlike wide rotations that usually happen off the winger’s movement (either cutting in or staying wide), central rotations are triggered by the strikers’ movement.
Chelsea have 4 main centre forward options: Werner, Tammy, Giroud and Havertz. All are adept at linking up play in their own ways. Giroud uses his impressive strength and hold up play to bring players into the game, Werner and Havertz use their technique and link-up play, and Tammy his mobility and off the ball movement. Different options would favour different rotations, with Giroud likely being the least flexible and Havertz the most flexible. Some possible rotations include:
Option 1: False 9 – ST drops deep, forms a diamond with the CDM and two “balance” players, two players push up onto last line. This is a flexible set up, with two main variations:
Variation 1: Wingers push up, fullbacks create width, CMs provide balance - This would give the likes of Pulisic and Hudson-Odoi more freedom to break the line and get in behind
Variation 2: CMs push up, wingers create width, fullbacks provide balance - This would suit Mount and Havertz, both players who excel at getting in behind
Option 2: One “match-winner” pushing up onto the last shoulder in one half-space, the ST making a decoy run into the other half-space, the other match winner coming across into the centre. When describing this to my players, I tend to describe it as a “clockface rotation,” as players move around as if around a clock-face, either clockwise or counter-clockwise.
Variation 1: This set up could allow both Werner and Havertz to get advanced into their favoured areas, the left and right half space respectively, as well as one other player, either a winger or the other CM, to come central just in behind to facilitate combinations and to protect the centre in the initial press phase if possession is lost.
Variation 2: This rotation would push Mount (or Loftus-Cheek) onto the last line, making use of Mount’s ability to run in behind, as well as Loftus-Cheek’s impressive ST-like one-touch play and target-man characteristics. It would also allow Havertz to stay deeper in cut-back territory, an area he has shown himself to be absolutely lethal in for Leverkusen.
There are several other variations in this rotation, with Ziyech and Pulisic also able to come into these central positions, as long as another player vacates and carries out the facilitating role.
Alternate Formation: The 1-4-2-3-1
Another strong possibility for this team given the squad’s profile, one that would allow Werner to play in a more familiar set up alongside another central forward. Let us take a quick look at some of the ways we could maintain a 5-5 split in this formation.
Option 1: Fullbacks coming narrow, one CM pushing up
Option 2: One full-back overlaps, the other comes narrow
BONUS: Both fullbacks attacking simultaneously (6-4 split). Although not strictly a 5-5 split, this is possible against ultra-deep teams, as long as the deeper 4 are well-disciplined and quick. Some teams will remain proactive, leaving players in more advanced areas even against an ultra-attacking team, making it unwise to break the 5-5 split. However, others will revert even deeper, allowing a balance player to push up higher than usual, making this feasible.
The Frank Lampard Era is quickly becoming one of the most exciting times to be a Chelsea fan in recent history. With the arrivals of Hakim Ziyech, Timo Werner, Kai Havertz and the rest of Chelsea’s new signings, this season’s squad has a strong blend of established, exciting, attacking talent, promising youth players and more seasoned veterans.
Getting the best out of this squad will require a coordinated strategy, individual improvements, plenty of positional flexibility and discipline. Above all, a selfless, humble team ethic will be crucial, with players having to share responsibilities and having to cover for each other in order for them to all have a chance to thrive, while maintaining Chelsea’s defensive solidity.
So far, Frank has demonstrated great man-management skills. In his first season, he has created a strong, united team culture, as well as an environment where players can truly express themselves and grow, the perfect foundation for a special team to emerge. Players are working hard, playing with passion and joy and have bought into the manager’s vision. All the fundamentals are there, something that could not be said about many of Lampard’s predecessors.
Now Lampard must take the next step in his growth as a manager, matching the great Premier League winning managers of the past in his ability to design and implement a clear tactical game plan with clear roles and responsibilities, as well as predetermined rotations, in order to both integrate our many attackers and to fix our leaking defence.
Whether Lampard chooses a positional play game model like the one I have set out in this blog or something different entirely, this season at Chelsea will certainly be an exciting one from a tactical perspective. If he succeeds, this Chelsea team could prove to be something very special indeed.