Being third in the Premier League table with just three games remaining is a scenario that surely every Chelsea fan would’ve bitten your hand off for at the start of the 2019/20 campaign.
Enduring a transfer ban in the summer, the departure of superstar Eden Hazard and a 4-0 trouncing at Manchester United on the opening weekend; the chances of securing a Champions League berth this term appeared incredibly slim.
But in just his second season of professional management, former Chelsea great Frank Lampard has masterminded a stellar campaign in west London in which the Blues have mightily overachieved.
Following a campaign of stubbornness and rigidity under Maurizio Sarri, Lampard’s adopted an exuberant, free-flowing approach spearheaded by youth at Stamford Bridge, and the Blues boss has to be credited for the successful integration of Mason Mount, Tammy Abraham, Reece James, etc, into the first-team squad.
And while the former Derby boss’ tactical identity and ideals are quite tricky to pin down, there’s little doubting that’s he showed off enough tactical acumen in his debut campaign as a Premier League manager.
Of course, there was the deployment of a 3-4-3 which stifled Jose Mourinho’s Tottenham in a 2-0 victory back in December, while his tactical flexibility was on full display just a few weeks later just a few miles down the road. His decision to introduce Jorginho for wing-back Emerson and switch to a 4-3-3 ultimately turned the tide in Chelsea’s favour after Arsenal had seized total control in the opening half-hour, as the Blues went on to win 2-1 with two late goals.
Sure, it hasn’t been plain sailing for Lampard’s boys – they struggled to win at home for a period of time, for example – but that was totally expected for a youthful side with an inexperienced coach.
However, the Blues’ form following the restart has been a little more concerning and although much of Chelsea’s woes has been attributed to erratic defending and the inability to deal with set-pieces, Lampard too is worthy of a fair share of the blame.
After spending much of the season switching between a 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3, with the odd three at the back chucked in now and then, Lampard has consistently opted for a 4-3-3 since the restart. A decision which has often backfired against inferior opposition.
The games which stick out are West Ham, Crystal Palace and Sheffield United, fixtures in which Chelsea’s issues in a 4-3-3 were ruthlessly exposed.
Defensively, the formation offers less protection against opposition counters due to fewer players providing central compactness, while the typical deployment of Ross Barkley and Mason Mount in fluid, roaming number eight roles has hampered the Blues’ ability in the first phase and capacity to progress up the field.
Thus, their inability to control transitions and build-up from the back has led to an overall feel of a lack of control in all three of these games. They were unable to sustain any pressure, while they themselves were reliant on counter-attacks as a primary route of chance creation. Any patterns or attacking structure, meanwhile, were absent, with the recent magic of Christian Pulisic often bailing the Blues out.
After scoring twice from set-pieces at West Ham, Chelsea were beaten via a swift break which Andriy Yarmolenko coolly rounded off. Although it was quite easy to blame Antonio Rudiger for allowing the Ukrainian – who couldn’t have telegraphed his intentions more – inside, Chelsea only had two defenders shielding the counter in the dying embers. That was on Lampard.
And after somehow escaping Selhurst Park with all three points, they were made to pay against Chris Wilder’s Sheffield United.
Injuries forced Lampard into deploying Jorginho at the base of midfield, naively pairing him alongside the aforementioned number eight pairing. While the Italian was woeful in possession, his lack of athleticism was exploited by the Blades as Mount and Barkley failed to offer any kind of support and the visitors slumped to a 3-0 humbling.
Going forward at Bramall Lane, meanwhile, Chelsea once again looked toothless against a deep block in their 4-3-3, with a clear void of blue shirts between the Blades’ lines.
But for Lampard, the issue is easily fixable: switch to the 4-2-3-1 you so often used earlier in the season against deeper blocks.
While it’s a system some like to claim is past its expiry date, it nonetheless provides greater protection against the counter with the presence of a double pivot – whom can also assist the build-up phase – and scope for combination play in between opposition lines with the use of a number ten, thus leading to a greater chance of success against sides that sit deep. For the Blues, sustaining attacks should come easier in this system.
It’s a conundrum that Pep Guardiola is trying to figure out over at Manchester City. So often does his deeply loved 4-3-3 leave City more prone to errors in the build-up phase – see Che Adams’ halfway line strike in Southampton’s 1-0 win over the Cityzens – and vulnerable to the counter – see their 2-1 loss at Chelsea, while the 4-2-3-1 (or at least the presence of a double pivot) brings about more control and protection.
Guardiola’s use of Ilkay Gundogan and Rodri as a pairing against Liverpool ensured City were able to mitigate the Reds’ high press and find creators between the lines at a canter in their 4-0 thumping of the champions.
The Cityzens’ aforementioned defeat to Chelsea, meanwhile, was the perfect time for Lampard to utilise the 4-3-3.
With adept short passers Mount, Barkley and N’Golo Kante making up the midfield three behind hold-up specialist Olivier Giroud, the Blues were able to orchestrate counters efficiently while Willian and Pulisic provided two outlets out on the flanks.
The American ran riot in transition that night and the result proved Lampard has the personnel to deploy his 4-3-3 against the ‘big’ sides, but not yet against teams which will sit back and invite pressure. They simply have too many flaws.
The Blues’ clash with Norwich on Tuesday night would be an opportune time to switch back to the 4-2-3-1 – although the Canaries are that bad Lampard should get away with sticking to his guns – while closing fixtures against United and Liverpool, huge in the race for the top four, should see Chelsea set-up akin to how did against City.
But nevertheless, it’s something for Lampard to think about heading into next season in which the arrivals of Hakim Ziyech, Timo Werner and potentially Kai Havertz will bring about different dilemmas but also more solutions.