All of thirteen years ago now I watched Frank Lampard expertly trap a ball on his chest against Bayern Munich. Somewhere between keeping the ball in the air and touching back down, he swivelled perfectly and half-volleyed the ball into Bayern’s net. This was the moment I mistakenly believed Chelsea would conquer Europe, in what was only Jose Mourinho’s debut season as their manager.
The season before, under Claudio Ranieri, Lampard told the press he wasn’t worried at what personnel upheaval Roman Abramovich’s takeover portended. “I have always stood up to be counted,” he said, duly putting his money where his boots where. Lampard the player possessed will, timing and the power of placement; an uncanny ability to materialize along the edge of the box, fancy a pop from distance and then retreat back across the park in time to tackle the senses out of a man.
Watching Chelsea this season, you get the sense that their legendary number 8 isn’t far enough removed from his playing days to distil a feasible football philosophy – one that doesn’t require his starting eleven to essentially match Lampard at his prime: blessed with box-to-box stamina, and able to plant the ball in the net low, high, and hard.
Ross Barkley, on his day a millennial, pirouetting, incarnation of Super Frank, promises the gift. The power to function as the centre of gravity for his team, in a false 9 role that can masquerade as a false 8. Multiple times, against the equivalent soul-searching of Manchester United, Barkley seemed to shift the axes of the entire pitch with two touches. Even against Liverpool in the Super Cup, his power to reorient the off-the-ball movement of defense and attack looked seismic.
Lampard’s high-octane passing system requires a willing gentleman to run across all those brand new spaces Barkley, and sometimes Mason Mount, can open up – and then a second gentleman to run across that initial pass. It’s a system seemingly built on predictive passing, but are Chelsea sophisticated enough, conditioned well enough, to repeat the play for longer than forty minutes? Do their men, no matter how young, have the foresight to create a contingency for the gaps created by every forward pass? Like Jurgen Klopp’s gergenpress, or Mauricio Pochettino’s, it’s beautiful to watch; but so very difficult to sustain.
This was none other than Jose Mourinho’s concern, in the pundit’s seat of a Sky Sports studio he now shares with Jamie Carragher and Phil Neville. The Special One spoke scientifically about ‘shape’, and the room, maybe the nation, maybe the world, listened intently to a man who hasn’t managed a team courageously since Inter Milan’s Champions League trot in 2010.
Sympathy isn’t a feeling anyone’s ever had to summon for Chelsea Football Club, and it makes for an odd viewing experience. Lampard has spent his first few games of the season trying to patch a team together without the full health of key defensive elements (N’Golo Kante and Antonio Rudiger) and the influence of a demigod (Eden Hazard). And yet no one will give him credit for the fact that his side already knows what it wants to be going forward: a whack-a-mole sequence of flicks and through-balls that could do with a Diego Costa.
Chelsea are overstaffed with creators, and starving for pure finishers. There is a decent mix of creativity and finishing in a good 5 members of Lampard’s match day lineups; but maybe old Frank should let his youngsters wait for the fight to come to them. Against United, they were quickly sussed out and hammered on the break – because even a lightning storm is somewhat guilty of predictability. If I were Lampard, I’d put apply some early-season minutes to just playing defense: to sometimes letting the other side’s set-up create passing lanes for us, viable opportunities to slip in behind. The second half against Leicester stands as a specimen of this method, except it was Brendan Rodgers’ men that turned the throttle up in the second half, after absorbing everything Chelsea had. A goal or two stings, but not if you have the fortitude to steal one or two back. Just ask (ahem) Mauricio Pochettino.
Lampard’s men need to sometimes let every other team suggest things about who they are, in the context of the rest of the Premier League – at least until they’re able to field something close to the team they actually want.