Alex Keble was at Stamford Bridge for another difficult afternoon for Frank Lampard, and takes an in-depth look at how his Chelsea side will get on going forward.
How Lampard’s Chelsea are shaping up: scouting report from Stamford Bridge
It is too early in his reign as Chelsea manager to confidently predict whether Frank Lampard will be a success at Stamford Bridge, but after the 4-0 defeat at Old Trafford and now this – a wild, breathless 90 minutes against Leicester City – we can promise one thing: his Chelsea will be hugely entertaining to watch.
There were as many positives as negatives for Chelsea fans. Another lightening quick start for the hosts - characterised by high pressing and piercing attacking football funnelling through the impressive Mason Mount – was rewarded with a goal that typified the energy and work-rate of Lampard’s young side. For 20 minutes, Leicester were in danger of being blown away.
But the match drifted towards half-time and then Leicester woke up in the second 45, capitalising on Chelsea’s tired legs and some already-familiar vulnerabilities inherent in Lampard’s tactical approach. The Blues were lucky, in the end, to come away with a point as the game became remarkably stretched.
The defining features so far: fast starts, but wide open
We’ve already learnt that Lampard’s Chelsea will play assertive attacking football, pressing high and hard while pouring bodies forward to create waves of pressure in central attacking midfield. The prosaic and calculated football of Maurizio Sarri is clearly over, much to the delight of the Chelsea fans.
But there’s a reason for Sarri’s meticulous positional work, for his laborious tactical instructions; Chelsea’s shape was disordered for much of the game against Leicester, a whirlwind opening 15 minutes descending into end-to-end chaos as Chelsea’s legs tired.
Those 120 minutes in midweek clearly took their toll, but this was more than just a fitness problem. It only took the slightest tactical tweak from Brendan Rodgers to expose a brittle Chelsea midfield that looks, as Jose Mourinho pointed out at Old Trafford, too decompressed when the ball is lost.
System & Tactics - a new midfield shape
Lampard sprung a surprise by shifting his formation slightly from a 4-2-3-1 to a 4-3-3, with Mason Mount and N’Golo Kante playing in advanced number eight roles either side of Jorginho. Taking Kante further away from Jorginho was a bold attacking move from the manager that only really worked for the first 20 minutes at Stamford Bridge.
Whereas Ross Barkley and Mount were combining in the number ten space at Man Utd, here Mount was expected to operate in the half-spaces with Christian Pulisic on the left. In the first half Mount and Kante, in Lampard-esque advanced midfield roles, repeatedly found space behind Youri Tielemans and Hamzah Choudhury.
However, inevitably their ambitious midfield shape left Jorginho with too much ground to cover, and as the match wore on Leicester were repeatedly able to counter-attack through the centre – particularly once Rodgers noticed the gaps and instructed James Maddison and Ayoze Perez to play more narrowly.
It was troubling to see Maddison, Jamie Vardy, and Perez gallop towards goal on numerous occasions in the final 10 minutes of the match. Lampard’s biggest priority should be to find a way to squeeze the spaces between the lines once the ball is lost and, during sustained periods of attack, ensure the defensive shield behind the play is strong enough to stamp out counter-attacks at their source.
Key players for Lampard
Kante was exceptional again on Sunday, his energy from the right side of central midfield making a mockery of those still claiming the Frenchman shouldn’t be playing in a box-to-box role. It isn’t his fault that Chelsea’s shape is too stretched to prevent opponents from cutting through them, and playing Kante at the base of midfield would not stitch up the gap. It’s a systems problem, not a personnel problem.
Pedro is emerging as a key component for Lampard, not least because his seniority provides an important counterbalance to the youthfulness of the Chelsea front line. Emerson, a surprise hit in pre-season, was effective marauding forward from left-back, offering a pace and purposefulness that helps get the Lampard project moving in the right direction.
Kurt Zouma was considerably more confident than against Man Utd and is beginning to look like a reliable centre-back partner for Andreas Christensen, while Jorginho’s distribution was outstanding.
How the young players fared
Mount looked lively for Chelsea in a slightly altered position, albeit fading slightly in the second half. His inability to keep an eye on Youri Tielemans, however, had an impact on Chelsea’s inability to dominate the midfield battle – suggesting the youngster is better suited to an out-and-out number ten role that allows him to press from the front without worrying about what’s behind him.
Pulisic did very little, failing to sweep in from the left flank in that Hazard-like way he managed in the Super Cup against Liverpool on Wednesday. That’s to be expected: he has played an awful lot of football in the past week for a 20-year-old new to the country. Tammy Abraham was on the pitch for half an hour but only managed 11 touches, reflecting the wild nature of the contest by that point.
Outlook for the season ahead
On the eve of the new Premier League season Chelsea fans’ biggest concern was how to replace Eden Hazard’s goals and assists, but within three matches the narrative has flipped. Suddenly, it’s Chelsea’s porousness that is most alarming. Committing men forward to attack, and instructing the midfield players to make Lampard-style runs into the box, is an admirable tactical philosophy – but it will not bring success for the new Chelsea manager without a more coherent off-the-ball shape.
Lampard spoke after the match of the need to hold onto the ball better, praising his side’s opening 25 minutes but arguing that when things begin to turn, and the opponents get a foothold, his team needs to learn how to regain momentum. It was a fair assessment, but to do so will require more than just the increased maturity Lampard appeared to be alluding to.
Playing high up the pitch requires just as much compression between the lines as parking the bus. Leicester’s frantic counters in the second half at Stamford Bridge provided further evidence that Chelsea are too stretched - and too disconnected between the defensive line and the attacking line. Compression is an important buzzword for Chelsea; playing like they did against Leicester will be a lot of fun this season, but it won’t get them Champions League football.