Chelsea: Lampard may be using Kante to cover RLC and Rudiger injuries

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - AUGUST 11: Jorginho of Chelsea is substituted off for N'Golo Kante of Chelsea during the Premier League match between Manchester United and Chelsea FC at Old Trafford on August 11, 2019 in Manchester, United Kingdom. (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - AUGUST 11: Jorginho of Chelsea is substituted off for N'Golo Kante of Chelsea during the Premier League match between Manchester United and Chelsea FC at Old Trafford on August 11, 2019 in Manchester, United Kingdom. (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images) /

Chelsea are waiting for three presumptive starters to return from injury. Ruben Loftus-Cheek’s return may be the most important for the side’s overall structure by allowing N’Golo Kante and Jorginho to shift into more optimal positions.

Frank Lampard has decided to keep Jorginho at the base of Chelsea’s midfield and N’Golo Kante in a more advanced role on the right. Chelsea’s injury list constrains Lampard’s tactical options as well as his squad selection.

Antonio Rudiger’s and Ruben Loftus-Cheek’s absences each have significant effects in isolation. The combination, however, may have created many of the gaps and lapses Chelsea have suffered in midfield, particularly on the transition to defence, through the ways Lampard has tried to mitigate matters via N’Golo Kante and Jorginho.

In every game this season Chelsea needed N’Golo Kante to screen the centrebacks, who are weakened by the absence of Antonio Rudiger. Yet even after Kante returned to the lineup, Lampard persisted with Jorginho deep and Kante forward.

As we wrote last week, this is no more than a superficial resemblance to how Maurizio Sarri used these two players. Insofar as change management is concerned, it also parallels how Antonio Conte approached his first month at Chelsea. Whatever he was working on in training, on match day he kept the Blues close to what they were most familiar with, until The Arsenal Game That Changed Everything.

Chelsea improved their game control in the Liverpool game compared the opener against Manchester United, but they did so by vacating the midfield and forcing both teams to play along the wings.

Another adjustment was having Cesar Azpilicueta stay closer to the defensive line against Liverpool and Leicester City after Zouma’s performance against Manchester United. This worked reasonably well against Liverpool, but he could only do so much against Leicester City coming in from the right and with his relatively slow pace. He was also required further forward late on as the Blues desperately chased a winner. As Chelsea’s performance collapsed in the second half, the midfield was wide open for James Maddison and Jamie Vardy to run directly at Chelsea’s centrebacks.

So why keep N’Golo Kante high up the pitch, when he was needed where Jorginho was so deficient?

One possibly is Frank Lampard wanted Chelsea to regain possession of the ball as quickly as possible and as high up the pitch as possible upon turning it over.

Lampard knows he does not have his best centreback, and after the Manchester United game saw how much work Kurt Zouma still needs to put in. He also knows his full-back situation is dicey. Cesar Azpilicueta is one of the best one-on-one defenders, but is not always fast enough to track back against a counter-attack. Emerson is fast enough, but often is late getting off the mark. Lampard is probably also self-aware and self-critical enough to recognize that defensive organization was one of Derby County’s weak areas last season. Several times this season, especially against Manchester United, Chelsea seemed to adopt the Derby philosophy of “Somebody! Anybody! Clear the ball!”

With all that in mind, Lampard may be setting up his team to keep the run of play as far from his defence as possible. Simply having N’Golo Kante as a screen might be too little, too late. If the play has already come that close, might as well be Jorginho there and maybe he’ll win a tackle or commit a tactical foul.

To do that, he would need to set Chelsea up to maintain and – more importantly – regain possession as high upfield as possible.

The best player on the team for regaining possession anywhere on the pitch is N’Golo Kante. Of course, Kante is also the best player to protect the back-line. Lampard had to choose: which task is more important in the absence of anyone else who can do it nearly as well?

If Lampard had either Antonio Rudiger or Ruben Loftus-Cheek in the line-up, he would not face this choice so starkly. Rudiger would not require as much defensive cover from the deep midfielder or the full-backs. Jorginho could play in midfield just ahead of the back-line with many fewer and much less serious consequences. This would allow Kante to play upfield and focus on keeping Chelsea in possession in the opponent’s half.

On the other hand, if Loftus-Cheek were available, he could handle the maintaining-and-regaining duties. He can keep Chelsea in possession as well as Kante. While he does not have Kante’s ability to regain possession, his greater offensive skills would provide another way for Chelsea to keep play bottled up in the opponent’s half by pinning back one or two players.

Once Loftus-Cheek returns, Chelsea may not need N’Golo Kante as high up the pitch, but they will certainly need him on the pitch. That makes Jorginho the expendable midfielder in the best XI, entering the rotation with Ross Barkley and Mateo Kovacic as depth options for a specific posture against certain opponents or in certain situations.

In many ways, this midfield shuffling reflects how Chelsea have not adequately replaced Nemanja Matic. Matic was one of the best midfielders for maintaining possession in the final third, yet was also one of the best for a double-pivot alongside N’Golo Kante.

Going back to Antonio Conte’s first few games in charge, Matic did just that, and in the same formation Lampard is now using.

The Blues set up in a 4-1-4-1 / 4-2-3-1, with Kante in front of the defence. Matic was in the attacking line in possession and in the pivot during defence and transitions. Next to Matic in those games was Oscar. Mason Mount is in that position now, and shares many similarities with the Brazilian (especially when you factor in how Jose Mourinho used Oscar, and how much Mourinho influenced Frank Lampard).

Also. Chelsea needs to give up their bonkers crusade against Antonio Conte. light

Among those early games of a four-man defence was an EFL Cup game against Bristol Rovers. In that game, Matic played “full time” screening the defence while none other than Ruben Loftus-Cheek took Matic’s usual advanced position. Matic as Kante’s partner in the Premier League and his replacement in the lesser tournaments bolsters what I said on Tuesday about why the Blues should not loan Tiemoue Bakayoko. Finally, that game was Cesc Fabregas’s first start of the season, playing as the third midfielder, which – since this all lines up so well – foreshadows Jorginho’s future role.

For better or worse – actually, no, just better – Lampard’s reasoning for employing Jorginho and Kante like this is far less transparent than Maurizio Sarri’s. Obviously, this is all speculation.

But until Chelsea have either Ruben Loftus-Cheek or Antonio Rudiger available Frank Lampard will be adjusting his midfield tactics and personnel.

Next. Michy Batshuayi should be in next XI if merit means anything. dark

The big question, a la Antonio Conte’s experience, is whether results will force Lampard into a drastic change ahead of schedule, or if he will make any such moves proactively.