This weekend saw Manchester City and Arsenal concede unnecessary and ridiculous goals from their commitment to playing out from the back. Frank Lampard is the perfect bulwark against such hubris setting in at Chelsea.
Part of the aura around Frank Lampard is how setting Chelsea FC’s goal-scoring record and the Premier League’s record for goals from a midfielder, winning the Champions League, Europe League, three Premier Leagues, four FA Cups and two League Cups never dented the understated work ethic of the young man determined to rise above the nickname “Fat Frank” and the unconcealed sneers that he was trading on his name more than his talent.
Lampard’s ratio of diligence to dogmatic puffery approaches Jorginho’s pass-to-assist ratio prior to Saturday’s win at Wolves (no, we won’t let it go. Besides, you know you like it, otherwise you wouldn’t keep coming back here.). Under Lampard’s guidance, there is little risk of Chelsea over-committing to style points at the expense of results and respect.
Manchester City and Arsenal both put their hubristic commitment to style on display this weekend, to the benefit of Norwich City and Watford, respectively.
Nicolas Otamendi drew the biggest laughs for City, but John Stones deserves just as much blame. Stones had two Norwich City players lightly marking him – they were not yet pressing – as he stood just inside his penalty area. He passed the ball square to Otamendi, immediately signalling for Otamendi to pass it back to Ederson.
Norwich read the pass, the instruction and the intention immediately: they were equally predictable and obvious. One Canary charged at Otamendi while another closed off the pass into midfield. Otamendi lingered on the ball as he turned to Ederson, was easily dispossessed and the Canaries scored moments later.
Arsenal allowed Watford back into the game on a similarly needless attempt to play out from the back. Bernd Leno was on his six-yard line when he passed the ball back – back! from his six yard line! – to Sokratis.
This initial positioning removed Leno as a last resort pass option for Sokratis. Arsenal had one player on the six yard line on the opposite side, Matteo Guenduozi on the 18-yard line and one on the right touch line. The first two passing lanes were completely covered by Watford’s press, yet Sokratis chose the second. Gerard Deulofeu cut out his pass and Tom Cleverley converted from point-blank range.
Two quotes sum up this moment. On NBC Sports, the commentator was speaking about Arsenal’s self-defeating commitment to playing out from the back, even though it had run them into trouble several times already in the game, as this sequence developed. While they replayed the goal from every angle, he said:
"It makes my job a lot easier when I’m talking about stuff and then they just do it straight in front of your eyes. Just mentioned how many times they’re going to mess this up, and the pictures tell you everything. Atrocious. I’m literally lost for words. – NBC Sports"
The other comes from the goal-scorer, Tom Cleverley:
"We weren’t surprised they tried to play like that. It was just more of a surprise they didn’t adapt during the game and they were pretty stubborn with it. – Evening Standard"
Otamendi’s and Sokratis’ errors were in execution, but they – along with John Stones’ – were also errors in judgment. Commentators, opposing players, fans and pundits all know going into the game what these teams and players are going to do. The only surprise is that they do it exclusively and are so inflexible despite the obvious quality of the players and managers.
But that level of quality can be fatal when it allows hubris to creep in. When players and managers believe a certain way of doing things is the only way of doing things because it’s their way of doing things – or simply because they think the mode is more important than the result – they ship easy goals to Norwich City and Watford.
There was absolutely no reason for either team to play out from the back in those positions. Even if you doubt your midfielders’ and forwards’ ability to win the aerial duel for a long goal-kick, you still collect your players around that duel to win the second ball. The worst case scenario is the opponent takes possession at midfield. Unlike when playing out from the back within your own penalty box with three opposing players lurking, where the best case scenario is giving up a high probability goal-scoring opportunity and the worst case scenario is conceding a goal.
Frank Lampard’s humility as a player in the face of his enormous achievements is carrying over to his short tenure as coach. While he may have stepped into the Chelsea job earlier than most would have expected, he took no shortcuts to get there. His methods and public statements so far show that he is learning just as much as he is teaching.
His personality will keep Chelsea from believing whatever hype grows around him and this team. He knows how fragile a manager’s grasp on a game, his players and his job is. He did have 11 managers while at Chelsea, after all.
One attribute shared by the most successful of those managers was always knowing that winning was the ultimate goal, and everything else only matters inasmuch as it helped the team towards victory. Style, tactics, structure and organization are only as successful as what you see on the scoresheet and the table.
Nothing about Lampard foreshadows an eventual self-sacrificial commitment to “Lampardball” or “tiki-Franka” or prolonged disquisitions about half-spaces or performative tutorials when he knows the camera is on him. That is not the glory he craves. He never self-promoted as a player nor in his short stint as a pundit. His ego is not going to metastasize now that he is in the most tenuous job in the sport.
If the players learn his example as well as his system, Chelsea will eventually stop conceding so many goals, but at least in the mean time they won’t concede goals as unnecessarily banter as those we saw at Carrow Road and Vicarage Road this weekend.