Chelsea’s lineup defied easy categorization before kick-off, but it shaped up mostly as a 4-2-3-1. The rotation among the five midfielders showed how freely Frank Lampard has his side playing and, more importantly, learning.
Billy Gilmour was the anchor point of Chelsea’s midfield in his first start with the senior team, age 18 years and three months. Ross Barkley joined Gilmour in the double pivot of the 4-2-3-1, but Barkley’s inclinations to go forward on the attack – sometimes well before anything resembling an attack materialized – meant Gilmour had a rotating cast of characters dropping deep to work with him to bring the ball out from the back.
Barkley was an odd choice for the double pivot. He does not contribute much on defence, which was not of much concern against Grimsby Town but obviously would be against most Chelsea opponents. He is not accustomed to receiving the ball on the turn and then having to bring the play upfield until the opponent’s defence forces him to either drive through them or lay the ball off to one of his teammates. Unsurprisingly, then, Barkley often left the deeper role very early in build-up play, placing Chelsea and Gilmour into a 4-1-4-1.
Grimsby Town’s man-marking of Chelsea over two-thirds of the pitch would take Gilmour out of the play if he was the only deep midfielder in those situations. The Blues’ attacking midfielders covered for Barkley’s forward runs by dropping deep to come alongside Gilmour, or even come closer to the centrebacks’ line, to receive the ball.
Pedro, as the No. 10, was the usual player to come deep to support Gilmour in the pivot. Among the three attacking midfielders, Pedro offered the best defensive support if Chelsea turned the ball over between the centrebacks and the midfield.
However, both Christian Pulisic and Callum Hudson-Odoi took less frequent turns coming into the deeper midfield, and Ross Barkley was not totally absent from his nominal station. Among the four non-Gilmour midfielders, Barkley would drop the deepest when he would drop at all.
Each of these attacking midfielders created a variety of options for playing the ball out from the centrebacks. First, they could receive the ball directly from the centrebacks, turn with it and bring it upfield. Gilmour’s off-the-ball runs were crucial in making space for them to do so, without opening up so far from them that he removed himself as a passing option if the attacking midfielder hit a dead end.
Second, both the attacking midfielder and Gilmour could drag their markers out of position, leaving time and space for the centrebacks to dribble the ball across midfield themselves or line up a long pass to one of the wingers.
Third, Gilmour himself would receive the ball from the centrebacks, with the attacking midfielder staying open, giving him the options to pass square to them, back to the centrebacks or wide to the fullback. However, these were all fall-backs to Gilmour, who showed a preternatural, Fabregas-ian mind and eye for finding his own time and space to send the ball directly to the most promising player already over midfield.
No single midfielder emerged as the best or usual option to partner Gilmour at the base of the midfield. One major reason is that none of them are particularly skilled or experienced in the double pivot, as N’Golo Kante or Mateo Kovacic are.
Another is that this rotation amongst the midfielders was part of Frank Lampard’s tactical and developmental plan for his players.
If you cast your mind back to any season prior to 2016/17, Chelsea always had fluid rotation amongst their midfielders. When the Blues played a 4-2-3-1 under Jose Mourinho, the midfielders were never fixed in their positions under all circumstances. A 4-3-3 is usually employed with this expressly in mind, with the exception of Chelsea’s most recent 4-3-3 all of last season under Maurizio Sarri. But reach back to Carlo Ancelotti’s 4-3-3 and you get a better understanding of what Lampard may be working towards with this squad.
There was a certain amount of unpredictability in Chelsea’s midfield against Grimsby Town. Once Barkley drove forward, Gilmour always had a few moments before anyone – including him – could see who was dropping deep from the attacking line in support. Gilmour’s ball control and the centrebacks’ reading of what their teammates were doing ahead of them bought everyone just enough time to set some order out of the momentary uncertainty.
This made the game highly entertaining to watch, but it also made the game highly educational for the players. No two build-ups were the same in their timing, personnel and positioning, even with 72% possession against a League Two side.
Billy Gilmour had the opportunity to display his full range of tactical and technical abilities because it was necessary for him to do so. He did not have the safety net of always knowing who was where and what he was going to do next. This is how players learn and how they become adaptable: solving a constant progression of new problems under slightly different constraints with the freedom to fail.
Chelsea would probably (hopefully) not play as loosely against a Premier League or Champions League opponent as they did against Grimsby Town. They almost certainly will not finish a game in those tournaments with six teenagers on the pitch, as they did on Wednesday. But this game shows that Frank Lampard is treating the Carabao Cup not only as a chance for young players to gain playing minutes and some undefined “experience,” but as a true learning endeavor.
This is the best use of a fixture like this. Lampard may not have another chance like this until January in the FA Cup, as the Blues drew Manchester United in the next round of the Carabao Cup.
Stamford Bridge was a classroom as much as a stadium, and it offered as much for Pedro and Lampard himself to learn as Gilmour. This game was a perfect representation of Lampard’s long-term plan for this squad, which has its roots in Jody Morris’ long-term plan for these players going back to their time together at the academy.
If only going to school was always this fun.