September is closing and Frank Lampard’s Chelsea is becoming more fit and adept at his instructions. His plan is becoming clearer every match.
Football managers can break their tactics down in many ways, but they almost always start with the nonnegotiables. These are the parts of their tactics that no matter what stay in place. For Frank Lampard, the nonnegotiables are an intense high press and quick vertical progression of the ball (primarily through the flanks but not exclusively).
After nonnegotiables are the manager’s desires. These are the things they want to implement but understand that they may not be able to. This is where a manager has to adapt his or her methods to still get the best out of the squad. And as Chelsea play more matches under Lampard, his desires become more and more clear.
With preseason included, Chelsea has played in a 4-3-3, a 4-2-3-1, a 4-diamond-2, and a 3-4-3. The 4-diamond-2 was only used in preseason and though it worked very well, it was more of an adjustment for lacking wingers at the time. Mason Mount’s rise as a makeshift winger likely put the formation into the “use as needed” category. 3-4-3 was used as a response to Chelsea’s defensive issues prior to the international break. It worked as intended but center injuries pushed Lampard away from it.
But it has become clearer that Lampard’s goal is to implement a 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1. The line between the two is often blurred as it was in the last two matches, but the same ideas are there. As the fitness levels increase and the players return from injuries, it has become clear that those formations, or even a blend of the two, are what Lampard wants to see going forward.
Lampard has been forced to juggle his backline throughout the season but it appears that no matter who the center back pair is now that they understand how to work with one another. The fullbacks, who have a great deal of responsibility placed on them offensively and defensively, and now much wiser about when they commit to an action.
Callum Hudson-Odoi’s return to fitness will allow Lampard to move Mason Mount back into the midfield. The wingers have just as much responsibility placed upon them as anyone and being able to play with wide players who are comfortable rotating with the center midfielders and striker is vital.
But midfield is where Lampard has had to adapt the most. Because of N’Golo Kante’s injury issues, Lampard has had to play around with several combinations of midfielders to find partnerships that can press in tandem, corral the opponent into better areas for Chelsea, and support the attack in the correct ways.
In the last two matches, Lampard has gone with one midfielder who is supposed to stay deeper and one that can push forward and rotate with the wingers. This is where it becomes a hybrid of the 4-2-3-1 and the 4-3-3. Against Grimsby and Brighton, it could just as easily be said that Barkley was in a pivot as he was on the right side of midfield in a 4-3-3.
Going forward, that would be a good fit for players like Mateo Kovacic, Kante, and even Ruben Loftus-Cheek in addition to Barkley. That also gives Lampard the option to use Mount, Loftus-Cheek, and Barkley in the 10 role as needed. And all together, the ability to flex between a 4-2-3-1 shape and a 4-3-3 shape gives Chelsea the ability to adapt to the game in front of them.
This works so long as two things happen. The first is one mid is always “holding” position to help force counters wide and to recycle possession. That is of course Jorginho’s game and Billy Gilmour showed the ability to do it excellently as well. Kovacic could perform the role as well as Kante if needed. The second thing that needs to happen is the press needs to provide time for the midfielders to get into better positions in transition. Jorginho is not a defensive midfielder, but if a press is good enough it matters less as to what skill set he does or does not have defensively. The hard work should be done by the time he or whoever is deepest is involved.
Fitness has been a major focus of Lampard’s early days even discounting the injuries. As the players become more physically capable of doing what is asked, the structure offensively and defensively becomes stronger and clearer. That in turn has allowed Lampard to move away from adapting constantly and more towards his desires for the team that support his nonnegotiables.
Lampard will always be a manager that considers many factors before deciding on his tactics, but it seems as though his hybrid 4-3-3/4-2-3-1 is the way he wants to go forward if at all possible.