Chelsea’s tactical shifts: Pivots, back three’s, and now dual eights

LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 18: Frank Lampard, Manager of Chelsea (L) looks on from the bench with his coaching staff during the Premier League match between Chelsea FC and Leicester City at Stamford Bridge on August 18, 2019 in London, United Kingdom. (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 18: Frank Lampard, Manager of Chelsea (L) looks on from the bench with his coaching staff during the Premier League match between Chelsea FC and Leicester City at Stamford Bridge on August 18, 2019 in London, United Kingdom. (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images) /

Chelsea’s Frank Lampard has been a tactical chameleon throughout the season. What has brought on the most recent shift to dual eights and will it stick?

Before the season began, Frank Lampard was still somewhat of a tactical unknown. With only one season and one team under his belt, it was ultimately an assumption that he would use the Chelsea squad in one way or another. Overall, his philosophy has remained the exact same while the shape and some of the execution has been fluid.

Initially, preseason saw Lampard land on a 4-2-3-1 formation after brief dabbles in 4-3-3 and 4-diamond-2. That did not last particularly long as the team struggled in the opening stages of the season. 3-4-3 was the most common adaptation to the issues, though a 4-3-3 with a midfield not dissimilar to Maurizio Sarri’s, was also used with a deep lying playmaker as the deepest midfielder. Those three formations (3-4-3, 4-2-3-1, and 4-3-3) had all been used more or less evenly up to the Covid enforced break.

Upon the resumption of play, however, Lampard has thrown another curve ball into the mix: the 4-3-3 with dual eights. N’Golo Kante has returned has the deepest midfielder in the team flanked by Mason Mount and Ross Barkley most of the time. What has brought about this change and is this Lampard’s ultimate tactical vision for the Blues?

It helps to understand the two main criteria Lampard is looking for first: pressing and buildup play. Chelsea is supposed to press the ball high up the field, winning it back as soon as possible. That is supposed to be followed up by moving the ball quickly into the opponent’s final third before they can prepare. 4-2-3-1 is naturally well set up to do this and it allows anywhere from four to six players to join the attack.

The issue came at the back. Chelsea’s defensive line was not necessarily high to match the high press, leaving a huge gap to be exploited. Beyond that, if a through ball did not get them, a cross from wide would. 3-4-3 was the obvious solution, but the draw back came offensively. Because there are less players centrally, they have to stay put. That lowers the attacking numbers down to somewhere around three to five.

Eventually, Chelsea returned to a 4-3-3 reminiscent of Maurizio Sarri’s with Jorginho as the deepest midfielder. At the same time, the lines were brought closer together to create less of an issue on the press. But the issues of Sarrismo remained. Chelsea could play out of the back easier, but they also had slowed the play enough for the opponent to catch up. Even beyond that, Jorginho was not a player to naturally shield the defense.

That, plus the return of N’Golo Kante to fitness, has surely prompted the latest change to dual eights. Kante is able to shield the defense and midfield better, allowing for two more creative and attacking players ahead of him. Both Ross Barkley and Mason Mount can break between the lines through dribbling and passing and they can both flow with the wingers.

Overall, even if Chelsea comes against a packed defense, the idea is that they can still work their way through it. In theory, the system allows for almost seven players to be actively involved in attack. Furthermore, the two eights are well suited to pressing so the full backs can get back into position and Kante can prepare to sweep the ball up. The only real loss is some of the playing out of the back, bringing Chelsea back to an early season long ball forward.

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Interestingly, the Sheffield United match provided a case study in just about all the shapes Lampard has used. The team started with dual eights, though curiously also with Jorginho. The playmaker was easily boxed out by Sheffield’s front two and two midfielders.

The first formation change at half time was on paper a 3-4-3, but formed up more like a 3-1-3-3. Like earlier in the season, it struggled to push Chelsea forward though it did manage to stop some of the rot at the back.

The next formation change saw some sort of 3-5-2, which is a new one for Chelsea this season. Olivier Giroud came on with Tammy Abraham already playing as Willian dropped into a free role in and around them. It also did not work.

The final change was to a 4-4-2/4-2-4. By that point, Chelsea had lost any control of the match but Lampard was still trying to make something work. He kept playing with how many players could join the attack, where the buildup was coming from, and how the press was operating but nothing seemed to work.

A lesson was learned from that match however; Lampard will not be pinned down to just one shape. Chelsea has thus far only targeted attackers and midfielders in the market and they are all of the fluid variety. They can shape up in pretty much any formation and play the same, something Lampard may not be able to say currently.

The defense is through pressing, so it is understandable why Lampard’s concerns lie higher up the pitch. That does not mean the defense can be totally left out to dry however and it is defense that has most often caused Lampard to change things up.

Ultimately, the current dual eights idea is probably closer to what Lampard wants to do than not. This late in the season plus the targets coming in kind of leans that way. Chelsea will have plenty of options on the wing and in the eight spots next season, as well as a variety of strikers to play for. The issue will remain at full backs capable of supporting the attack as well as more options outside of Kante to pin things down.

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Whether or not a defensive reinforcement is needed will depend on the overall shape. As always, if the press is good enough, the defenders can be shielded from the dangers of the opponent. Otherwise, Lampard may need to find another solution to his ultimate ideal going into next season.