Much of the criticism towards Frank Lampard’s Chelsea lineups in the last two matches has been about the lack of a player he doesn’t really use.
Just after formations, positions are about the most arbitrary categorizing tool in football. What makes a fullback a fullback and not a wingback? Is it just the presence of a back three? What if they play exactly the same regardless? It’s all a bit make believe.
There is at least some credence to playing centrally versus wide. Wide players often have more time on the ball and often face more one versus one situations. Central players have less time on the ball, have more opposition around them, but are also better situated to influence the match. After all, the goal is in the center and one way or another the ball must end up there.
So there is at least something to the criticisms that Frank Lampard hasn’t been using wingers this season. Of course, Lampard’s never really used wingers even when he had “wingers” last season. Even the ones currently on the roster aren’t really going to be used that way. The whole idea is a myth in a Lampard team.
Traditionally, the winger is a player either side of how every many strikers there are. They are there to stretch the opponent out before crossing the ball in or passing it to a player filling the spaces they create horizontally. But traditional wingers haven’t really been as prevalent in the last decade. The rise of the “modern fullback” who is expected to get forward and overlap made wingers a dying bread.
That is clear in Lampard’s tactics. No matter who is either side of the striker, they generally tuck in centrally to make space for the fullbacks (or are they wingbacks?) advancing. Often times, the right footed player plays on the left and the left footed player (which Chelsea now has in Kai Havertz and Hakim Ziyech) play on the right. This way they are naturally inclined to move towards the goal or pass into the striker.
In addition, having the front three play so close together allows for a lot of positional interchange. That was pretty clear early on against Liverpool with Havertz playing centrally but often finding himself out towards the right and Timo Werner doing the same song and dance from the left.
The whole idea is to overload centrally, forcing the opponent to pull more players in. That frees up fullbacks for the cross if a player doesn’t commit to them. If they do commit to them, these not-really-wingers have space to receive the ball.
This whole idea is why Lampard feels comfortable playing Mason Mount, Kai Havertz, Hakim Ziyech, Ross Barkley, and Ruben Loftus-Cheek “wide”. Because they aren’t really wide, they are central. It is also why he wanted someone like Ben Chilwell who could get up and down the flank and assist the attack more seamlessly than Marcos Alonso.
But more than anything, it is why someone like Callum Hudson-Odoi or even Christian Pulisic at the start of last season struggle to get into the side. Lampard isn’t looking for either to stretch the play, he wants the fullbacks to do that. Instead, he wants them tucked in to help the striker but also to make runs into the box. It took Pulisic a few weeks to get the hang of it. Hudson-Odoi still hasn’t.
Finally, there is the whole idea of the team needing to occupy side line to side line which just isn’t true. Managers like Julian Nagelsmann and Erik ten Hag call this “minimum width“. The player furthest from the ball doesn’t need to be on the far side line, they just need to be wide enough to be open for a switch of play. So while at times someone like Havertz and Reece James might both be near the right sideline, whoever the left “winger” is will probably be somewhere around the far post. Pulisic grasped this idea after about a month or so and it helped him turn into the goal scoring machine he did last season.
That is not to say a true winger like Hudson-Odoi doesn’t have a place under Lampard, it just won’t be the norm for him to be going wide. Chelsea doesn’t really have the inverted fullback on that side to make it a consistent feature, though Alonso is never afraid to make a run into the box. That partnership could at least be viable, though both will have to settle for rotational matches.
This also goes to explain why Lampard was okay with Pedro and Willian leaving while only bringing in Hakim Ziyech. Even counting Ziyech, Chelsea only has two other players that can be considered “wingers” in Pulisic and Hudson-Odoi. But again, Lampard doesn’t really use them like that which is why so many others can (and will) be considered and why the Blues haven’t pursued a fourth winger for depth.
There is obviously contention about Hudson-Odoi not playing in the last two matches with him being the only fit winger. But Lampard using wingers is more myth than reality. Simply put, Lampard saw training and performances on the field this season and last and decided to go with Mount and Havertz. It probably becomes trickier to justify that without Chilwell playing and James getting pegged back, but this is still all a work in progress.