What are the requirements, and who should play in Chelsea’s midfield under Frank Lampard? I raise some difficult questions and make a few tough and controversial conclusions. The most exciting part to write so far!
Getting the midfield right was arguably Lampard’s biggest challenge last season. His playing style relies on high energy and movement, and his Derby midfield certainly lacked midfielders with those attributes. At Chelsea, there are of course a vast pool of players to choose from:
First, we will have to split the midfield into two different roles, the defensive midfielder (DM / #6) and the two central midfielders (CM / #8).
At Derby, the defensive midfielder’s main role was to defend. They were vulnerable for counter attacks, as Derby pushed their front five high up the pitch, leaving spaces to break in. Compare this to Sarri, who always kept his team compact, and it is easy to see why the role requirements will differ a lot from that of a regista. The DM will be involved in build-up of course, but not in the way where he is asked to orchestrate, soak up pressure and be the main man. Not at all. The most important requirements are:
- Mobility and acceleration/pace (to be able to cover huge areas of space)
- Positional and pressing intelligence (his main job is to win the ball back)
- Tackling and strength
- Comfortable playing two-touch/short passes (but don’t interpret this as the role of a regista)
With new role requirements at DM, there is no guarantee Lampard sees last season’s DM Jorginho as the main man. In fact, I would be surprised if he did. While being a fantastic regista, Jorginho is not a fantastic ball-winning midfielder. His biggest issue is his physique, and while his recovery stats from last season is decent, 2.1 tackles and 1.7 interceptions per game, that must be put in context of playing in a very compact team with little space to cover and defend. As we know, Lampard needs his DM to cover huge gaps when his team attacks. And last season, Lampard’s main issue was his DM’s lack of mobility and acceleration, meaning he even had to compromise on his preferred formation and go 4–2–3–1 from time to time. Now, that may be a formation that would suit Jorginho better, and since Lampard can’t sign any players this window, he might value having different players around. Jorginho is a great player in the right system, but as a DM in Lampard’s 4–3–3 he lacks the basic physical and defensive attributes to succeed, and since he is too good to sit on the bench, it is better for all parties if he got his move back to the Serie A.
But there is one man who is tailor made for this role, N’golo Kanté. He is a natural ball-winner and covers ground like he was two players. Strong in the tackle, an intelligent presser and comfortable on the ball. Ideally, he would have a larger frame to win aerial battles, and Jorginho’s passing game to make play out from the back even safer, but we saw last season under Sarri that there is no reason to underestimate Kanté’s on the ball ability. Lampard would love to use Kanté at what he is best at, winning balls. And he will do so at the expense of Jorginho, regardless of who is the best regista.
If Jorginho is sold, I would choose Ethan Ampadu as Kantés back-up. He has this no-nonsense attitude that can make him a great ball-winner. Physically made for the role, a commanding presence and very good on the ball. Obviously lacks the experience you need to play that role without making too many errors, and with a wasted season under Sarri, I will go into conflict with myself and say he should go on loan to play a full season, preferrably in the PL. Meanwhile, we can sort Kanté’s backup from within:
Tiemouë Bakayoko didn’t have the best first season at Chelsea. But before it went downhill, he looked so promising many of us were singing: “Oh ee oh, Tiemoue Bakayoko! Oh ee oh, together with N’Golo! Oh ee oh, he never gives the ball away!”. That wasn’t ironic. His confidence got shot after that horrendous 1–4 loss at Vicarage Road, and the following six months is what he is remembered for. But since then he had a fantastic season for AC Milan and will strengthen our squad if he returns this summer. Not necessarily a starter either at DM or CM, but a physical, tough and mobile player to use in either of those positions. Will win balls as a DM and can go on surging runs as a more defensive option in CM.
Danny Drinkwater, the forgotten £35m signing who didn’t play a competitive minute last season, but was charged with drink driving and opened a vegetarian restaurant in Manchester, might actually not be the worst player to have in the squad. Not as a starting option, but as a sixth or seventh choice in midfield, he could be a safety net who at least is very capable of playing in a movement-based football side. But if someone is willing to pay something to get him now, then clearly we will bite their hand off. Just don’t think it will happen, and he might as well stay.
Trevoh Chalobah excelled at DM for relegated CH side Ipswich last season, both physically and technically gifted, if he gets an even better loan move this season, could prove to be a good option for the role later on.
Frank Lampard, Chelsea’s legendary #8, doesn’t just fancy playing with one of himself, he fancies two. The DM’s main duty is to defend, and the two CMs are supposed to be differentiators in attack. Essentially, what Lampard wants from his two #8s is a complete skillset while also being able to make the difference in the final third. As a benchmark all should be capable of getting 20 goals+assists each season, giving you some idea why players like Mateo Kovacic are not made for this role (and won’t be bought or considered in this article):
- Mobility, acceleration and pace to play box to box (be able to press with energy and capitalise on space and counter-attacking opportunities)
- Clinical in the final third (passing and finishing in the box and from range)
- Seeking smart movements into space
- Quick feet and ball control in tight spaces
- Work rate, positioning and tackling
Essentially, there are four players in the squad that are capable of excelling in this role: Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Ross Barkley, Mason Mount and Willian. One is injured and another is going to be needed at AM (also), so we might potentially be too thin for Lampard to play his preferred formation effectively.
Let’s start with Mason Mount, Lampard’s protege likely to go straight from the Championship to the Chelsea starting XI. But is he good enough? First of all, remember people’s shock 12 months ago when he chose Derby over PL clubs. His father Tony admitted Frank Lampard was the only reason that happened, and he has taken huge steps playing under him in a physical league. So don’t be fooled to think of him as a Championship player. He was arguably Derby’s most important player too, they averaged 1.74 points per game with him and 1.18 without him, the difference being either a 4th or 17th place finish! He has the complete skill-set to succeed in the role, and have added grit to his consistently good attacking play. He already knows everything about what is expected in the role, and in terms of attacking contributions average exactly 20 goals+assists per season at Vitesse and Derby. Still only 20, sky is the limit.
Another player who is more than capable of reaching those numbers is Ross Barkley. Labeled “average” by many fans after last season, but was English football’s golden boy when playing in a counter-attacking Everton side. He racked up 15 and 23 goals+assists in his last two seasons there, and has improved tactically and defensively under Sarri. But playing into space instead of in drilled triangles will allow for less thinking, instead trusting his instincts, so Lampard’s tactics will suit him much better. We will see an improved Ross Barkley in a more fitting role next season.
The saddest part about writing this article is to acknowledge how long time it will actually take before we get to see Ruben Loftus-Cheek in this set-up, as he is not set to return to playing matches before the end of the year. The persona of a complete midfielder, he has it all to be a world-class box-to-box midfielder, and his 15 goals+assists in only 2,000 minutes last season indicate what attacking influence he can have under Lampard if/when he ever gets fit to play a full season. He will be first choice when he returns, so fingers crossed for a quick and successful recovery.
People may be surprised to see Willian in here, but please leave any prejudice aside and consider his fit for the role: fantastic engine, possibly our quickest player, someone who is at his best when he can run into space. Always thought he were at his best in central position, but the tactics did not match that well, until now. He gets criticized for not producing the goals and assists a top class AM should, but his average of >20 G+A the last four season would be a fantastic return for a CM. Sticking him in there is a good role/player match, and also a viable option given Lampard started last season by playing Harry Wilson together with Mount. The only sensible counter-argument is Callum Hudson-Odoi’s injury mean we will need Willian further forward. My bet is we will see him used in both positions, and the main question is whether or not he has the motivation to really up his game now that Hazard has gone.
Another squad option may be natural box-to-box midfielder Marco van Ginkel, if there is anything left of him … But Lewis Baker lacks the mobility to be given the benefit of the doubt to test himself next season. Loan or sale beckons for him.
Verdict: This was incredibly hard. Especially concluding Jorginho should be sold. But I just don’t see him in Lampard’s system, and if I am wrong and he stays, then nothing better, because he is a quality player. Loftus-Cheek’s injury is what makes us look very thin, but both Barkley and Bakayoko can be more than useful in his absence, there will be a lot of buzz around Mason Mount and if CHO returns early and Willian gets an opportunity in CM, it could work out pretty well. In the second half of the season I would not be surprised to see a midfield trio of Mount/Kanté/Loftus-Cheek, but there are many question marks and if Lampard don’t consider the personnel ready to play 4–3–3 we might even see Jorginho stay in a 4–2–3–1 set-up. Although, I would be surprised if a new manager comes in and immediately starts compromising on his vision. We will see. 4/5.
In the squad:Kanté, Bakayoko, Loftus-Cheek, Barkley, Mount, Willian* + one of van Ginkel or Drinkwater
Loan: Ampadu, Chalobah
Sell: Jorginho, Baker, Angban, Pasalic
Part 4 out soon. Follow @balance_bridge on Twitter for more!