Even after many years as a football fan, the sensationalism of the English media is still surprising. Although at times frustrating, I guess it’s good that football gets most of its breathtaking drama from how the media constructs the narrative of the season. For the past two weeks, the supposed demise of Frank Lampard was dominating the media. One goal and one petulant Argentinean later, the narrative has shifted focus. Still, I think what has eluded the Frank Lampard story is a reasonable analysis of what his role at Chelsea has become.
Contrary to some opinions, I don’t actually think Lampard’s performances have decreased significantly since the end of last season. Before he came back from injury, the team wasn’t performing and Lampard’s influence was no less tame than the rest of the team. Unless you’re Fernando Torres, it’s hard to get singled out when the entire is rather poor. And yes, I’m including the end of the season when Chelsea made a late title run. There was an improvement in the results, but the difficulty we had at breaking down opponents was just as defined.
So, how can we explain this new and, in my opinion, largely overblown criticism of Lampard? The simple answer is Andre Villas-Boas and the new direction he is taking Chelsea. Specifically, Villas-Boas has changed the make-up of Chelsea’s philosophy and for the first time in almost a decade, the team is playing without a role designed specifically for Lampard. This is more than just playing with Lampard because Chelsea managers in the past have had to get along without Lampard due to injury. Yet, even without Lampard, the philosophy of the team rarely changed. Another player slotted into Lampard’s role and Chelsea marched on. The most notable replacement was Michael Ballack under Avram Grant. With that said, I should further explain what I mean by the Lampard role.
The role of Frank Lampard in a midfield three has remained constant under Mourinho, Grant, Scolari, Hiddink and Ancelotti (geez, there’s a lot of them). It’s essentially a free role for Lampard that is supplemented by the other two midfielders. When managers diverged from this set-up, the team usually stuttered. There were brief periods where both Mourinho and Grant tried to play Ballack ahead of Lampard but in both cases, Ballack gave way to Lampard. That’s not to say that Lampard strictly operated in attack, because he’s always gone box-to-box, but being the focal point of the transition from defense to offense meant he could get forward without having to worry about leaving the midfield exposed.
With AVB, this role doesn’t exist, with or without Lampard on the pitch. This season, it seems as if AVB’s preferred midfield three consists of Ramires, Mikel and Meireles. With these three, there is no player who operates like Frank Lampard. Instead of two supporting one, it’s one (Mikel) supporting two. You can see this notably with Ramires, who is on his way to being Chelsea’s player of the season now that AVB has broken the shackles Ancelotti put on him. This is a more attacking midfield and it requires more movement and energy, and Ramires is perfect for it. Well, given that Frank Lampard is 33, he has been particularly exposed by this new-look midfield that requires enough pace to transition from offense to defense quickly.
In the first half against Valencia, it was clear to me that Lampard, unlike Ramires, did not have an easily defined role. What I mean is that I didn’t understand what Lampard brought to his position that only Lampard could bring. Although still not at his best, the second half was much better and there were signs that Lampard was starting to use his particular abilities to mold a role. In the build-up to his goal, Ramires makes a very Lampard-esque central run into the box. Lampard, instead, anchors Ramires at the top of the box, where he eventually scores from. Just before that goal, Lampard actually floats a ball over the top to Ramires, a fellow midfielder, who breaks through for a one-vs-one with the keeper. Do you remember Lampard ever putting Ballack in on goal? For me, this is a sign that Lampard is striking a balance between offense and defense that is necessary to play in AVB’s midfield. There were other times when he got forward and Ramires anchored (see Torres’s saved volley from the six-yard box). Distribution and positioning have always been Lampard’s best qualities and it seems like he’s getting close to applying those attributes from a different position on the pitch. By understanding his position adequately, Lampard can compensate for the pace he’s never had.
More than anything, we must remember that Lampard’s unmatchable consistency has not been within a consistent team. What’s even more remarkable than Lampard’s consistency is his consistency during six or seven different managerial spells at Chelsea. While I stressed that Lampard’s role has always been within a two-supporting-one midfield, that’s not to say he has played the same position under every manager. Different managers bring different visions. At times he has moved more central (instead of left-center) or more advanced and yet his performances have always been top-notch despite an initial learning curve. Bottom line, while his age may have ended the days of Lampard’s twenty-goal seasons, his astonishing consistency and adaptability mean he still has a lot to give for Chelsea Football Club.