Frank Lampard has proven his worth to Chelsea in lockdown. The importance of his presence at Stamford Bridge in securing the signings of Hakim Ziyech and Timo Werner cannot be overstated. But Chelsea need more than a good team sheet to win the title, and Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City offer the Blues legend the perfect opportunity to prove he’s a strategist as well as a persuader.
Chelsea have failed to win any of their six games against fellow members of the current top five so far this season, picking up just two points, both against Leicester. Their most significant victory came away at Spurs just before Christmas.
They’ve by no means been overawed in the games they’ve lost to Liverpool, Manchester City and Manchester United. They were on top for significant periods in the 2-1 losses away at the Etihad and at home to Liverpool, with more possession and a fair share of the chances in both of those games. Even the 4-0 loss to United on the first day of the season was a far more even game than the scoreline suggested.
But the consolation of a half-decent performance grows scanter with each loss that occurs in the same circumstances. Particularly for a club – managed by a former player – so used to winning in any situation, often with their backs against the wall.
The youth and inexperience of the Chelsea side to some extent explains those defeats. When in the past Didier Drogba could bully defenders and buy fouls, and John Terry, Ricardo Carvalho or Gary Cahill would soak up pressure through their positioning and decisiveness in the defensive third, Chelsea are instead left open through a consistently costly lack of game management that does develop over time, but can also be coached.
This team aren’t used to the ebbs and flows of a match; it’s either possession or bust. Pressing isn’t the same as panicking and trying to win the ball back at all costs. When it’s done best it’s a five-second spell where players close down the opposition and attempt to force them into a mistake, before dropping off and protecting their back four, rather than continuing to close down players until your centre-backs are left vulnerable and out of position. And with the quality of centre-backs Chelsea currently have at their disposal, that will almost always end in disaster.
How often have you seen Chelsea sit back and absorb attacks from the opposition this season? Rarely, if ever. The centre-backs and goalkeeper, in particular, haven’t been good enough, so teams often score before a long enough time has passed to deem them ‘under pressure’. But Lampard has to take a significant share of the blame – they’re not so bad that they are completely unable to defend.
The ethos of the team just needs to be altered slightly, to become a little harder to beat rather than desperate to win all the time. Antonio Rudiger and whoever’s alongside him need to be happy with defending. They can’t be Terry, no-one can, but Lampard needs to instil a bit of his legendary teammate’s mindset – the one that f***ing loves heading a ball into the stands or blocking it at the front post.
It’s great that Lampard has changed Chelsea’s style, and it’s nice to watch the interchange of players in midfield and the attempts to overload the wings. But it’s also fine not to have the ball occasionally, to put up the barricades for a spell of you shall not pass. And they will have to do that on Thursday night. Manchester City have been magnificent since the restart, and Chelsea will be forced to cede possession for long periods.
Lampard will almost certainly go with three centre-backs against Guardiola’s side, as he has done previously in games against strong opposition. Cesar Azpilicueta will move into the centre, with precocious talent Reece James coming in at right wing-back.
And the obvious added solidity of an extra centre-back doesn’t necessarily weaken Chelsea when they do have the ball. James and Marcos Alonso are Chelsea’s two best providers from wide areas and having them as high up the pitch as possible will be one of their best weapons against City. Hopefully with N’Golo Kante playing alongside Jorginho – who will likely come straight back in following suspension – to cut off any danger in transition.
The wing-backs may not have much of an opportunity to get forward, which is also fine. Defending in numbers is not necessarily an admission that you are a worse team than the opposition – though Chelsea clearly are Man City’s inferior – but rather that you are ready and able to adapt to a different game or a different period in the same game. Having less possession doesn’t automatically make them less dangerous. Against City, in fact, it can often mean the opposite.
Maybe next season, or the season after, Chelsea will have the attacking talent to simply score more than the opposition, or defenders that don’t crumble under pressure. But at the moment, they don’t, and this is Lampard’s latest chance to show that he recognises that. If he doesn’t he will yet again be fielding questions about a commendable loss, rather than the victory he desperately needs to remove some of the lingering doubts over his tactical prowess.
Will Ford is on Twitter