Shortcomings of Lampard the manager echo those of Lampard the player | Jonathan Wilson
17 August 2019 19:00
C enturies from now, when the world is a wasteland and football exists only in the ruins of stadiums half-buried in the desert, there will still come a wind through the dusty valley and on its breath will be the question: “But if they were great players, why couldn’t they play together?”
The few surviving humans will huddle in caves, squabbling over the meagre crops that remain, divided implacably into two tribes, the Gerrardites and the Lampardians, deaf to the various efforts of minority groups such as the Barryists and the Hargreavesians to unite them, indifferent now as they were then to the proposal of the deposed warlord Capello that it might conceivably work out if only the Gerrardites could occupy the land to the left.
It feels at times as though the Lampard-Gerrard debate will forever remain the defining question of our declining civilisation. It feels incredible now that it should remain pertinent 15 years after the conundrum first raised its head at Euro 2004 – and yet it does, and it could define Frank Lampard’s managerial career.
“To be a manager,” the great Dynamo Kyiv coach Valeriy Lobanovskyi once said, “you must forget the player you were”. Lobanovskyi the stats-driven martinet of a manager would have no time for Lobanovskyi the mercurial winger. It’s hard to equate, similarly, George Graham the relentless driller of a back four with the George Graham who would stroll around midfield for Arsenal and Manchester United. But early signs from Lampard’s management are that there are numerous parallels – both promising and more troubling – with how he was as a player.
As starts go, away at Old Trafford and then a Super Cup final against the European champions is pretty brutal, and it’s only reasonable to acknowledge that, as he prepares for Sunday’s visit of Leicester. But what’s been striking about Lampard’s two games so far at Chelsea is the problems in the centre of midfield: against Manchester United of a sort that seemed entirely in keeping with his playing career, and against Liverpool that felt a continuation in slightly amended form of many of the problems faced by Maurizio Sarri last season.
With the ball, in both games, Chelsea were excellent. There was a pace and a verve to their passing that suggested they will blow away lesser opponents. If they stop clanking first-half shots against the woodwork, they might record impressive wins against top sides as well. The issue was without the ball, at Old Trafford in particular.
Although United by the end were rampant, until the second goal went in it still felt as though Chelsea were the likelier winners. Chelsea had 18 shots to United’s 11, seven on target to United’s five.
What is telling, though, is that the xG (expected goals) had United winning 2.37-1.37. For all Chelsea’s dominance of the ball, for all Tammy Abraham hit the post and Emerson Palmieri the bar, their lack of compactness meant they could be opened up with gruesome ease, with the result that the opportunities United created on the counter were extremely good ones. Repeatedly exposed, Kurt Zouma was rendered a clumsy parody of the player he appeared to be at Everton last season.
Perhaps it’s an unfair comparison, born from the fact that Lampard’s playing career remains so fresh in the memory, but my mind went back to a World Cup qualifier in Vienna in September 2004 and the vast swathes of space that opened up for Austria as they came from 2-0 down to draw with England. David James ended up as the scapegoat that night but at least as problematic was the lack of protection afforded the back four by the Lampard-Gerrard midfield.
Add in the fact that Opta stats show that Lampard’s Derby conceded a greater proportion of their goals to fast counters than any other side in the Championship last season and the conclusion seems obvious: if Lampard couldn’t organise a midfield he was playing in, why should he be able to organise one he’s directing from the technical area?
Football, though, is rarely as straightforward as that and a feature of Lampard’s brief managerial career so far has been the speed with which he has learned. The most notable example of that, perhaps, is the way, after suffering three defeats to Leeds last season, he made tactical adjustments in the fourth that were critical in Derby reaching the play-off final. There must have been fears that Chelsea would be exposed against Liverpool, who are arguably the best team in the world at countering at speed – but they were not.
The return of N’Golo Kanté, of course, was a major benefit; his energy and reading of the game would help solidify any midfield. But even then there is reason for concern, largely because Lampard ran into the issue Sarri never quite resolved: it’s extremely difficult to fit Jorginho and Kanté into the same side. They are very different players to Lampard and Gerrard – and indeed to each other – but the basic problem is similar: two players who want to operate in the same space on the pitch.
The thought had been that Lampard, who used both 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1 at Derby last season, might abandon Sarri’s eternal 4-3-3 for a system that allowed him to play Kanté alongside Jorginho, ideally with a creator in front to offer a goal threat from midfield that Chelsea have been without since the departure of Cesc Fàbregas.
In Istanbul, though, he stuck to Sarri’s policy of deploying Jorginho centrally with Kanté to his right and Mateo Kovacic to his left. Although Kanté excelled, Jorginho’s defensive limitations were a major problem. After Roberto Firmino had come on, Jorginho never got to grips with a player dropping into his zone and for Sadio Mané’s second, he was drawn to the ball, leaving the Liverpool forward free on the edge of the penalty area.
To an extent, Lampard’s difficulties are the result of the make-up of the squad but that isn’t going to change any time soon. There is a need for him to show he can find defensive balance, and find it in a way that isn’t entirely reliant on Kanté.