He’s been Chelsea’s talisman ever since the Blues landed him, paying West Ham a pittance for what would prove (in the face of the awesome returns it brought them) to be the greatest bargain the Stamford Bridge boardroom ever conjured up.
Frank Lampard, who ensured the pain of seeing the legendary Zola leave was forgotten soon enough, is Chelsea’s most reliable midfielder. His centrality to the team’s cause means the star-studded line up can look incredibly listless if he’s on the sidelines. Not only are the Blues reliant on his intelligent positioning sense to feed the attack, they also see his own goal tally as the difference between holding aloft the trophy at season-end, and finishing a sorry second.
Having relentlessly scored over 20 goals almost every season, since 2003, Frank Lampard can be forgiven for thinking (not that he does, mind you) that his position in the starting line-up is sacrosanct. If you thought it was hard to imagine a defense without Terry, despite the likes of Alex, Ivanovic and Luiz all jostling for space, try picturing a Blues side without Super Frankie in midfield. So utterly dominant has the vice-captain been in the Chelsea scheme of things, that Joe Cole, Malouda and Benayoun, have often been reduced to bit-player roles.
In a league as unforgiving as the Barclays Premier League, all it takes to muddy the waters is one bad patch of form. Suddenly Super Frankie, who had hitherto defied the law of averages and that of Murphy by avoiding career-threatening injuries, found himself on the sidelines thanks to a hernia. Had the Stamford Bridge superhero’s end had come with a whimper, and not a bang?
Frank Lampard did make his way back, eventually, but looked rusty and out of sorts. He regained a semblance of his past glory as the season wound down, but the aura of invincibility was gone. If Terry was the never-say-die icon of the team, capable of being bloodied and still stand, Frank was the Teflon guy in the squad. The injury train never stopped at his station. For fans used to taking Frank’s presence in the midfield as a given, this was an unpleasant shock. Suddenly all that talk about Lampard emulating Ryan Giggs’ longevity was called into question.
It was no longer a question of whether Frank would be around for a decade, but whether he’d still be the nucleus of the team, next season. The future had come knocking on Chelsea’s door, and the Blues were simply not ready. Sooner or later, someone would need to take over Frank’s mantle. This was a watershed moment in the club’s and player’s history. Chelsea soon got to hunting for a replacement. But if you thought it would be a like-for-like replacement, you’d be wrong. The landscape of the game had changed, and midfielders in the Lampard mold were always going to be hard to find.
Frank was unique. An intelligent midfielder, who owed his success to an innate ability to pick the right time to be at the right place to thread the right pass. The modern midfielder in the era of Barcelona was diminutive, pacy and fleet-footed. Frank was tall, slower and tactically astute. The clubs wanted a dynamic dynamo, Frank was a deliberating director.
The Lampard-centric team structure would need to change. The 4-3-3 with Lampard on the left was a hallmark of the Mourinho regime. It was persisted with because Lampard had made it his own. When the diamond was introduced, Lampard who was positioned at the peak of that formation failed to set the field alight. His need for space, put him at a distinct disadvantage in a place so advanced up the pitch, he was cramped by 4 or more defensive players. Chelsea began to look for midfield players who could usher in a new era at the club, while Frank’s looks inevitably set to close. Among the names floated were Wesley Sneijder, Luka Modric and Javier Pastore. The writing was on the wall, Chelsea were looking to make a clean break whenever Lampard hung up his boots.
With Chelsea’s forward for the future Fernando Torres misfiring up front, the Blues looked to a midfielder who could double up as a second striker. It’s hoped that having someone play just off Torres, in the manner Steven Gerrard used to, will ensure the Spaniard gets accustomed at his home of less than half-a-season.
In the end, Paris Saint-Germain landed Pastore, while Sneijder, who was fancied by Manchester United, is likely to continue at Inter. Not landing Pastore may be a blessing in disguise. He may have been creative, but he is unproven in the English league – where rapid pace, and a commanding physical presence are pre-requisites. Modric, whose chances of signing for the Blues received a fillip with news that Roman had sanctioned a bid of 40 million pounds for him, is a proven quantity in the English league but is unlikely to succeed right away in a formation exclusively geared to get the best out of Frank Lampard.
It remains to be seen if Lampard can transition seamlessly into a bit-part player, brought on to save the team when most needed. But as is the case with Ryan Giggs, Frank runs the risk of merely cementing his position in the team further and making it even harder to hand over the baton.
If Chelsea are to retain Lampard’s services for as long as they truly need him, they’re going to have to start letting go of the notion that he ought to play 90 minutes of every game. If anything his injury and subsequent months-long layoff have taught us it is that Lampard is not eternal. Chelsea play their best football in a 3-man midfield, and they should now start looking at rotating these 3 positions among the likes of Benayoun, Mikel, Ramires, Lampard, McEachran, Romeu, Essien when he returns and Modric, if he does get signed. You might even want to add David Luiz to that list.
Chelsea can tempt fate by refusing to read the signs on the wall, and pretend the Lampard of today was just as fit and injury-resistant as he was in the Mourinho years or they can give his aching legs the regular rest that they need and deserve before unleashing him at the business end of the season, and in knockout stages of the Champions League. Trusting other midfielders to get the job done requires a leap of faith, reverting to Lampard and Essien will get them both an earlier than expected retirement.
It is almost inevitable that Lampard will start the season with a flurry of great performances, and all talk of his replacing will be shelved for a while. Doomsayers will be shushed, and for a while it will be ridiculous to even imagine Lampard sitting on the bench. Until the next big stumble, when the club realizes its mistake at a time when it’s too late to make amends. And the greatest talent the club has had in modern times, will have effectively been ruined by those of us, who never learned to say no.
A player, even with the intelligence of Frank Lampard, would never want to be reminded of his own frailties. Players want to keep playing, even if it may not necessarily be in their own interest. Andre Villas-Boas will need to develop the integrity and moral standing, not to mention the owner’s support, before he can even begin to start thinking of building a side not overtly reliant on Lampard, preserving him instead for the long run. This will not be a change in tactics or personnel. It will be a generational change.
But spare a thought for the man in question, himself. If Terry embodies the grittier side of Chelsea, Frank’s an icon who embodies its class. He’s dealt with the worst his club has had to go through, been bruised and battered, but has never failed to come out shining in the end. Chelsea’s own MacGuyver.
This time, however, he faces an enemy that loses to no one and will inevitably exact its toll on him, an insidious threat that takes no prisoners and shows no mercy. Time.