What Frank Lampard and John Terry have done for Chelsea in the past decade – which unsurprisingly happens to be the most successful in the club’s history – along with Petr Cech and Drogba can hardly ever be overstated. For the good part of past 8 years, they have been the life and soul of the club. Drogba departed after a glorious end to last season, and while Terry and Cech continue to dominate their positions at the club for the time being, at the age of 31 and 29 respectively, there have been murmurs around the corner of whether it’s time for Chelsea to look beyond Frank Lampard. He’s 34 presently.
Frank joined Chelsea from West Ham 11 years ago, a young English lad looking to prove himself at a team that was slowly, but steadily on the rise. He played alongside Zola and di Matteo, learned his trade alongside them and became the most important midfield cog of Chelsea machine under Jose Mourinho. So much so that he was indispensable, hardly ever missing a premier league game in 3 seasons under Jose. There are countless distinct memories etched in the minds of Stamford Bridge faithful when it comes to Frank.
And yet after 11 wonderful years, wherein he has given his everything for the football club, it has become abundantly clear that he is no longer the player he used to be. The injury he had during the 2010-11 season’s beginning has ensured that he no longer has the relative pace he used to have while the usual suspect of advancing years is catching up with him. You might say Super Frank is no longer indispensable for the team. As blasphemous as that may sound, it’s a fact that is apparent far too much for those who have seen him play week in, week out. Those who counter argue claim that he was one of the most important reasons Chelsea won the Champions league last season, putting in incredibly disciplined midfield displays against two of the best in the world, Barcelona and Bayern Munich. Much hasn’t changed since then, so why do we find Frank under performing? Let’s analyse his role down the years and the reason behind his less than expected performances.
Frank had already established himself in the team by the end of 2003-04 season under Claudio Ranieri and was banging in crucial goals, most notably against Arsenal at Highbury in the Champions League Quarter final. With Mourinho’s arrival, Frank Lampard became one of the midfield trio with Makelele in the holding role.
Jose Mourinho’s tactics can always be summed up in a few words essentially. Counter attacking Football. Chelsea under him were one of the most feared counter attacking units in the world, who always played to their strengths, with an ironclad defence. With an efficient midfield enforcer like Makelele behind him, who has since gone on to having the midfield position named after him, and The Bison tearing through defences and dropping back to defend when necessary, Lampard had the freedom to join the attacks from midfield and make those trademark runs of his which led to numerous goals.
Chelsea never needed an attacking playmaker with a forward like Drogba, and the role, of the deep lying destroyer and distributor was ably performed by Makelele. And so Lampard, who was never a midfield playmaker at West Ham, never became one at Chelsea. Instead, his main feature as a midfielder was and has always been that of a counter attacking player. Many a time John terry or Makelele would break up play and pass the ball to Lampard who would then start a counter attack. This ability of his was never more apparent than when Chelsea played Barcelona in 2005 and Lampard assisted two goals, both by starting counter attacks and scoring one himself in the first 19 minutes.
While managers came and went, Chelsea’s playing style remained similar. Lampard continued to hold the left midfield role and executed his role in the same old fashion. While Carlo Ancelotti opted to play him at the top of a midfield diamond in his first season, he reverted to the usual 4-3-3 in important games with Lampard at his usual position, handed the same responsibility, with able midfield enforcers such as Ballack and Mikel around. During his second year at the helm, Lampard continued to occupy that role as Carlo Ancelotti completely reverted to a 4-3-3 towards the end of 2010-11 season.
Frank Lampard was one of the players struggling under Andre Villas Boas, and while it got analysed in detail what Andre was doing wrong, namely changing too much too soon, there was a very clear reason as to why AVB did not prefer Lampard in his starting line-up. He preferred players who were quick, could dominate tempo of a game and were comfortable on the ball. While Lampard’s pace deserted him only with time, dominating the midfield and being comfortable with the ball were never the features of Frank’s play. AVB would prefer to move the ball forward at pace, Frank would prefer to pass the ball sideways.
Then under Di Matteo, a significant change happened. Lampard was shifted to a deeper midfield position, as one of the two holding players. He was allowed to go on his trademark runs from midfield but with much restraint. And he emerged victorious. Di Matteo had reverted Chelsea to older ways. Chelsea played most of the games towards the end of season in a ‘backs to the wall’ scenario. Chelsea allowed oppositions to ‘come at them’ rather than imposing their own game. And so Frank got to play the role he excels in. He defended alongside the team doggedly, his off the ball positioning was brilliant, and was again at the centre of the two counter attacks that led to Chelsea ousting Barcelona of all teams, again.
The Premier League, however, was a very different story. Playing teams that did not require the extreme measures warranted by the Champions league, Chelsea failed to impose their games and the clear lack of direction and cohesion came from the midfield duo of Lampard and Mikel. Now, that seems to have descended down to this season as well. Chelsea were very busy in the transfer market, and are trying to get the ‘project’ back on track, albeit in a much more amiable and justified manner. However, a change is inevitable with players like Eden Hazard, Juan Mata and Oscar in the ranks.
With such players, Chelsea would look to a holding midfielder who can dictate the tempo of the game and move the ball forward quickly. And with the transition from attack to defence happening via the midfield, on most occasions, such a player becomes vital. Sadly, Frank has never been a player in that mould and as such, Chelsea should start looking forward to life beyond him. There are players who could go on to take that role. Oriol Romeu, who performed very well whenever called up last season, most notably against Valencia and Manchester City; Ramires, who was maybe Chelsea’s best player towards last season’s run-in and Oscar, who had a few skills on show against Juventus.
Make no mistake; once Frank retires, Chelsea are never ever going to have a midfield player like him. Frank still makes up for the not so very impressive performances with the odd penalties here and there, which is another thing that will be missed. But Chelsea cannot continue to rely on a player whose instincts and style are entrenched in counter attacking football. So is it goodbye Frank then? Well the answer is no. Why?
Well, because of his experience and the fact that Chelsea can say goodbye to ‘imposing their game’ in a season when the players would need time to know each other’s style in and out. That apart, Chelsea have to manage the small matter of changing the playing style gradually with all of their new skillful players in tow. Coming up against tough oppositions in Champions league and tricky away, or even home, fixtures would see Chelsea partially or wholly revert to their still ‘natural’ style of play. And this is where Frank’s experience and midfield guile would be needed. Then there is the winning mentality that needs to be passed on to the younger generation and who else but Frank Lampard and John Terry to pass it on.
Frank would always give everything for Chelsea; just that he can’t do it week in, week out now. He needs to be rotated, and with no dearth of players waiting to be given a chance to prove, there is not much to be worried about. He will need to accept this and guide the team forward in times when Chelsea are on the verge of achieving something special in terms of longevity and legacy. Utilized, both man-management wise and tactically, he can still carry the mantle of being Chelsea’s man for all seasons.
And, he will.
- Shivam Chaturvedi