Is Frank Lampard's youthful approach to Chelsea the right one?
It’s the thing everyone has been asking top Premier League sides to do for years, and Chelsea have done it.
“Play the kids, that 30 year old is over the hill”.
“Give young English players chances”.
“Stop making expensive signings when you’ve already got a young player who can come in”.
The top six have all received these kinds of comments, but none more than Chelsea. And it’s not hard to see why. Look at the England youth squads in recent years and the Blues produce many more players than any other club. The Chelsea academy is a machine, sucking up so much talent from London and the South East and churning out excellent young footballers.
Of course, everyone loves saying it until it actually happens. At which point people remember that young players are youthful and inexperienced.
Frank Lampard’s early steps as Chelsea manager have seen exactly the kind of blend of enthusiastic fun and questionable defensive errors anyone would expect from a team in this kind of situation. The expected goals tell a story. Overall, Chelsea are landing about where you’d expect, but through wild overperformance on the attacking end and underperformance defensively.
Is this genuinely evidence of what the team is doing or just one of those things that we shouldn’t expect to continue? That remains to be seen. This team does have something of the feel of Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool in 2016/17, who seemed to be wide open in a way that the xG models couldn’t quite grasp. The very high xG per shot conceded suggests there might be something happening here. But it is, of course, entirely possible that this is nothing and we will see a more normal finishing rate at both ends going forward.
On the attacking side, all the talk has been about the kids. It’s a nice stat that all of Chelsea’s goals this season have been scored by academy graduates, even if the numbers paint this as somewhat unlikely (“the rest” have taken a combined xG of 3.92 without yet finding the back of the net). One could only describe Tammy Abraham’s current form as on fire, sitting as the joint top scorer in the Premier League with seven. The negative takeaway is that he’s overperforming xG by a fairly comical margin and yes, he will slow down a bit. He’s not going to score a goal every 49 minutes. But even so, he’s still getting a decent number of shots away in good positions. It doesn’t look like there have been any issues in transferring his Championship form to the top flight.
There are positives to take from his all round game as well. It’s fairly obvious from his height that he should be useful in the air and he’s done fine there, even if Lampard’s Chelsea aren’t really a “long ball” team. His link-up play to the eye has also looked much more positive than expected. It was always going to be a concern for Chelsea in possession that they lacked an obvious creator in the final third with Eden Hazard’s departure. Christian Pulisic, Mason Mount, Pedro and to a lesser degree Willian and Ross Barkley are all more adept at running into space than receiving the ball to feet and progressing the ball. If Abraham had merely operated as a poacher, this would have made things much worse, but he’s been willing to involve himself. Shots are taking up a smaller percentage of his total touches than last season. He’s taking more than twice as many touches inside the box as he did on loan at Villa, and his involvement outside the box has increased as well. Lampard is seemingly asking him to be a much more complete striker than in his past seasons, and he looks to be thriving at it. If this is Abraham’s trial to see if he can answer the long term centre forward issue at Chelsea, he’s done nothing to suggest he isn’t the solution.
The story is similar for Mason Mount. English football has become quite adept at producing young attacking midfielders who can press well and take shots, with Mount fitting this mould perfectly. Lampard seems to be using him as the player to trigger Chelsea’s press, and as unstructured as it might be right now, Mount has taken to the role like a duck to water.
On the other side, three shots per 90 is a promising volume. The concern was that Lampard would encourage him to hit them from range a little too often, and he’s had a few of those, but enough have been from decent opportunities to balance it out.
The concern would be his lack of creativity on the ball. Mount has achieved just three open play passes into the box so far this season, fewer than full backs César Azpilicueta and Emerson as well as Jorginho. He achieves just over half an open play key pass per 90, which is very underwhelming in his role. That he is trusted to take set pieces suggests this is not an issue of technical ability but simply his involvement in open play. For now, Chelsea have someone who can trigger the press and get shots away at age 20, which is impressive. If he is able to add more creative passing to his game, the Blues could really have a player on their hands.
And the weird thing is that these are Chelsea’s most used attacking players. Generally they’ve been joined by a mix of Pulisic, Barkley, Willian and Pedro, but those players all seem to be competing for the third spot in this forward line. Pulisic has had some bright moments but it seems as though it’ll be some time before he fully settles into this side. As for the other three, well, chances are you already have an opinion on them. With Callum Hudson-Odoi returning to fitness, it will take an uptick in these players’ form to prevent Lampard from fielding an attack composed entirely of Chelsea academy graduates.
Midfield was the area where things were supposed to look pretty solid. The UEFA Super Cup showed real promise of a midfield three consisting of Jorginho, N’Golo Kanté and Mateo Kovačić easily overpowering Liverpool’s trio. The problem has been Kanté’s fitness. The Frenchman is, as you’re surely aware, quite good at football. The injuries seem to have been coming more frequently, though, than in previous years. According to Transfermarkt, Kanté has missed 62 days to injury since May 2019, having previously only been out for 34 days since the 2015/16 season. We of course have not seen the medical records, and it’s more than reasonable to think that this is just a blip on his way back to full strength. If it’s not, however, and we can expect Kanté to suffer knocks every now and again going forward, that is quite a concern for the solidity of Chelsea’s midfield.
The midfield as is seems poorly constructed. On the ball it seems wonderful. Jorginho, the symbol of former manager Maurizio Sarri’s style, actually looks comfortable playing more direct football and being able to hit the players in front of him more quickly. He has even registered an assist, a rather belated response to all of those complaining that he never seemed to get any last year. When looking at the passing sonar of this season (on the right) compared to last year (on the left), it does seem like he’s going long much more frequently.
Kovačić meanwhile can offer a threat dribbling with the ball at his feet. If Chelsea had a ball-dominant playmaker in the final third (a certain Belgian comes to mind), one could imagine this being a really fluid and impressive attack. As it is, Chelsea merely have excellent ball progression into the final third, with some interesting but flawed players when they get there. On the defensive end, both are solid contributors. But with Chelsea’s press being, to put it kindly, not especially well structured, solid contributions aren’t really getting the job done. If Kanté can get fit, he’s the ideal firefighter here. If not, then the press will really have to improve to lower the defensive workload.
The defence is still something of a question mark. Azpilicueta has been on the receiving end of a lot of Chelsea fan criticism, and Mike Goodman has already written about his form for StatsBomb, with the data indicating that there may be some reason for concern. If reports are to be believed, Lampard is about to drop Azpilicueta for yet another youngster returning from injury, Reece James, so this issue could become old news very soon. As exciting a prospect as James apparently is, it’s unreasonable to expect a 19 year old to come into a struggling defence and not make at least a few mistakes. Lampard’s recent switch to a 3-4-3 system could potentially be with an eye on integrating James into the side, giving him the slightly easier defensive role of right wing back. This could allow Azpilicueta to move over to right centre back, a position he excelled in under Antonio Conte, and that could perhaps lock down the right side a little better. If Lampard were to go to go to the trio of Conte’s final year at the back, with Azpilicueta and Antonio Rüdiger either side of Andreas Christensen, he might have a solid building block, though it seems likely he’ll switch between three and four man defences.
Lampard is proving to be a stark contrast to his predecessors in a number of ways. Where Sarri, Conte and José Mourinho were insistent on the strict system they wanted to play, Lampard has yet to settle on a strong idea of what he wants other than pressing. Where those managers were very comfortable sidelining players who did not fit the mould, he is keeping his options open, trying to cultivate a more inclusive atmosphere. Where those sides were very defensively solid and tough to break down, this one is rather more porous. And where those managers were distrusting of youth, Lampard has has not just embraced it but made it his raison d'être.
And this is the central story about Chelsea. The average age is down from last year, at 27.6 then (weighted by minutes) and 25.7 now. And it’s going to get younger. Abraham (21), Fikayo Tomori (21), Pulisic (21) and Mount (20) look set to be joined by James (19) and Hudson-Odoi (18). Noises have been made about Manchester United and Arsenal making use of their academy players, but with all due respect to those clubs, this is a categorically different project. The Chelsea academy is unique in English football in terms of the volume of talent it produces. Some of the brightest prospects at other clubs, such as West Ham’s Declan Rice and Liverpool’s Rhian Brewster, were overspills from Chelsea. This group have every chance of being a special generation. It might be that Lampard is not up to the job of managing a top club. It might be that the Stamford Bridge hierarchy need to make a change and bring in more of a tactical teacher to improve these players. But the work being done this year in integrating them into the first team, in blooding them in the side, could pay dividends for many years to come.