After a Europa League triumph, a third-place finish and a transfer ban, outsiders may have been forgiven for thinking that this summer would be an entirely uneventful one at Chelsea.
However, following Maurizio Sarri’s return to Italy to manage Serie A champions Juventus, the spectacular return of Blues legend Frank Lampard as manager and the £45m signing of Real Madrid prospect Mateo Kovacic, Chelsea supporters go into next season with that exciting uncertainty which football fans so crave year upon year.
‘Sarri-ball’ was unpopular among many Chelsea fans last season despite its success with Napoli and, arguably, with Chelsea: a League Cup final, Champions League qualification and a Europa League success are not to be sneered at. Lampard’s approach is far more likely to get you on your feet, favouring a fast, dynamic, counter-attacking style similar to that of Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool or Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea or Real Madrid sides.
Kovacic, 25, became Chelsea’s first and most likely last summer signing following the transfer ban placed upon them by Fifa earlier this year. The midfielder struggled to hold down a starting place last season and with the return of Mason Mount, who was a favourite of Lampard’s at Derby during their run to the play-off final, it appears that the Croatian may have his work cut out.
With an imminent change of system and a renewed competition for places, we’ve had a look at the different midfield line-ups we could see Lampard deploy next season.
1. The tried and tested – 4-3-2-1
At Derby, Lampard had a very distinctive set-up which he preferred to use: a midfield three, with one defensive midfielder whose job was to pick the ball up from the centre-backs and immediately look forward. Forward runs were made by the other two central midfielders, while the two wide players tucked into the no. 10 position, leaving space for the full-backs to exploit out wide.
Whether Jorginho will retain his place in the starting XI remains to be seen, especially in this system. Given the speed at which Chelsea will likely want to attack, it appears improbable that Lampard will have the luxury of playing the deep-lying playmaker, especially given the physical demands of playing in his midfield. With this in mind, we’ve given N’Golo Kante the nod in defensive midfield. Kovacic and Mount possess the necessary attributes to support the Frenchman in the middle, while also offering an attacking threat. Whether Mount will start ahead of Ross Barkley is uncertain, but don’t be surprised to see him given his chance following his strong season under Lampard at Pride Park.
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At Derby, we saw natural no. 10s Tom Lawrence and Harry Wilson occupy the ‘wide’ roles, with the pair given license to tuck in and exploit half spaces. Ruben Loftus-Cheek seems perfect to play on the left-hand side of this system: during his loan spell at Crystal Palace, he was often deployed on the wing and drifted centrally to link up the play. This is exactly what Lampard will want him to do at Chelsea. Given Willian’s ability to play anywhere behind the striker, alongside his threat from set-pieces, we believe that he would be the perfect partner for the English prospect for quick interplay behind Chelsea’s striker, whoever that may be.
Fellow wingers Pedro and Pulisic could both easily slot into this system too, as both have experience playing in a central role as well as on both flanks.
2. Basic yet solid – 4-2-3-1
Lampard often reverted to this modern classic when Mount was injured for portions of last season. It’s a system used by a large chunk of Premier League clubs and offers defensive reinforcement with the ability to counter-attack at pace, given the right players.
This system would allow Lampard to play Jorginho and Kante in their preferred positions, a weapon which could prove to be devastating if the two can complement each other in the way that Kante and Danny Drinkwater or Kante and Cesc Fabregas did in two title-winning campaigns. With Jorginho’s excellent ball retention and Kante’s unrivalled ability to break up the play as well as break forward, the pair could be formidable together.
In front of them, a pace-orientated attacking trio would allow the fast-flowing football that Lampard so desires. Whichever system Lampard goes for, it’s almost certain that Loftus-Cheek will be at the heart of it. The 23-year-old has turned into a crucial player for Chelsea over the past year and his rise through the academy is something which Lampard will love about the powerful playmaker. He possesses all the attributes to be a superstar: it’s simply a matter of consistency now.
Another product of the Chelsea academy, Callum Hudson-Odoi’s season was unfortunately cut short by a serious Achilles injury. However, the young winger is clearly valued by the club and the news of Lampard’s arrival will have been music to his ears, given the Chelsea legend’s valuation of youth players. Another player tipped to reach the top, he and fellow prospect Christian Pulisic would act as much more ‘traditional’ wingers, positioned out-wide, tracking back then looking to exploit spaces left behind by the attacking full-backs of the Premier League. This line-up is perhaps less risky than the more narrow 4-3-2-1 which is stacked with advanced playmakers and would be an ideal set-up for tough away days.
3. The wildcard – 4-1-2-1-2
Derby found themselves 2-0 down on aggregate to Leeds approaching half-time in the second leg at Elland Road and seemingly crashing out of the playoffs in ‘typical’ Derby fashion. With Derby’s 4-3-2-1 proving ineffective, Lampard took off midfielder Duane Holmes for centre-forward Jack Marriott. Marriott scored two, Derby scored four and found themselves on their way to Wembley.
The midfield diamond is something which has somewhat gone out of fashion but offers something entirely different which most teams don’t expect. Lampard often played in a diamond during his time at Chelsea, either alongside Michael Ballack or Tiago Mendes in the two or behind Didier Drogba and his respective partner, whether that be Eidur Gudjohnsen or Nicolas Anelka, at the point of the diamond.
With the players at his disposable, the diamond is certainly something which Lampard could deploy. Kante would probably be the best in the world at the base of it, following in the footsteps of Claude Makelele or Michael Essien. Either side of him, Kovacic and Barkley have the necessary stamina to get up and down the pitch, as well as the technical ability to wrestle the control of the midfield away from their opponents.
We’ve placed Loftus-Cheek at the point, but don’t be surprised to see a more natural goal threat play there instead, like Barkley, or even Willian or Pedro. A diamond relies on midfield runners getting into the area and being clinical in front of goal. Of all Loftus-Cheek’s outstanding attributes, goal-scoring is one in which he is currently lacking.
The one potential limitation of this formation for Lampard would be Chelsea’s lack of striking options. Olivier Giroud and Tammy Abraham are currently the only strikers who look certain to be at the Bridge next season, with Michy Batshuayi’s future looking clouded and Gonzalo Higuain failing to impress during his loan spell. If the diamond is used, it’s likely that wingers Pedro, Willian or Pulisic will be partnered with target man Giroud to add a bit of pace to the side.