Frank Lampard's major tactical flaw suggests he might not even last all of next season in the Chelsea job, according to Alex Keble...
"There are significant warning signs that Lampard does not have what it takes to achieve his goals, or to remain in the hot seat beyond the end of the 2020/21 campaign."
An FA Cup final defeat to Arsenal was a humbling way to end the 2019/20 domestic season for Chelsea, and yet there was no panicky hand-wringing in the aftermath, no nervous glances over the shoulder for Frank Lampard.
It is noteworthy, and more than a little curious, that nobody has questioned the manager's position despite Chelsea recording their second-lowest points tally of the Roman Abramovich, despite Lampard overseeing the first trophy-less season at Stamford Bridge for four years, and despite losing as many league games as in Jose Mourinho's infamous 2015/16 campaign. Abramovich has never shown this sort of patience before.
There are caveats, of course. The transfer ban and Eden Hazard's departure have extended Lampard's honeymoon period, while his steadfast commitment to playing attractive attacking football with the academy graduates has endeared him to the Chelsea owner.
But this grace period will surely end when the new season gets underway in September. Chelsea are spending big. They will expect to challenge for the Premier League title. Abramovich does not suffer fools gladly, and there are significant warning signs that Lampard does not have what it takes to achieve his goals, or to remain in the hot seat beyond the end of the 2020/21 campaign.
Tactical problems show no sign of improving
On the opening weekend of the season Chelsea were beaten 4-0 by Manchester United in an even contest at Old Trafford, and in the Sky Sports studio after the game Jose Mourinho explained to the public what had happened.
He showed an open palm to the camera and closed it into a tight fist. Compression between the lines, in the transition from attack to defence, is a fundamental of modern tactics whether you choose to play with a high line or a low block. Open the palm when in possession, but snap it shut when the ball is turned over.
Fast forward 11 months to the FA Cup final and Pierre-Emerick Aubayemang scoring the winning goal just seconds after Chelsea had the ball near the Arsenal corner flag. Nothing has changed. Chelsea conceded the most league goals this season (54) among the top ten and lost 12 games, the direct result of consistently getting caught on the break; consistently failing to re-close the hand.
This is a tactical issue, not a personnel one: if N'Golo Kante looks lost in your midfield, scurrying around helplessly as the game passes him by, then the problem is systemic. And in Chelsea's case, it is inextricably linked to how they like to attack.
Lampard the manager, like Lampard the player, expects free improvisation in attack, instructing his players to create chances by stretching the opposition with careless abandon, which means their formation is bent out of shape when they lose the ball. Opponents repeatedly storm through a wide-open central midfield or counter-attack into the wide-open spaces behind the full-backs.
Top manager like Pep Guardiola or Jurgen Klopp rigidly structure their attacks, primarily so they remain in control of the game by holding confident defensive positions even while in possession. When the ball is lost, they are in the right areas of the pitch to enact a high press and snuff out the danger.
After a whole year in the job, we can safely say Lampard is not capable - or is at least unwilling - to do this.
Lampard is recruiting in the wrong areas
It will fatally undermine him, and in fact the situation could become even worse next year given that Lampard is not even attempting to stick a plaster on this issue with new defensive recruits. Chelsea are packed with attacking flair players but lack a consistent back four, yet the manager is spending big on Timo Werner, Kai Havertz, and Hakim Ziyech before he thinks about central defence.
This adds further weight to the theory Lampard does not believe he has a problem with attack-to-defence transitions, and indeed there is a carelessness to the way Chelsea are stockpiling attackers (albeit all from the Bundesliga, where high pressing is commonplace; perhaps a more energetic front line will help Chelsea stamp out the counter-attacks at source).
Signing a new goalkeeper will certainly improve the side, with Andre Onana the ideal and surprisingly cheap choice, but Ben Chilwell looks overpriced, especially considering the England international is not known for his defensive strengths. Chelsea fans will be hoping rumours of a bid for Matthias Ginter materialises, because at the moment there is an unnerving absence of centre-backs being linked with a move to west London.
Mourinho's Spurs could outperform Chelsea
As we highlighted last week, Tottenham Hotspur's form towards the end of the campaign suggested they are finally becoming a Mourinho team, playing with his trademark tactical strategy and consistency. Spurs rank fourth in the Premier League since Mourinho's arrival, out-performing Chelsea by five points, and have looked stronger than Chelsea in most areas since the restart.
Mourinho has always needed a pre-season and a transfer window to make changes, building a career on his uncanny ability to prune a squad perfectly within just a few short months, and so the improvements made during lockdown are a cause for concern for Chelsea. There is certainly better value in backing Spurs at 3/1 to finish in the top four in 2020/21, while Manchester United's growth also puts them ahead of Chelsea.
Chelsea could be next year's surprise failure
Expectations are very high thanks to the club's high-profile acquisitions of Werner and Havertz in particular, but that comes with an added pressure which could upset the balance at Chelsea. Both players will need at least six months to acclimatise, as is universally the case for footballers arriving in the Premier League from abroad, and so the first few months of the campaign could be difficult.
There is a growing sense that opposition managers have found Chelsea out; have realised how to catch them in the transitions and copied each other's successful approaches. In fact, in their last 39 matches in all competitions stretching back to late October, Chelsea have only won 20 games (51%).
That is hardly a sign Lampard can get them further up the table next year, or even hold onto fourth. Spurs will be better. Man Utd will buy bigger. Wolves will surely improve now they don't have to contend with European football. Meanwhile Chelsea, for all the high-quality signings in attack, still possess one fatal tactical flaw that Lampard seems incapable of fixing.