Football's return from a COVID-19-induced pause is well and truly underway, and after comfortable wins against Burnley and Arsenal, Manchester City face a former player in Frank Lampard.
Prior to the season, Chelsea were in an unclear period in their history. The transfer ban that they received put a considerable dent in their aspirations for the season; since the financial power and ruthlessness in the transfer market is an element of the side that has underpinned the Roman Abramovich era.
This has been an unprecedented and rather new experience for the London-based club. All of a sudden, their financial talons were taken from them, leaving many to wonder just how they would cope. But, in the face of new adversity, they turned to an old and well known face, and so far he has been able to steer the Blues to a top-four challenge.
Here we look to breakdown the X's and O's behind Chelsea's push for Champions League places with a youth-infused squad.
How Frank Lampard sets up
One of the interesting elements of Frank Lampard's managerial credo is his versatility in formation. He isn't strictly wedded to one particular formation, and has proven to be pretty flexible this season. Hardly surprising, given that he been coached by the likes of Carlo Ancelotti and Jose Mourinho - not a bad education.
Mostly this season, Lampard has set Chelsea up in a 4-3-3 formation, with Jorginho and N'Golo Kante acting as the two staples in a midfield trio. This system has been used 16 times so far under the former England international.
Aside from the 4-3-3, Frank Lampard has also gone for a 4-2-3-1, with N'Golo Kante & Jorginho forming a double pivot. This line-up also sees Reece James play, for added width alongside a more narrow Willian.
Lampard has even deployed a 3-4-2-1 six times this season, but I predict that Manchester City are more likely to come up against either of the two four-at-the-back variations.
Two core principles
Aside from Frank Lampard's flexibility with formations, he has also impressed with the characteristics of this Chelsea side. Since he took over, the Englishman has subscribed to, and drilled into his players, two core rather avant-garde principles.
1. Dominating possession
2. Pressing from the front.
These are the hallmarks of a modern and progressive manager, and these traits are not new to him. At Derby County last season, he displayed a similar drive to play this way, and perhaps the aesthetically sound and contemporary tint to his tactical blueprint was a big part of him getting the job. Oh, and not the mention the 211 goals he scored for the club - I'm sure they helped too.
Chelsea's pressing under Frank Lampard
Arguably the most notable of Chelsea's traits under Lampard is the pressing they conduct. This is a real staple of his tactical profile, and Chelsea winger Pedro mentioned the work and intensity behind it, stating; "It's very hard work, high intensity, pressing a lot without the ball." He sets his players out to press, and this is definitely illustrated in the numbers.
Out of the entire Premier League, Chelsea are fourth in terms of pressures applied in attacking third, behind Manchester City, Liverpool, and Southampton. Not to mention that they are sixth for tackles in the attacking third. They are also third for successful pressures - which speaks for the effectiveness of their pressing.
We can't forget that Chelsea have the rare title of coming up against Manchester City and winning the battle for possession - a fete which owes largely to their off-the-ball-work.
In the below image, the depth of the Chelsea press is illustrated. Taken from the game between Manchester City and Chelsea at the Etihad Stadium earlier this season, Chelsea are being aggressive right up to the City six-yard box.
Chelsea are able to apply a man-oriented, high-press when they look to win the ball high up the pitch. Note here how Kovacic is tracking Jordan Henderson as he drops deep.
This allows Chelsea to be more aggressive in the efforts to win the ball back, and could well be an important factor in the game against Pep Guardiola's side on Thursday night.
From a purely X's and O's standpoint based on the shapes of the two sides, Chelsea would have the numbers in midfield to do this too, as they can match Manchester City man-for-man and not create any key numerical inequalities:
Chelsea's play in possession
In possession, Chelsea have a clear emphasis on keeping the ball - perhaps best reflected in their average possession this season, which stands at 60.5%.
That's good enough for third in the league, behind just Manchester City and Liverpool. There are other numbers that quantify Lampard's aim to retain the ball. When it comes to carries with the ball they are second, with a total of 16,207 yards. In terms of short passes and low pass attempts, they are second in the Premier League. For short pass attempts, they are first. One way that they ensure they can do this is through persistence in playing out from the back.
In the below screenshot from their match against Liverpool this season, we see Chelsea set up to play out from the back against the high press.
Chelsea do this a lot, and they have a lot of trust in Kepa Arrizabalaga's ability as a goalkeeper who can pick out passes. Frank Lampard also places a lot of trust in the hands (or the feet, rather) of the defenders when it comes to producing effective build-up play.
In fact, the four Chelsea players who record the most touches are those who often play integral roles in this deep build-up; Cesar Azpilicueta, Jorginho, Kovacic, and Kurt Zouma. The Italian in this list in particular is an important player to consider.
He was, of course, a target for Pep Guardiola, who sought to sign the Italian midfielder to play the 'Sergio Busquets' role, that would later be played by Fernandinho before being re-cast to Rodri last summer.
Jorginho plays that deep-lying playmaker role at Chelsea, linking the defence to the midfield; recording the most passes into the midfield third out of the squad (1323) and being fifth in progressive distance of the ball out of the squad (3185).
However, something that makes Chelsea an interesting side is the fact that they do have the ability to play effective long football. Now, don't misconstrue what I'm saying. This isn't Stoke-style lumping it up-field, but if Manchester City press high and suffocate Chelsea' efforts to play out, the plan B of going long is certainly a possibility for them.
One of the weaknesses of Manchester City is our lack of height. The technical gifts our players have come at the cost of a dominating stature, and aside from Aymeric Laporte, Ederson, Rodri, and maybe Nicolas Otamendi, we don't have any real height in the squad.
On the other hand, Chelsea do - specifically in the striker position. Firstly, they could go with Tammy Abraham (6'2). He's a quick forward who can run in behind, but if Chelsea want to go long from the back to have an outlet, he isn't a bad target to aim at.
Alternatively they have Olivier Giroud, who is a pure target man. The Frenchman has long been a target for long balls, since his days at Arsenal. Really our susceptibility to these types of passes depends on the centre-back combinations.
Aymeric Laporte can deal with this no problem, but if we go with an undersized centre-half in Fernandinho, we may see the long ball become troublesome. Not to mention that Kepa's long ball success rate is 64%. I know that this is a little bit from leftfield, but there's room for Chelsea to escape our press by knocking it long.
To conclude this analysis, Chelsea have a side that have put together a clear identity. Frank Lampard has driven them to be a high-pressing, progressive unit. They can certainly pose some problems for Manchester City, and whilst I am very confident given the full squad at Pep Guardiola's disposal and the form we have shown of late, you really never know in football.
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