“Frankly my dear, we do give a damn”: Why Lampard’s return can’t come soon enough for the Blues…
Champions Chelsea started their title defence in convincing fashion, but after three defeats in their last eight games, things aren’t going quite as smoothly as they once were. SportingBlogs takes a look at one of the key reasons why – their missing man: Frank Lampard…
Chelsea’s 2010-11 Premier League campaign began with a bang, with consecutive 6-0 victories in their opening two games permitting countless pundits to declare them shoe-ins for the league title. Since then, the Blues have lost three times, most recently on Sunday with a surprise 0-3 home defeat to Sunderland. As left-back Ashley Cole admitted recently, ‘We’re not playing as well as we were at the start of the season, but we’re grinding out results […] which is the most important thing.’ Now Chelsea are failing to even do that.
Up until this weekend, Chelsea had at least been in impressive form defensively, with six clean sheets from six games at Stamford Bridge to boot, and despite perceived recent struggles they were still (and indeed still are) top of the table. Their problems, it would seem, lay in the offensive department.
The front trio of Florent Malouda, Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka have just one goal each from Chelsea’s last eight games, but entirely more notable however has been the absence of key midfielder Frank Lampard. Renowned for his engine and goal-scoring and goal-creating ability, Lampard has been missing since succumbing to a hernia problem in Chelsea’s third league game of the season. It is perhaps no surprise therefore that Lampard’s absence has coincided almost perfectly with Chelsea’s slump from the free-scoring, league-dominating side that they were at the end of last season and at the beginning of this one (nine wins from ten games with a goal difference of +38) to a side that has by comparison dropped eight points more and whose goal difference for the same amount of games stands at a rather more modest +6.
It would seem, therefore, that Lampard’s presence (or absence) should not be underestimated. James Olley has written on how the league’s leading sides ‘rely on an axis joining midfield and attack to perform at optimum level,’ with Lampard sharing with Drogba the responsibility for this role at Chelsea. Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard have repeatedly demonstrated this at Anfield, and it was clear for all to see just how much Arsenal missed Cesc Fabregas and Robin van Persie throughout their absences last season. Without Lampard, Carlo Ancelotti’s side have struggled to recreate this key axis between defence and attack, revealing just how reliant they are on their vice-captain.
Furthermore, Lampard’s injury-enforced absence has also denied Chelsea of his two greatest assets – his ground-covering capability, and the threat he provides in and around the opposition’s goal. It is the former of these which I shall focus on first.
Lampard’s great stamina and resultant ground-covering capacity is frequently talked about. Being ‘the engine that has driven Chelsea to such great successes,’ his ability to seamlessly contribute in both defence and attack allows his more offensive-minded team-mates to remain in their attacking positions, as well as granting further licence for defenders such as Ashley Cole to contribute to Chelsea attacks more than expected in the knowledge that Lampard and his ‘engine’ will be able to offer cover if needed.
This much is evinced in a chalkboard comparison [see the graphic on the right] between Lampard’s passing contributions in the home match against Sunderland last season – a game Chelsea won 7-0 – and the passing statistics of Yury Zhirkov, his replacement in last weekend’s 0-3 defeat to the same opposition.
Lampard not only attempted more passes than Zhirkov (67 to 37) and completed more passes than his stand-in (59 to 27), but he also completed his passes with a far higher degree of accuracy (88% to 73%) than his Russian replacement managed. Furthermore, as the graphic clearly shows, Lampard’s passes were made over a far larger area than Zhirkov’s, indicating a far superior capacity for ground coverage. We can deduce therefore that without Lampard the workload for his team-mates is far higher, and resultantly can be seen to have inhibited their effectiveness as a unit.
Lampard’s other key asset – goal scoring and goal creation – has clearly been missed, demonstrated somewhat gallingly when we assess Chelsea’s goals scored columns in the ten game comparison period: 42 goals with Lampard; a meagre 14 without. His ability to get into the box frees up time and space for his team-mates, enhancing their chances of scoring, as well as adding his obvious goal-scoring and assist-providing threat (94 goals and 75 assists in the last seven league campaigns) to the team’s play.
A look at Chelsea’s % heatmaps for the ten games with Lampard prior to injury and ten games without Lampard post-injury reveal just how central he is to Chelsea’s threat in and around their opponent’s box. In these ten games with Lampard, Chelsea average 1.3% of their play inside the opposition’s penalty area, whereas in the games without Lampard this average has dropped to 1.0%; a 23% reduction in time spent in the opposition’s box. Furthermore, without Lampard, Chelsea’s time spent on the edge of the opposition’s box also drops from an average of 7.8% per game to 6.3% per game; a 19% reduction. With Chelsea consequently making on average 20% less passes per game in or on the edge of the opposition’s penalty box when Lampard has been missing, it becomes clearly evident why the goals have dried up for the Blues.
This is most vividly demonstrated – albeit with the most extreme examples – when comparing Chelsea’s 7-0 thumping of Stoke City (where they made 15% of their passes in or on the edge of the Stoke City penalty area) with their 0-2 defeat to Liverpool, where Chelsea were utilising the same areas for just 3% of the game [see graphic right]. It is plain to see, therefore, that without Lampard, Chelsea spend significantly less time in and around the opposition’s penalty box, and as a consequence, pose less of a threat and score considerably fewer goals.
This much is clearly demonstrated by the facts that Chelsea’s shots-per-goal ratio has worsened from just 4.3 shots-per-goal with Lampard to 12.7 without him, and that their goals-per-game ratio has fallen from an impressive 4.2 goals-per-game in the ten games prior to Lampard’s injury, to just 1.4 goals-per-game in the most recent ten games without him.
It is quite clear from this analysis that Ancelotti’s side are a far more potent force with Frank Lampard in their team – more so than one might have realised. By virtue of this, they become a far weaker outfit without his ability to cover ground effectively and provide cover for team-mates, his ability to get into the box and occupy defenders, freeing up time and space for his team-mates, and his undoubted talent for scoring goals and providing assists for others. Chelsea attack more fluently and score more frequently when Lampard is present, and consequently are more likely to win.
Whilst the Blues have evidently struggled offensively of late, their results have thus far been propped up (to an extent) by a strong defensive unit. However, there was a sense of inevitability that one off day for their defence might result in a scoreline such as the one seen against Steve Bruce’s side on Sunday, especially with an out-of-form offensive department incapable of rescuing any such defensive shortcomings.
In Chelsea’s only other league defeats this season to Liverpool and Manchester City, they gave been undone by moments of magic from Messrs Torres and Tevez, but with a side shorn of injured talismanic leader John Terry and suspended midfield powerhouse Michael Essien, a host of inadequate replacements (an ageing Paulo Ferreira at centre-back, an inexperienced Ramires and a left-back in Zhirkov in central midfield), a misfiring front unit, and the obvious debilitating effects of Lampard’s absence, this perhaps rendered the Sunderland defeat as not entirely surprising.
In what was perhaps a masterful implementation of the term ‘understatement’, Chelsea manager Ancelotti said he was ‘very disappointed’ to hear of the extension to Lampard’s absence announced last week. Given John Terry’s recently announced injury woes, there is no guarantee that Chelsea will have their solid defensive unit to call upon whilst their forward unit continues to misfire, and for that reason you could bet your bottom dollar that Ancelotti is probably thinking that Lampard’s return cannot come soon enough. It’s not all doom-and-gloom for Chelsea though, after all as it stands they are still top of the Premier League table. However, they have been far from convincing of late, and Frank Lampard’s ‘strength, experience and personality’ appear much needed in these relatively testing times at Stamford Bridge.