The Premier League season is already a quarter gone and as we approach the hectic winter schedule – a messy time of year when rounds pass so quickly we come up for air in January with the campaign already approaching its endgame – now is the time to start writing in pen.
The league table is taking shape, and while it might very well lie, that hardly matters. November is when we stop building narratives out of performances and start finding the story in the points tallies.
Chelsea are eclectic, curious, entertainingly flawed. They are also two points of the top of the table. Therefore, they are title contenders.
Frank Lampard has a lot of the hallmarks of a top manager, an important mix of likability and sternness one can imagine his players earnestly appreciating. His playing career commands respect, and Lampard knows how to carry himself to radiate the energy of a Premier League legend and trusted confidante of some of the game’s great managers.
Over the first 15 games of this season we have also seen signs of humility, of the tactical flexibility and trial-and-error thinking required to grow as a coach and adapt to the travails of an achingly long football calendar.
From borrowing the Mourinho playbook to play defensive football against the ‘Big Six’, to switching between systems to get the best out of his attacking players, Lampard looks and feels like a bona fide football manager.
However, Premier League management has shifted dramatically in the last five years, and it ought to worry Chelsea supporters that the evidence so far suggests Lampard is of the old school, not the new.
In 2016, Antonio Conte began a process of modernisation in England, whereby the tactical landscape began to be defined by microscopic details; by hyper-structured attacks, set moves practiced in training until the rhythms of possession were as ruthlessly choreographed as the two banks of four.
Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp have since made this level of detail mandatory for the top sides, providing a sophistication that has led to the Premier League champions amassing at least 93 points since Conte achieved the then-record in 2017.
After spending £250 million ($333m) in the summer, that is the standard Chelsea must strive towards. It is a standard we know Mauricio Pochettino or Julian Nagelsmann would hit, but it looks as though Lampard will not.
His Chelsea are structured like Lampard the player, which is to say not very much at all, instead free-forming their attacks by roaming wildly in possession.
Consequently, they are consistently caught on the counter-attack by opponents who, in the transition, find Chelsea’s shape alarmingly decompressed; an erratic configuration of bodies that leaves them open to quick breaks, revealing a lack of contemporary coaching methods in training.
A run of six consecutive wins, and a record of one goal conceded in eight games, may appear to contradict that finding. But Newcastle United, Sheffield United, Rennes, Burnley, and FC Krasnodar are easy games and were never likely to test whether the issues evident in the 3-3 draws with West Brom and Southampton had gone away.
As for the 0-0 draws with Sevilla and Manchester United, Lampard’s intelligent deployment of a Mourinho-esque low block in big matches saw him through. It is in the 10-12 games in between the top and the bottom – the Southamptons, the Villas – that Chelsea have stumbled, and may continue to do so.
Or at least that was the narrative a few weeks back. But at the quarter point, as we write in pen, that theory needs some revision.
The most significant tactical conclusion to take from the opening nine games of the 2020-21 season is that the unique challenges of football during Covid-19 has seen the Premier League regress by half a decade.
Forget about structured possession and automatisms: there’s no time in training to teach them. Forget about manic high pressing and complete territorial dominance: players do not have the fitness to enact it.
The year is 2020, but it is also like 2015 – and, in 2015, a manager like Frank Lampard can certainly win the title. For an example as to why, take Chelsea’s problem in central midfield.
It is too open to the counter-attack because of a structural issue about pressing (sporadic and improvised) and the knock-on effect of the players roaming from their base positions to find space.
It should not be possible to solve this issue simply by reaching down with the claw of an arcade grabber, picking up N’Golo Kante, and plopping him down in defensive midfield.
But that is what Lampard has done, and so far it is working. Welcome to Covid-19 football: a simpler game defined by broad tactical brushstrokes, by decision-making that resembles Football Manager more than it ought to.
Kante has played fewer than 10 games in this position in his entire career, and yet there was an odd clamour to see him in the Makelele role and Lampard obliged. Since when was it so easy to plug gaps?
In this new reality, the sheer depth of attacking talent at Lampard’s disposal should mean Chelsea flat-track bully the majority of their opponents – who are similarly over-worked and under-coached – and despite regularly dropping points against the likes of Southampton, Everton, Leeds, or Aston Villa still hit the 85-point mark. That number is increasingly being touted as the points tally needed to win the league this year.
Chelsea are in this race, and the key man through the rest of the season might just be Hakim Ziyech, whose arrival from Ajax was eclipsed by more high-profile acquisitions but who now stands as the chief architect at Stamford Bridge.
Ziyech’s playmaking – his ability to create a chance out of nothing, to conjure a clever pass in the tightest of spaces – is precisely what Chelsea need to pick apart the deep defensive blocks they will be facing this season.
He is the creative presence capable of thinking against the grain, a welcome difference from the rhythmic groove of Mason Mount or the straight-lined dribbling of Christian Pulisic.
What’s more, as a counterpoint to Kai Havertz, whose deft touches and hyper-intelligent runs will soon take off in England, Ziyech is going to have plenty of options in the coming months.
The first major test of just how far Ziyech and Kante can take Chelsea comes on Sunday, when Mourinho’s Tottenham look to dig in at Stamford Bridge.
Ziyech’s creativity will be needed to break down a bullish Spurs defence, while Kante’s tussle with Harry Kane – who will look to drop into the No.10 space, where the Frenchman now resides – should be fascinating to watch.
Kante versus Kane: a No.10 battling a defensive midfielder for control of a game. It’s the sort of individualistic, non-systemic tactical preview that’s more suited to the pre-Klopp, pre-Guardiola, pre-Conte Premier League years.
But that is exactly where we are. It’s a place Lampard and Chelsea will feel right at home.