Change has been the theme of the summer at Stamford Bridge. Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich has dipped into his enormous personal wealth to fund the purchases of a new attacking threat in the shape of highly technical, uber-talented youngsters, who are set to lead the European champions into a new era.
The posterboy is undoubtedly Eden Hazard, the £32m Belgian attacker, who will look to thrill the Premier League with his daring raids from the left-hand side, but also along for the ride are the tricky German winger Marko Marin, Belgian youngster Kevin de Bruyne, and likely Oscar dos Santos, the Internacional playmaker, currently with Brazil under-23′s ahead of the Olympics. Already there of course is Juan Mata, the club’s reigning player of the year who recently capped off an eye-catching debut Premier League season with a European Championship win with Spain. Consequently, expect Roberto Di Matteo’s side to be playing with more vibrancy and fluidity in forward areas before too long, with attacking intent built more around fantasy than practised method, as has been the norm in recent seasons.
As for the old guard? Didier Drogba has gone, Salomon Kalou likewise, Nicolas Anelka before them both, whilst Florent Malouda also looks set to depart. Fernando Torres remains, set to spearhead the new look frontline.
But what of Frank Lampard, the vice-captain who led the side to glory in Munich with an imperious performance, all about restraint, guile and tactical nous? With a record of 16 goals and 10 assists in 49 appearances last season and 186 goals for the Blues over the last decade, as well as his key role as one of the leader’s in the dressing-room, a place must surely remain for the 34-year-old.
Unquestionably, yes it will. But not as we have become accustomed to seeing the England international over the years. The Champions League semi-final win over Barcelona, and the Bayern Munich victory in the final will have been something of a pre-cursor with regards to what the future holds for Lampard, especially after the summer additions.
During those matches, Lampard acted as a midfield enforcer, most notably in the Barcelona ties, looking to break-up play and stifle the opposition before launching counter attacks with a quick forward pass; case in point being the pass to find Ramires in the semi-final first leg for Drogba’s goal, and the pass from which the Brazilian scored in the second.
Di Matteo’s ultra-defensive tactics in the two ties were merely a means to an end, horses-for-courses if you will, allowing the club to win the silverware that had long eluded them and which Abramovich had long craved. Now, with FA Cup and Champions League successes to his name, the Italian can set up the Blues up in a different manner, stylistically at least.
Key to that change – the new additions apart – will certainly be Lampard, in a new role. More withdrawn than the attacking midfielder who has made a career of advancing beyond strikers and being in the right place at the right time, less pinned down positionally than the combatant who led Chelsea to glory in last season’s Champions League, expect the 90-cap England midfielder to play as an Italian-style regista for the Blues in the upcoming campaign – or if you want a lazy-journalistic stereotype, as Chelsea’s Andrea Pirlo.
For whilst the Blues now have in their ranks players with the intelligence to unlock tight defences in the final third, they retain the need for someone deeper, capable of recycling possession to lure teams further up the field, before finding the likes of Hazard and Mata when they venture in between the lines. Someone capable of passing the ball effortlessly, whether it be over five yards or thirty. It is a job that doesn’t quite suit Jon Obi Mikel nor Michael Essien, both of whom have fine defensive attributes – and will likely compete for the more defensive role in the double-pivot of Di Matteo’s 4-2-3-1 formation – yet lack the vision to play that killer, defence-splitting pass.
On the other hand, Lampard’s range of passing has long been an underrated feature of his game, somewhat unnoticed because of his other more eye-catching qualities, whilst the Champions League latter stages showed that he isn’t to be found defensively wanting at the top level either. Indeed, the professional esteem that Lampard is held in by Bastian Schweinsteiger, the talismanic German midfielder who adopts a similar role for both his club and country, says enough about his ability to continue leading the Blues on the field, as they enter a new era.
A second-half showing in the friendly match against Seattle Sounders – Chelsea won 4-2, all six goals coming in the opening half – again saw Lampard adopt the regista role in Di Matteo’s new-look side. Skippering the side during the second period, Lampard was neat and tidy in possession, keeping play moving until the opportunity presented itself to be more expansive, whilst he remained intelligent in his protection of a defence which had been heavily-exposed during the first-half.
The contrast in the performances of Lampard and Josh McEachran, the highly-rated England under-21 international and the young pretender to Lampard’s midfield crown, who he replaced at half-time, was startling, showing the true value of Lampard’s experience, flexibility and tactical accumen.
It remains bamboozling as to why Andre Villas-Boas spent much of his ill-fated eight month reign trying to dissipate Lampard and his own ideals, especially given the player’s ability to adapt to different roles in the midfield area. Lampard has long since proven himself to be a versatile performer, capable of doing exactly what his manager has asked of him in that midfield zone, regardless of midfield set-up.
As age creeps up on Lampard, as it invariably does to everyone, the time has come for him to adapt once more. Gone may well be the days of running box-to-box for 90 minutes, but that chameleon-esque ability to reconcile, which Lampard retains in his armoury, remains a great asset to his football club. And that, along with his ability to accurately assess situations and dictate a football match, ensures that Lampard remains vital to the Blues immediate future.