Frank Lampard – Box-to-box midfielder, second striker or overpaid passenger?

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July 17, 2012 by Socrates

The rumours are that Frank Lampard is likely to be leaving Chelsea this summer, the club with which he has won the Premier League three times and just last season finally lifted the Champions League trophy. LA Galaxy have been showing a keen interest in the Englishman who undoubtedly has the pedigree of a proven winner and an incredible goal scoring record. But what sort of player is Frank Lampard? He is often described as a central midfielder. However, I believe there is some confusion over the actual role Lampard has played for Chelsea – a confusion that has partly been created by his different role in the national team. Furthermore, many pundits continue to describe him simply as a central midfielder. For instance his cousin Jamie Redknapp,  has frequently highlighted Frank’s astonishing capacity to get into double figures, season after season from midfield. Wikipedia puts it that Lampard is ‘best described as a box-to-box midfielder.’ In reality, ol’ Lamps has been at his best and understandably at his most prolific when he has played much higher up the pitch and close to a striker. Indeed, this was the position he played for Chelsea in their back-to-back premier league title wins under Jose Mourinho.

If we look at the types of players Chelsea used in the 2004-05 and 2005-06 seasons, then it becomes much clearer why Lampard was able to score so many goals. It is well known that Claude Makelele was a fundamental part of the way Chelsea played in those seasons but he did not play next to Frank in a 4-4-2, at least not often anyway. Lampard had the luxury of playing in front of both Makelele and the likes of Tiago or Smertin. Out wide, Duff, Robben and Joe Cole were rotated by Mourinho while Eidur Gudjohnsen was pretty much a main stay as a lone striker. This 4-5-1 formation (or 4-3-3 if you wish) – which saw Essien and Mikel emerge as other midfield players to protect Lampard and of course Didier Drogba used more often as the target-man – remained the dominant way Mourinho organised the Blues. Even when Shevchenko arrived and there was pressure to play two strikers, a diamond midfield was usually adopted. Ballack, Makelele and Essien made up the quartet with Lampard, the Englishman again given the offensive license.

While it must be pointed out that around 20% of Lampard’s goals are from the penalty spot (and a few goals more from free kicks), he has been phenomenal at getting on the score sheet. In 2005-06, he notched up 16 league goals, in 2007-08 when he made just 23 starts he still managed 10 strikes and in 2009-10 he recorded a remarkable 22 goals. His technical qualities suite playing as an attacking midfielder or ‘second striker.’ He’s finishing inside the box matches most of the top strikers in Europe, he’s more than capable of playing the neat chips and weighted through balls in the final third and of course possesses that thunderous shot which makes him such a threat from outside the area.  However, Lampard lacks the athleticism to play as a true box-to-box midfielder at the highest level. Of course he can tackle and he works hard defensively but he still has the opportunity to do this in a higher area of the pitch. He does not have the tenacity of players like Nigel De Jong or Scott Parker who are not only fantastic at making challenges in midfield but can close down opponents incredibly quickly and yet are rarely beaten.

This is a large part of the reason why Lampard failed to impress when playing alongside Steven Gerrard in a four man midfield. It was only until Gareth Barry was brought in for the 2010 World Cup qualifiers to make a more balanced central trio that Lampard’s form picked up. Interestingly, Barry prefers to play much deeper in midfield than both Lampard and Gerrard but it’s not particularly down to the defensive qualities that he possesses. Yes Barry did play in central defence for Aston Villa when he was much younger but in midfield he isn’t any more aggressive than Lampard or particularly more talented at screening the back four. Instead its Barry’s capacity to collect the ball off of defenders and bounce short passes into midfield and keep possession. A role which appears easy, but is in fact vital for the way many teams play as Andrea Pirlo showed in the Euros. When Lampard has had to play this role he has often become an anonymous player, a passenger who fails to get on the ball and have a meaningful impact on the game. Andre Villas-Boas was of the opinion that Frank, at the highest level, can now only play in the attacking midfield role and preferred Juan Mata in that position.

Personally I believe Frank Lampard can still be highly effective as an attacking midfielder and would continue to notch up the goals and assists in the premier league. Whether he is still a player that could drive on a resurgent Chelsea to next season’s Premier League title is another question. What is for sure, is that if he’s to have a big impact at Chelsea next season he will need Michael Essien back at full fitness. Essien has been sorely missed and needs to be running the hard yards in midfield to allow Lampard to play around Fernando Torres. I would like to see Frank improve his ability at playing as a deeper playmaker, he has skill level but I think his inability to be effective there is testament to how difficult it is. Paul Scholes has been fantastic in that role for many years now. He prolonged his career by changing from a more all-round central midfielder to the architect in front of the defence. Frank may not have the capacity to do the same. He should probably stick it out as an attacking midfielder who at 34 doesn’t quite have the agility and acceleration to be world class anymore but for another couple of seasons should still be a quality player.

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