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Tactical Philosophy: Frank Lampard

While this website has made its name focusing on the lesser known youth of this beautiful sport, and combined it with a tinge of tactical flavour meant for the football enthusiast, we found a large gap to be exploited in terms of combining the two. This mini-series thus focuses on young managers (below the age of 45) and their tactical philosophies, deriving what got them here and where they could go. Vishal Patel writes about Frank Lampard, the talented manager of Chelsea.


Frank Lampard is no stranger to football fans in general, and especially to Chelsea fans. Lampard’s legendary playing career began at West Ham United, where he came through under the tutelage of his uncle, Harry Redknapp. While he faced a lot of resistance in his early days, Lampard rose through the ranks and secured a move to Chelsea in 2001. 13 years later, Lampard left Chelsea as their all time top scorer, with 211 goals (147 of which were in the Premier League). Having won a number of top tier trophies with Chelsea, including 3 Premier League titles, the UEFA Champions League, and the UEFA Europa League, he wound down his playing career with relatively shorter stints at Manchester City and New York City. On the international stage as well, Lampard earned great acclaim, finishing second only to Ronaldinho in the Ball D’Or voting for 2005. He won over a 100 caps for England representing the Three Lions at major international tournaments like the Euros and the World Cup.

As a player, Lampard was someone who marked himself out at a very early age as someone who didn’t shy away from putting in the hard yards. His in-game intelligence and close adherence to tactical instructions made him a favourite of his managers.

“At Chelsea, in my first period, I had Frank Lampard, probably the best player in the Premier League for one decade,” – Jose Mourinho

Aside from being a great performer on the pitch, Lampard was also a leader of the dressing room, someone players and managers alike had great respect for. His work ethic and professionalism always set him apart as someone to be looked up to.

‘I found a fantastic player, a fantastic man who was really serious and really focused,’ – Carlo Ancelotti

At the end of his playing career in 2017, Lampard began working towards his UEFA A-level badges, working closely with Chelsea’s academy on their training sessions. He eventually got his break as a manager with Derby County in May 2018, and spent one season at Pride Park, before being fast tracked into the Chelsea job in July 2019, being brought in to replace Europa League winning manager, Maurizio Sarri.

Tactical Philosophy

“I want my team to play good football, but on the other side of that, I want them to be really aggressive and win the ball back. So I don’t like to try and put myself into one style of play. I think it is important to be adaptable in terms of systems.” – Frank Lampard

Lampard has done a good job of summing it up in a fairly succinct manner. Both his Derby and Chelsea teams have been primarily attacking teams, focused on moving the ball into forward areas through the midfield. Out of possession as well, his teams have tended to focus on pressing the opposition in an aggressive fashion, although this has worked to the detriment of his sides at times.

Chelsea's regular line up

The wide men play considerably closer to the middle to give the midfield passing options.

Lampard’s initial days at Derby saw him lining his side up in a formation that more closely resembles a 4-3-3, and sometimes adapts itself into a 4-2-3-1 system. This setup is Lampard’s first choice at Chelsea as well, with his side lining up in either of these two variations for large portions of his tenure thus far. While the configuration of the three central midfielders tends to vary from game to game, the two wide forwards tend to drift into the middle of the pitch irrespective. This has largely to do with Lampard’s broader beliefs – he wants his team to get on the ball and play it through midfield. Passing combinations and triangles form a big part of the attacking tactics. Defensively, this set up allows him to press his opponents high up the pitch and play a flat back four in an offside trap.

The aforementioned configuration has brought Lampard great success in attack, but has often left his team crying for defensive stability. Lampard has responded to this by adding another center back to the mix. He’s gone to the three/five at the back formation, protecting them with 2 midfielders in front of the defensive line. This system has worked very well for them against teams that attack them, but has worked very poorly against teams that like to sit back.

On the ball

Frank Lampard has made no secret of the fact that he likes his team to get on the ball and dominate games. Chelsea’s possession and shooting stats bear that out. Their average possession stats (57.4%) place them third in the league, and average shots per game (16.6) are second only to Manchester City. This can largely be attributed to his tendency to crowd the middle of the park. Aside from the three men in midfield, Lampard also gets his wide men to cut inside. This allows his players to work combinations in the middle of the pitch, as well as open up space for the full backs to provide width. This is fairly similar to the set up Lampard employed at Derby, with the Rams also performing well on possession and shots per game stats during his season in charge there.

Wide men drifitng in

Pulisic and Mount (highlighted) move into the box as Azpilicueta goes into the wide area

Wide men playing narrow

Wide men (Willian and Mount) playing close to Abraham

Wide attackers cutting in

Willian and Pedro (highlighted) playing in central positions. Willian goes on to score from this sequence.

Another aspect of Lampard teams is the aggression his team shows on the ball. With quick movement from the forwards, the midfield is decidedly more ambitious with its passing. This has come as a big change for Chelsea fans, who had grown accustomed to, and perhaps frustrated by, the metronomic midfield passing seen during the Sarri regime. The attacking contributions of players like Jorginho and Kovacic have shot up this season, with the duo recording 5 assists and 4 goals between them, as opposed to a combined total of 2 each last season. Outside of just the numbers as well, their ability to pass and dribble have been crucial in driving Chelsea’s attacking unit forward, with both players earning rave reviews from experts. It’s also a crucial part of the system Lampard plays, because stripping the midfield of creativity leaves the team bereft in an attacking sense, as the energetic movement of the forwards is useful only when it is complimented by penetrative passing.

Jorginho making a direct pass through midfield

Jorginho playing an aggressive ball behind the opposition for Giroud to run on to.

Aggressive passing from Barkley

Ross Barkley plays a ball in behind the opposition for an on-rushing Pedro.

Chelsea’s goal scoring stats look none too impressive given the amount of resources they commit to attack though. With 51 goals scored (4th best in the league), they’re actually 5 behind their xG for the season (56.09), but even that would put them in a distant third. The only other team that dedicates a similarly large number of players to attack, Manchester City. are well ahead with an xG of 73.08, indicating a clear lack of quality in the final third.

Lampard’s sides have also tended to struggle against opposition that is content to defend their own penalty box, with frustrating defeats against Newcastle, Southampton, and West Ham United highlighting the challenge that lies in front of Lampard. These are the games that have required slightly more adventurous positioning from Lampard’s midfielders, and the lack of a deeper playmaker like David Luiz has hurt in these circumstances.

Off the ball

Attack hasn’t been the most pressing concern for most Chelsea watchers this season primarily because the adventurous approach Lampard tends to take on has left him with lots of defensive issues. His default approach, keeping with his positive view on football as a whole, has been to press the opposition to win the ball back high up the pitch. While it is easy to compare this approach to that of his famous peers like Klopp, Lampard has been slightly more conservative in this respect, with his players stepping up the aggression of the press when they notice a loose touch or a mistake.

Mount pressing a loose touch

Mason Mount proactively presses a loose touch from Ndidi. This resulted in the first Premier League goal of the Lampard era.

It has to be said, Lampard’s take on pressing isn’t as proactive as that of his peers, and he tends to use it as a purely defensive tactic, and not an attacking one, like Liverpool are known to do. This may also have to do with the fact that Lampard has tended to have slower and more laborious midfielders at his disposal at both Derby and Chelsea (with the exception of N’golo Kante, whose season has largely been disrupted by injury). Consequently, this has led to his team primarily shipping two types of goals.

  • Counter attacks: Both Chelsea and Derby have shown glaring weaknesses on the break during their time under Lampard. Chelsea stand at a concerning third place in the Premier League table for goals conceded on the break, with his Derby side standing joint top for the same statistic last season. The tendency to commit full backs as well as midfielders into the opposition third often comes back to haunt his side. Chelsea, and Lampard, learnt this lesson the hard way on the opening weekend of this season, with their 4-0 defeat at Old Trafford punctuated by their naivete off the ball. Even Lampard’s former boss, Jose Mourinho remarked pointedly about the lack of preparation for the transition from Chelsea.
Poor defensive organisation

This is Chelsea immediately after losing the ball. The defensive line is awry, and there is no pressure on the ball. Paul Pogba plays a simple pass through to Rashford who can score.

Poor handling of the transition

This is the end of a sequence that started in Manchester United’s box. Chelsea are ill-prepared for the transition and Pogba bursts through their back line. At this stage, with marking very loose, he can take his pick between Martial and James. He eventually plays in James who scores.

  • Lack of midfield protection: As mentioned above, the likes of Jorginho and Kovacic have earned great praise for their contributions in attack, but sadly, one cannot say the same about their organisation without the ball. This is another trend Lampard struggled with at Derby, as players like Tom Huddlestone and Bradley Johnson failed to provide adequate cover to the defence. At Chelsea too, Lampard’s midfield has been overrun far too often, with opposition midfielders thriving in the huge gaps between the lines.
Lack of midfield protection

This image is preceded by a turnover in possession which sees Jorginho and Kovacic completely unprepared for the transition. They’re caught high up the field as Norwich can attack the backline in a 3v3 situation.

Space between the lines

Jorginho and Kovacic are again caught behind the play. The defence exacerbates the problem by dropping off, leaving a lot of space between the lines. Burnley eventually shoot from this position and score.

Adaptation and variation

In what is a very positive sign, Lampard has shown a willingness to adapt and change his tactics, both in game, and for specific games. The primary variant has been the three at the back system, which has yielded mixed results. It has taken Chelsea to wins against the likes of Spurs, and Wolves, but flopped badly in a 0-2 home defeat to Southampton, and away at Arsenal, where Lampard made a first half substitution to change the game. The biggest benefit from this system has been the addition of a covering man. With the Chelsea midfield getting caught out as often as it does, the back line are left vulnerable to runners and movement in behind the defence. This is where the spare man (taken from the final third) has added value.

Spare man at the back

Tottenham are able to pass behind Chelsea here, but Fikayo Tomori (No. 29, the spare man) manages to make up the ground and foil Harry Kane.

Spare man benefits

Here too, Spurs have managed to get in behind Chelsea. However, the spare man (Rudiger, highlighted) is able to make up the ground (although Spurs ultimately score off a deflection from him).

While the addition of a defender has certainly aided Chelsea in defence, as mentioned above, against less adventurous opponents, the lack of a man floating between the lines has cost Chelsea an attacking edge.


Lampard’s attitude off the pitch has seemed to mirror his on-pitch avatar. He has generally come across as positive in his interactions with the fans and the media, choosing to encourage his youngsters more often than not. He’s had cause for complaint with Chelsea’s transfer ban, but to his credit, he’s seldom made much of a fuss about it. His approach has won him praise from players in his team, and unlike rumours about several Chelsea teams of the past, the overall spirit and response of the dressing room has been largely positive. During his time at Derby, he did not end up covering himself in glory during Spygate, but one can understand why Lampard might be a little defensive about it.

Most encouragingly for fans, he’s consistently seen as someone who endeavours to build a relationship with them, and encourage their support. He shared a positive equation with the fans at Derby, even departing on very amicable terms. Of course, it comes as no surprise that he’s got a great relationship with Chelsea fans. He received a great ovation at his first home game, and has repeatedly chosen to celebrate with fans, particularly after important victories, like the one away at Tottenham. While these don’t directly relate to in game tactics, recent years have shown that having a good relationship with the media, and particularly the fans, can be a great weapon for a coach to have in the constant battle that is Premier League football.

Three career defining games

Leeds United 2-4 Derby County – 16th May 2019

Lampard had enjoyed a positive first season in charge of Derby County, leading the side into the play-offs. The Rams faced off with Leeds United, led by Marcelo Bielsa. The media had stirred quite a controversy earlier in the season over Spygate, and so this match came with an added edge, but until then, on the pitch, Bielsa was up 3-0 against Lampard, having won the first leg of this semi 1-0. A thrilling encounter at Elland Road saw the best qualities of Lampard come to the fore, as Derby ran out 2-4 winners on the night and went through on aggregate. Lampard set up his side to play the game in a far more direct fashion than the previous encounter, neutralising Leeds’ ferocious press. He also presented them with a new problem, starting two forwards up front. The combination of these two changes caused Leeds a lot of trouble, with their keeper and defenders involved in two mix ups, of which one led to Derby’s opener. The substitution of Jack Marriott proved to be crucial, as the striker scored twice on the night.

Manchester United 4-0 Chelsea – 11th August 2019

One of the strangest Premier League matches ever played, the common consensus at the end of this lopsided result was that the better team lost. That being said, this was a rude awakening for Frank Lampard and the harshest possible welcome to the vagaries of the Premier League. Chelsea started and played brightly enough in the first half – despite Marcus Rashford’s penalty – hitting the woodwork twice. Chelsea’s attacking verve was on display, but their defensive ineptitude was exposed in the second half, as the Red Devils counter attacked ruthlessly, and tore through a naive Chelsea defence. While the defensive side of Lampard’s team hasn’t improved drastically, the following weeks saw an injection of pragmatism that allowed him the steady the ship.

Tottenham Hotspur 0-2 Chelsea – 22nd December 2019

Three at the back formation

Chelsea shifted to 3 at the back for this fixture, surprising Mourinho and grabbing a comfortable win.

Coming up against his former boss Jose Mourinho, Lampard was always going to be subjected to a harsher spotlight than usual. Chelsea came into this game on slightly weak footing, and a previously adrift Spurs could’ve gone above Chelsea in the table with a win. This was also the start of a big week for Chelsea, with their next fixture also in North London, against Arsenal. Lampard surprised his opposite number by playing with three at the back for only the third time this season. The result was a near flawless Chelsea performance, with a virtuoso performance from Willian getting the plaudits. The move gave Chelsea much needed defensive solidity, and the front three of Willian, Mount, and Abraham caused Spurs a lot of problems, as they buzzed around between the lines.


During his short career as a manager so far, Frank Lampard has shown great promise. He’s displayed a will to learn, and an adaptability that is key for a manager to succeed at any level. Lampard has shown he can work with younger players as well as established ones, and build a strong connect with the dressing room, the fans, and the press. The general nature of his football philosophy is well defined, and in conjunction with Jody Morris, he looks well on the way to ironing out the few flaws in the team, when we last saw them.

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Read all our articles in this series here.

Vishal Patel

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