It was always going to be interesting to see how Frank Lampard would squeeze all of his new toys into the same Chelsea team.
After spending north of £200million on a raft of players, including Kai Havertz, Timo Werner and Hakim Ziyech, it was inevitable that someone was always going to miss out.
However, with a lack of pre-season, several crucial injuries, including to Ziyech to start the season, and a packed schedule, it wasn’t quite clear how Lampard saw his best team during the opening weeks of the campaign.
In fact, Lampard started the season in a 4-2-3-1. He used a back three at one point and has experimented with a variety of different systems and personnel groups.
As he explained earlier this year, that is not entirely unusual, given the strange circumstances this season is being played in.
“It is very normal when you miss pre-season and you are looking for those tweaks in formation at the start of the season,” he said after a 3-0 win over Burnley. “Now, we are playing in a slightly different way and there have been a number of positives.”
That different way was a 4-3-3 formation with an anchoring midfielder, N’Golo Kante, and two number eights. It worked, and it has worked for Chelsea ever since, with the Blues winning three out of three since the formation change, scoring nine goals and conceding just one.
“I liked the balance of the midfield,” Lampard said. “N’Golo Kante was fantastic behind Mason [Mount] and Kai [Havertz] and there was a fluidity about it where they drop out and get on the ball in deeper areas and provide others. There was a lot of energy in that midfield as well as quality.”
In the Burnley victory, Lampard partnered Mount and Havertz either side of Kante. It seems like his preferred starting set-up in midfield.
“It is great to see what it did for Kai and Mason in bringing those attributes from what we regard as really offensive players but they also have the energy and desire to cover ground to help the team,” he added.
“They then pick the ball up and can be dangerous when they arrive high [up the pitch], they are both things that Kai and Mason have. Again, it is through the balance of the team and working on that but I am really impressed with the humility of those two to do both sides of the number eight role.
“That’s what I want from the players that play when it is two number eights. I want them to help build offensively, join, help build, make assists and get goals. They both did it today.”
But on Saturday, Havertz missed the Newcastle victory as he continued to recover his fitness after two weeks of isolation. In Havertz’s place, though, Lampard did not revert to the 4-2-3-1 formation he used earlier in the season, reintegrating Jorginho in the holding role alongside Kante. Instead, he made a straight swap, starting Matteo Kovacic alongside Mount.
Kovacic is not a natural attacking midfielder like Havertz and Mount, but he is a more rounded and complete player than either. He is athletic, an excellent ball-carrier, and more combative without the ball. On Saturday, he displayed all of these qualities.
Per FBREF , the Croatian international completed 94.4% of his passes, the second-most of the team – Kurt Zouma and Antonio Rudiger, centre-backs who play easier passes, were the only other players to top 90%.
He created three chances, played seven progressive passes, and eight passes into the final third. He also completed 100% of his dribbles and had four shot-creating actions, behind only Hakim Ziyech.
But for all of Kovacic’s offensive contributions, he also led the team in pressures, with 19, and recovered five loose balls. This was a complete midfield performance.
Pertinently, Jorginho was left on the bench. Lampard turned to Olivier Giroud, Callum Hudson-Odoi and Emerson instead, with Kante, Mount, and Kovacic all playing the full 90 minutes. It shows a changing of the guard in the midfield positions and a commitment to the 4-3-3.
This is a major issue for Jorginho. The Italian international does not naturally slide into any of the midfield positions. He does not have the defensive instincts or range of movement to play in a lone holding role, as Kante’s 14 loose-ball recoveries illustrate on Saturday, while he is also not the same creator, dribbler, or goalscorer as Mount, Havertz, or even now Kovacic.
Jorginho is a conductor, and a very impactful one at that, but he relies on those around him to provide the structure and support in which he can successfully operate. He requires legs around him, while his passing is best utilised as line-breaking distribution that feeds attacking players, not creating chances in the final third.
Kovacic, on the other hand, is more mobile, a technically savvier dribbler and ball-carrier, and provides a greater goal threat when he does move into the penalty area.
This leaves Jorginho on the outside looking in. Havertz will surely start, even after a somewhat subdued beginning to his Chelsea career, while Mount was again sensational against Newcastle. They are the likely partners to Kante, for now, and with Billy Gilmour still to return and Kovacic able to drop into the holding role if needed, there is depth behind Kante, too.
And with Kovacic now proving that he can play in a variety of roles in the midfield set-up, as long as the Chelsea balance continues throughout the season, it is difficult seeing that change.