More than a third into the season, this Premier League season has proven as unpredictable as any in living memory, with a whole host of sides fancying their chances of putting together a title charge.
Manchester City looked to be recovering from a slow start to the league, but their performance in the Manchester derby was oddly conservative and perhaps shows that not all is right with Pep Guardiola’s side.
With games in hand, Manchester United are not miles away from first in the table, but as is seemingly their eternal fate under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, they seem incapable of going on a consistent run of results and good performances.
Tottenham and Liverpool have set the pace in the league thus far, but neither has quite dominated to the extent that champions in recent years have.
One team that has been talked up as a potential title challenger is Frank Lampard’s Chelsea, but what tactics is the former midfielder employing to get the best out of his young and expensively put together squad?
Last season, Lampard drew praise for his proactive, dynamic attacking approach, but it often left Chelsea defensively exposed in transition. They also conceded a number of goals from set-pieces.
Many assessed that their success this season would depend on Lampard’s ability to both address their defensive woes whilst maximizing their expensively assembled attacking talent.
After some tinkering in the opening part of the campaign, Lampard seems to have settled on a 4-3-3 as his preferred setup.
When building-up from deep in their own half, Chelsea’s centre-backs Kurt Zouma and Thiago Silva split wide to offer short passing options for Edouard Mendy, with N’golo Kante sitting at the edge of the Chelsea box and the fullbacks pushing wide and high down their respective flanks.
For a team that nominally wants to play out from the back, this is a somewhat unorthodox build-up structure. Whether it’s with three centre-backs and a deep-sitting double-pivot like Brighton, inverted fullbacks like Manchester City, or a deep-sitting midfield three like Liverpool, most teams try to play out with a 2-3 or 3-2 structure that provides more central passing options than Chelsea’s structure.
Since the Blues don’t have the options to play methodically through the thirds, Mendy is often forced to go long to the striker or wide to the fullbacks. Given the aerial prowess of Olivier Giroud and Tammy Abraham, Ben Chilwell’s and Reece James’ excellent control from long passes, and the tendency for most sides to sit off against Chelsea, this doesn’t tend to be a significant issue.
However, as Southampton showed earlier in the season, high-pressing teams can target Chelsea’s tendency to play out through their fullbacks by using the touchline as an additional defender and forcing the Blues into turnovers.
Even against teams who play in a mid or low block, Chelsea funnel most of their attacking play out wide. With Kante as a single pivot, most teams can easily block off the passing lane from the centre-backs to the Frenchman. As such, they average more long passes than the rest of the traditional top-six sides and rely heavily on their fullbacks.
Both James and Chilwell are excellent crossers of the ball, be it from deep or from the byline. They also have the intelligence to make overlapping or underlapping runs depending on the movements of players ahead of them. However, their attacking contributions are not identical.
With the pace of Timo Werner on the left, Chilwell often plays lofted passes down the line or over the top to find his runs. He acts as an effective progressor of the ball from deep positions on the left flank in addition to posing an attacking threat further up the pitch.
On the right, James combines well with Mateo Kovacic and Hakim Ziyech to create overloads out wide and advance the ball through passing triangles. What makes these combinations especially effective is that all three players are comfortable interchanging positions with each other.
Ziyech can hold the width, with Kovacic playing in the half-space and James making a run beyond the defensive line. Alternatively, Kovacic and James can switch roles, or Ziyech can invert with James holding the width.
Such fluidity makes these passing exchanges difficult to defend. Chelsea also create these types of overloads on the left, but they do so more often on the right due to Ziyech’s tendency to drop deep.
The Blues also look to switch the play often. Whether through long diagonals from Ziyech, Kovacic, or Mount, direct switches between the fullbacks, or a series of shorter passes through the midfield, they attempt to move the opposition defence from right to left to open up gaps and exploit space.
Of course, Lampard’s also have ways to attack through the middle. Mount often drops deep to try and free up Kante, whose ball-carrying and ability to shuttle across the pitch to recycle the ball is instrumental to Chelsea sustaining attacks.
Abraham and Giroud also drop off from the centre-forward position to offer an option in the middle, disrupting opposition marking and creating space for the wingers to exploit. This in turn enables the fullbacks to push up into the wide spaces and also allows the midfielders to make late runs into the box.
Ultimately, though, Chelsea create most of their chances from direct passing, counter-attacks, and crosses. One way in which Lampard has sought to improve the team defensively has been to sit deeper against certain teams and hit them on the break, using the ball-carrying of their central midfielders and the mobility of their frontline and fullbacks to create chances in transition.
Coupling this with Chelsea’s other abilities in attack has, for the most part, proved a successful formula for the Blues thus far.
One last thing to mention about the Chelsea attack is that they have been lethal from set-pieces, scoring seven goals from them this season. Part of their success is due to personnel: the likes of Ziyech, Mount, and James are capable of providing consistent and varied delivery whilst Giroud, Abraham, Zouma, and Silva are strong in the air.
However, they’ve also used some intelligent set-piece routines such as blocking. Rather than having all the players attack the ball, Chelsea will often have one player — usually Zouma or the striker — to use their body to hold off multiple defenders at once to enable another man to get free.
They’ve also used a tactic of lining all their players in a straight line before each player makes a run at a different angle. The idea is that by starting in a line and then dispersing in this manner, Chelsea can confuse opposition markers.
Defensively, Chelsea are tied as the 4th most aggressive pressing side in the Premier League with Manchester City. The striker will close down the centre-backs, while the wingers will only press once the ball is played to the fullbacks.
Mount and Kovacic energetically support from midfield, providing shadow cover to block central passing lanes and forcing the opposition into long balls. However, Kante’s natural inclination to press can leave gaps in the centre that teams can exploit should they bypass the pressure effectively.
Generally, this hasn’t been much of a problem for Chelsea if their back four is in a settled shape. Once in their own-half, the west London outfit defend in a fairly standard 4-4-2 midblock, with Werner or Mount accompanying the striker and the rest of the team forming a solid two banks of four.
In defensive transition, the side’s foremost area of weakness last season, Chelsea don’t counter-press with the same intensity and organization as the likes of Southampton, Leeds, or Liverpool.
Rather, they look to apply pressure initially but then drop back once their players are back in position. Their attacking structure leaves them with just their defensive midfielder and centre-backs to protect against counters. However, given the ball-winning excellence of Kante, Silva’s reading of the game, and the fullbacks’ recovery pace, Chelsea can normally get away with it.
Lampard has also shown that he can make subtle tweaks to his team’s attacking shape to better guard them against counters when needed. It was noticeable that, against Tottenham, Kovacic and Mount played slightly deeper and made less marauding runs to ensure the Blues weren’t caught out by the Spurs’ counter.
Mount played particularly deep, as he was on the same side as Tottenham’s main transitional threat Heung Min-Son, whilst the fullbacks would not both push high at the same time unless Tottenham were pinned into their own box.
When defending set-pieces, Chelsea still use a mixture of zonal and man-marking like they did last season. One adjustment has been that they put more markers in the space just inside the eighteen-yard box, an area teams consistently exploited last year either by targeting their delivery there or by shooting in that area from second balls.
More importantly, Mendy is a more commanding keeper than Kepa Arizzabalaga and Silva is better at organizing from these situations than Chelsea’s defenders last year.
Chelsea have undoubtedly improved since last season, but there is still room for to push on to higher levels of performance. As recent performances against Everton and Wolves showed, teams of sufficient counter-attacking quality can still exploit their open attacking structure relatively easily.
Lampard showed he can be more pragmatic in games against Manchester United and Spurs, but he may still need to make further adjustments to his side’s counter-pressing or attacking structure to make them more solid from defending transition attacks.
Chelsea also cannot rely on converting chances from set-pieces at their current rate, meaning that Lampard may want to experiment with using the likes of Christian Pulisic and Callum Hudson Odoi to give his team a different dimension in attack. There’s also the issue of how to best use Kai Havertz, something Lampard still seems incapable of solving at present.
The trajectory is still overwhelmingly positive. Chelsea are a young team with a young coach who is already showing signs of improvement. And with the unpredictability of this year’s Premier League campaign, no one can definitively rule out Chelsea of a title race this season.