Frank Lampard took over Chelsea this summer amid their transfer ban. As a young and relatively inexperienced manager, he exceeded expectations with the Chelsea youngsters and managed to turn the ban to his advantage. During the season he mostly used 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 tactics (altogether 27 times) but in nine games he deployed his team in a 3-4-2-1 formation. These were often important and memorable games, such as a 1-0 win in the Johan Cruyff Arena or a 2-1 away win against Arsenal. However, we will switch our focus to two particular matches, one against Tottenham in the Premier League and one against Bayern Munich in the Champions League.
Match analyses can cast light on tactical ‘wrongdoings’ but often fail to offer a proper solution to them. With this tactical analysis, although not by directly comparing them, we will see what Tottenham did wrong and what Bayern did well against the same system, and what Lampard did and did not anticipate.
Chelsea lined up with their best eleven both times but in the Champions League, the biggest absence was N’golo Kanté. Tammy Abraham was recovering from his injury so Olivier Giroud took his place, Willian was rested, and Ross Barkley was there to provide greater midfield presence.
In the build-up
Lampard chose the same build-up and GK distribution pattern suitable to a 3-4-2-1 system in both matches. Taking a midfielder and replacing him with a centre-back would switch focus to using the wings. Having those two remaining central midfielders flat means that if teams defend well against them, they would rarely be available.
Therefore, if the two central midfielders stay closer to the goalkeeper and the backline to provide passing options and their markers follow them, the goalkeeper can exploit the zone behind them with long balls. Willy Caballero tried 18 long balls against Bayern, 12 of them successfully, so it was definitely part of the plan.
The analysis shows that this tactical approach works well against a standard or lower line of engagement but not against the high pressing Bayern. If the whole team defends higher, the lack of midfielders in the 3-4-2-1 system becomes frustrating and the superiority on the wings disappear. In Bayern’s system, Müller’s defensive role is as significant as Dier’s in Tottenham. Instead of sitting back and guarding against Chelsea’s long balls, Hans-Dieter Flick instructed his team to press high and wide. Müller’s role was key to both defending and attacking. To balance the high defensive action, the centre-backs positioned themselves far from their own goal.
Superiority on the wings
A key element in this scout report would be to identify why it is tough to defend against 3-4-2-1. As mentioned earlier, Chelsea focused their play on the wings and in the whole width of the pitch. Tottenham’s selection was not a lucky one because neither Jan Verthongen nor Dier was constantly behind the action, and Chelsea could exploit the spaces left by them.
We already saw how Lampard placed their centre-backs and central midfielders in the games but let’s talk about the wing-backs. Marcos Alonso and Cesar Azpilicueta or Reece James were pinned to the touchline for 90 minutes each. Their focus was only on expanding the opposition and doubling up on opposition wing-backs. If this happened, it was a trigger for the centre-backs to try through balls towards the area. There were many times when Serge Aurier was not able to close down Alonso in time because the midline was focusing on the midfield area.
But wing superiority only exists if the other team lets it happen. If the centre-backs are ‘pushed back’ by high pressing attackers, wing-backs need to come closer to the backline to provide extra options. Bayern perfectly prepared for this scenario. Multiple times during the match, Benjamin Pavard and Alphonso Davies showed the capability to contain the Chelsea wing-backs. Deploying Alaba as a centre-back allowed the two young full-backs to close down Alonso and James immediately. Statistically speaking, James lost 12 out of his 14 duels for the ball, with 0/4 in offensive duels while Alonso lost 60% of his offensive duels.
Where are Müller and Gnabry?
Just like in a ‘Where’s Waldo?’ picture, one has the feeling that Müller and Serge Gnabry played hide and seek with Chelsea defenders. Let’s focus on Bayern’s build-up pattern first. Chelsea applied pressure to the centre-backs well in a 5-2-3 shape so Neuer often had to launch long balls towards the attackers.
But Flick’s plan was different and gradually started working: maintain a numerical advantage in the midfield. This was achieved in two ways. One way was to instruct Joshua Kimmich and Thiago Alcantara to keep close to each other, and also to Boateng and Alaba. Pavard and Davies kept Chelsea wing-backs busy so either Müller, but mostly Gnabry, came deep to get the ball freely.
However, this scenario happened less often. The usual formation for build-up was a 4-1-5 with a flat back four. If the half-spaces or the wings were closed down, Bayern restarted moving the ball as such: Kimmich moved back into the left centre-back position and Alaba became a temporary left-back.
In the next phase, Thiago stayed in front of the line while Robert Lewandowski and Müller took up key positions as well. They remained high up the pitch not allowing Chelsea’s back three to push forward. Gnabry was tasked to again come deep for the ball and start a fast-paced attack.
We cannot avoid mentioning Jose Mourinho’s build-up just for the sake of the argument here. While Tottenham have the appropriate personnel to carry out versatile attacks through the middle, Lucas and Dele Alli are both capable of coming deep and distributing to the wings, Dier was chosen instead for this task. Even if Alli was marked by Kanté, Son from time to time distracted Kovacic so Lucas stayed in free space. unfortunately, their passing was slow and, more importantly, easy to read.
It is clear and obvious that Lampard had a plan against Bayern but failed to anticipate their pressing efficiency. His 3-4-2-1 formation works perfectly in situations when the opponent lets time for the centre-backs on the ball during the build-up and doesn’t expand well. However, against Bayern the team lacked the midfield presence both in attack and defence, leaving huge spaces for the German team to use.
Kanté was definitely missed from the midfield and Lampard had to deploy an extra centre-back instead of the smiling machine. Although this gave the numerical advantage to Chelsea in the back, this made them rigid since none of the central defenders followed the attackers when they retreated to the midfield area.
Luckily for Chelsea fans, someone new can provide solutions to Lampard and his name is Billy Gilmour. It is hard to look back to this Champions League game and claim that he was the “missing link” when he was mostly unknown. However, if Chelsea are to use the three-centre-back system more often, he could be a key asset in the future.