For much of last season, Frank Lampard struggled to find midfield balance. He consistently tweaked players & formations throughout the season.
N’golo Kante struggled for fitness too for much of it, leaving a pivot of Mateo Kovacic & Jorginho to manage the center. While Kovacic & Jorginho made buildup sumptuous, their defensive frailties were exposed.
Kovacic who was having the season of his life was near un-droppable for the beginning & middle parts (towards the end, he lost form & put in some notably bad performances).
Jorginho started brightly too but as the season progressed, his fragility in defensive transitions became obvious. Maurizio Sarri had spoken about how Jorginho wasn’t suitable for a midfield pivot and with time, it became obvious. Lampard’s structural issues also exacerbated his shortcomings as space for him to defend grew larger & larger. Ruben Loftus-Cheek & Ross Barkley would occasionally make it into the pivot or join to make a midfield 3. Chelsea consistently looked shallow in midfield.
When Kante was fit, the balance wasn’t exactly found. He made his name as an energetic box-to-box midfielder beside Danny Drinkwater (15/16), breaking up play by moving around & carrying the ball when required. After his move to Chelsea, he would perform the same duties beside Nemanja Matic on their way to the Premier League title (16/17). In the 17/18 season, Chelsea lost motivation as Antonio Conte threw his toys out of the pram over transfers.
Kante would give one of his best individual performances for Chelsea in a Champions League game against Barcelona which they would go on to lose. Kante’s good season was overshadowed by the underwhelming team. Maurizio Sarri came in the following season, restructuring the team. He brought Jorginho with him from Napoli and his place at the base of midfield meant Kante had to move further up the pitch while not forgetting to cover for Jorginho.
Kante adapted to the new role but it was visible that his qualities were best suited to a pivot. Injuries from the end of that season were brought forward to the 19/20 season. He struggled for form and a new coach who continuously changed the system. When he was available, Lampard tried to use him as a holding midfielder, which he has never been. Kante’s natural tendencies combined with Lampard’s lack of structure left Chelsea continually exposed (see West Ham game on the 1st of July).
The lack of structure made it easy to bypass Chelsea’s press & overwhelm their midfield. The buildup was also clumsy and fraught with tension as the Frenchman isn’t the smoothest mover of the ball. Lampard is also said to be conscious of the lack of leadership in the center as neither Kovacic nor Kante is vocal enough. Jorginho who brought this quality saw more of the bench towards the end of the season.
Kovacic has his limitations. Defensively he lacks top-level awareness & if moved too far forward, he is made redundant. Kovacic works well in a pivot, moving the ball aggressively in the first phase into the next. His fast-moving legs enabling him to bypass the press and break through lines with his dribbling. Jorginho also works as an architect in the first phase, using short passes to dictate tempo but he is lightweight and consistently pressured when on the pitch which has led him to fall out of favor with Lampard. There is no proper holding midfielder at the club and Lampard would like to address this situation by bringing Declan Rice in.
Rice has improved tremendously as a player & grown as a leader. Tomas Soucek & Jarrod Bowen proved inspired signings & with Michail Antonio finding his shooting boots, West Ham managed to stay up. He was a major part of the performances (towards the end of the season) that kept them up, even captaining the team on some occasions. Declan struggles in the areas you’d expect a young centre-back turned defensive midfielder to struggle in.
He excels at breaking up play with robust tackles and he consistently makes himself available for his teammates to pass to. He could be much better moving the ball out of the back, finding passes quicker, and taking control of games. Chelsea desperately needs a defensive midfielder and it looks like Lampard has chosen Declan Rice but his presence will add another headache for an already oversize team.
Chelsea is currently struggling to find buyers for Jorginho & Sarri being out of a job makes it difficult. Kovacic was voted Chelsea’s player of the season & rightly so. He was outstanding for large portions of the season and showed why so many clubs were struggling to add his prodigious talent to their ranks from a young age. His ball-carrying ability from deep is a major attribute with Jurgen Klopp even describing him as a formula one car.
If he can replicate his form from the earlier part of the 19/20 season beside a midfielder like Rice who offers the defensive shielding, then he would be untouchable. Against Sweden (during the recent international break) he showed that form, adding an assist to what was a stellar performance in the middle.
Speaking of international performances, Kante showed class against Portugal, leading in ball recoveries and carrying the ball sharply with Adrien Rabiot anchoring. The performance was the type you’d expect from him before the injuries started piling up. He remains the only truly world-class player in the squad & he is another option to play beside Rice in the pivot. Inter Milan recently approached Chelsea with 50 million euros + Marcelo Brozovic & Christian Eriksen which Chelsea declined.
If Ethan Ampadu were around then the offer could have been considered but Ethan joined Sheffield United. Kante has struggled to regain form due to the piling injuries but he can still be a world-beater. A pivot of Rice & Kante might struggle to build play but solidifies a structureless team. Jacob Steinberg mentioned that Chelsea might be tempted to do a transfer if a decent offer arrives & with the injuries & structural issues, that is understandable. World-class players can be moved on if they do not fit in.
Having all three plus Ruben around seems like overkill & even though it might not be wise to sell their best midfielder, they may have no other choice. Lampard needs to find that midfield balance & he will have to make some unpleasant decisions to find it.