Friday, September 23, 2011

Reports Of His Decline Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

A new coach brings fresh ideas, reinvigorated players, and, apparently, either decline or progress. While Andre Villas-Boas has only been in charge of Chelsea for one month of league play, major judgments are already being made on his impact on Chelsea Football Club’s immediate and long-term future.

As is expected at a big club with big money, Villas-Boas spent some right away, acting on the cries for a playmaker—Juan Mata—and a competent deep-lying midfielder—Raul Meireles. He even showed a stomach for risk that many of his predecessors didn’t, splashing out for young (really young) talent in teenagers Romelu Lukaku and Oriol Romeu.

Let’s look at those four signings: all except Lukaku are midfielders by trade. All are “creative”, to use the ill-defined and played out expression that essentially means they move the ball with pace and are capable of improvisation on the ball. What’s more: all are under 28, and all but Meireles are under 23.

Looking at those patterns, the English press took two and two and added them up to get five: young, quick midfielders means the end for Frank Lampard, the backbone of Chelsea’s attack for the last decade.

Here are the facts. Frank Lampard is aging, and at 33, it is safe to assume his best days in the blue shirt are behind him. He does not possess the ball skills or pace of Mata or even Meireles. And—although it’s trickier to say with certainty—he hasn’t really gelled with Torres at all, a major problem when you sign a striker for 50 million pounds.

What is unfair and plainly untrue is that any of these things are recent developments, brought on by his age or by Villas-Boas’s vision. Lampard has never had any pace or creativity. He earns his place on the field through hard work and the best footballing brain in the league, bar none. It is this attribute that will allow Lampard to fit into any team for as long as his legs will allow, which is probably at least two more years.

Maybe he won’t play for England regularly, but because of Capello’s circumstances and the three-ring circus that is the Three Lions’ teamsheet, you can’t extrapolate that to Chelsea. Villas-Boas is a very clever guy, and he’ll know how to get the best out of Lampard. There’s no reason to believe he can’t play as a deep-lying playmaker, a la Xavi or Andrea Pirlo. But even that doesn’t need to happen, because the firestorm of criticism and hype about his decline has seemingly come out of nowhere, and it is certainly without empirical evidence.

Here’s a stat to keep in mind: since 2003, Frank Lampard has scored 10 goals from midfield in the Premier League alone in every season. No other midfielder has done that. How about this: Lampard did it last year, despite a season of injury problems, and despite playing only 24 games in the league, his lowest appearance total since signing for Chelsea. His decline will have to wait .

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