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Lampard: The missing link for Chelsea

Holding on to the midfielder is the key to the Blues' revival

By | 23rd November 2012
frank lampard

Roberto Di Matteo is gone and Rafael Benitez is in at Chelsea. That’s precisely what most Premier League followers have been hearing for the last 48 hours and while there have been varied reactions to the arrival of Rafa at Stamford Bridge, there has been a nearly unanimous feeling of shock regarding the way Di Matteo was handed his marching orders.

Given the recent history of manager sackings at Chelsea, many would be quick to remind me that Di Matteo’s dismissal shouldn’t be termed exactly as a shock. But to me, like it has been the case with most Roman Abramovich sackings, this is yet another knee-jerk reaction where the wrong party bites the dust.

Chelsea’s poor recent form should not be attributed solely to the tactics of Di Matteo; in fact, the key factor driving the series of below-par results is an inexperienced squad that is missing the proven pedigree of talisman midfielder Frank Lampard.

RDM’s stunning feat

When equipped with a squad that included sufficient leadership, Di Matteo had little trouble rising to the task. Not only did Di Matteo deliver the long-awaited Champions League title to a trophy cabinet that Abramovich had been carefully monitoring for European glory the entire last decade, but the Italian also did an incredible job of quickly pulling together the pieces that had fallen apart during the failed Andre Villas-Boas experiment last season.

Di Matteo was only in charge for eight months, with half that time spent as interim boss. But in that short period, he adopted a simple yet ideal philosophy to guide a fading team towards staggering heights.

Rather than becoming excessively proactive to build a squad for the future like his predecessor had attempted, Di Matteo sought to make Chelsea a major player in the global market in the present as well. The key requirement in this approach was to ensure that the veteran core of Lampard, Didier Drogba, and skipper John Terry was involved throughout the final third of last season.

Putting a value on the old guard

During the short reign of Villas-Boas, the Blues often viewed youngsters such as Juan Mata, Oriol Romeu, John Obi Mikel, and Ramires as the heart of their midfield. Raul Meireles was the relatively older statesman logging in a lot of minutes as well.

Lampard, despite his phenomenal productivity and box-to-box contributions throughout a storied career, was benched more often than not to make way for the youthful experiment. Defensively, there was a similar vibe as the attacking minded David Luiz was frequently seen as a long-term replacement for aging skipper Terry despite the Brazilian’s obvious shortcomings in the back.

Some would say that the biggest folly of all was being committed in the attack, where Fernando Torres (yes, the £50 million experiment that the Blues are still waiting to pay off 22 months after his arrival) and largely unproven youngster Daniel Sturridge were frequently being preferred to clinical veteran Didier Drogba.

In March, with the Blues out of the title race and on the verge of Champions League exit, Abramovich and his board took the bold initiative of bringing a premature halt to AVB’s three-year project.

All sympathies aside for the promising young manager, it was clear where he had gone wrong. After all, it took Di Matteo less than 12 weeks to salvage a disastrous season and bring in two major trophies against overwhelming odds.

Lamps, Terry, and Drogba were featuring regularly again, and with their vast experience of winning silverware, an impressive FA Cup win in early May served a strong indicator of the team’s rapid revival.

Perhaps an even bigger indicator of the said revival arrived as early as the end of April, when Chelsea overcame favorites Barcelona in the Champions League despite playing most of the semifinal second leg at Camp Nou without Terry.

The captain’s sending off in the first half couldn’t have come at a worse time for a Blues side that quickly surrendered a hard-earned 1-0 first leg lead to trail 2-1 on aggregate well before the half-time whistle had blown in the second leg.

That’s when Lampard, who had previously scored a clutch penalty to complete Chelsea’s heroic comeback against Napoli in the Round of 16, initiated another comeback for the history books.

With his immense composure as the stand-in captain, the 34-year old nullified Barca’s 11-on-10 advantage by cutting through their defense with a perfect through-ball that was brilliantly struck into the net by Ramires.

In that one instance, Lampard sent two quick reminders to anyone who felt that he was past his prime.

Firstly, being 34 years old does not impact his endurance levels at all; what it does impact is the invaluable wisdom he brings forth to a transitioning Blues midfield.

Secondly, with the armband in his possession, he was exactly the fearless leader that Chelsea needed to eventually survive that night and progress to the final with a 3-2 aggregate win.

Terry’s suspension meant that Lamps would retain the armband in the Champions League final and as he proved on that night of May 19, 2012 in Munich, he was absolutely ready to thrive in that challenging role.

There is no denying that Drogba was ultimately the hero of that night with the equalizing goal and the match-winning penalty, but Lampard’s irreplaceable presence as a leader was felt even in the most unnerving stages of that evening at the Allianz Arena.

End of an era

Unfortunately for Chelsea supporters, that was the last time they got to see Lampard and Drogba team up in the team’s colors. The Ivory Coast star went to China in pursuit of a new adventure and mysteriously enough, the club returned to its old ways right after he left.

Rather than replacing him with another proven Premier League scorer, the Blues once again began counting on the pair of Torres and Sturridge to do the scoring. On the opposite end of the field, the suspension of Terry became a disrupting story again this season, this time for the incident of alleged racism involving QPR’s Anton Ferdinand last year.

Even with all these unfortunate developments in the early stages of the Di Matteo era, there was hope to be held had Lampard remained a consistent feature in an attacking midfield composed of pricey summer signings Eden Hazard and Oscar.

Sadly for Di Matteo and his squad, Lampard succumbed to an injury a few weeks ago, resulting in a strong start to the campaign to turn sour within absolutely no time.

One can sympathize with Chelsea for losing the player who has served as their hero on countless of occasions to an unexpected injury but what followed led to all such sympathy being extinguished.

With Lampard asking for a long-term extension to accomplish the dual purpose of remaining a Chelsea player and also helping the club’s youthful midfield to transition smoothly for the future, the Blues chose to instead play hardball with their leading performer.

It seems that the club had quickly forgotten the importance of its so-called “old guard” despite the historic revival of last season and Lampard was told that a one-year extension was all he could get in return for years of his loyalty and excellence.

Rumors have inevitably linked him to reunite with Drogba in China or replace David Beckham in the MLS. Through all such speculation, Chelsea have shown little urgency to step up their pursuit of him.

Till the very end of his tenure, Di Matteo seemed to continue fighting for the future of Lampard and Ashley Cole because more than anyone else, he knew just how much these experienced players mean to a squad that is otherwise full of talented youngsters but devoid of winning wisdom.

For all sorts of naive reasons, age is a number that is perceived a bit too negatively at Chelsea and unlike Manchester United, the veterans are often under-valued despite their magnificent contributions.

Bringing Benitez in for the rest of the season may be intended to create serious buzz around the English top flight but once again, it is a flawed response to a poorly diagnosed problem. Chelsea do not need to change manager after manager to finally get their ridiculously expensive squad of youngsters up and running.

All they need is to count on the experienced stars who have been there for them time and again to see through the transition without compromising on success in the present.

In the best case scenario, Benitez will ditch the notorious rotational policy that cost him his job at Liverpool and aim to instill stability with a sensible balance of experience and raw talent.

In the worst case scenario, his contract will not be renewed and by next summer, Petr Cech may find himself surrounded with very little experience in the dressing room of a team that could be headed for some seriously unfamiliar territory.

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