From Andrea Pirlo to Xavi, the super clubs have taken to approaching inexperienced former players rather than tacticians, picking celebrities and scoring easy PR wins rather than investing in an idea.
It is a natural consequence of insularity at the top; a consequence of the monopolisation of Europe’s biggest leagues. Too big to truly fail, owners are impatiently living for the mini-bumps rather than building something that lasts.
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And what is most surprising about this trend is that it runs in direct contrast to what the era of Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola, of Julian Nagelsmann and Antonio Conte, ought to teach us.
Over the past five years, the world’s best teams have been defined by the microscopic details of their game plans; by automations, the tactical stitching that is burned into muscle memory through repeating set moves in training. The supposed attacking improvisation at Anfield, for example, is a mirage; machine-like repetition masquerading as free thought.
This new age is passing both Frank Lampard and Jose Mourinho by, albeit for different reasons. The Chelsea manager was hired against the backdrop of the new vogue for club legends as quick fixes, while the Tottenham head coach represents the era that proceeded Guardiola and Klopp: intricately detailed defensive tactics mixed with free-form counterattacks.
Lampard the manager is just like Lampard the player: ever pushing forward, without a care in the world for the organisation of those behind him.
Chelsea are stockpiling some of the best young attackers in European football and yet personnel alone cannot fix systemic failures of the sort that have plagued this team since the very beginning of the 2019-20 campaign.
When they have the ball. they truly are free to create; free to invade space wherever they see it, which leaves them woefully stretched horizontally and vertically – and, therefore, open to being counterattacked.
Coping with the attacking-to-defensive transition is an issue that never went away, suggesting Lampard does not have the tactical mind to follow the pattern of his elite contemporaries (Guardiola and Klopp attack in rigid positions to ensure they remain in control – compressed, alert – if the ball is lost).
Last season, this problem led to Chelsea conceding 54 goals, the 10th-most in the division. Adding Kai Havertz and Timo Werner to the forward line may help a little, in that both press effectively, but this is a system issue that cannot be resolved by individual upgrades.
For proof of that, note how even N’Golo Kante looks lost in a Lampard midfield, scurrying helplessly with acres of space all around him.
Even if Chelsea land Declan Rice – too immobile, anyway, for such a wild and disorganised possession approach – they won’t overcome the issue, while signing the ageing Thiago Silva could prove disastrous with Lampard’s high line and chaotic transitional shape.
After all, it was Mourinho who first pointed out Chelsea’s flaws after their opening day 4-0 defeat to Manchester United, clenching and unclenching his fist in the Sky Sports studio to articulate the importance of recompression in the attack-to-defence transition.
And his Spurs side are finally coming together. Not only did they end the season undefeated in six, finishing within the top four on form since Mourinho’s arrival, but they also began to play like a true Mourinho side.
The early experiments with an attacking 3-2-5 formation, and the accompanying series of 3-2 wins, gave way to classic Mourinho banks of four; to an ultra-compressed mid-block and rapid counters. Spurs’ summer has been considerably less explosive than Chelsea’s, but certainly wiser.
Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg is the perfect Matic-style defensive midfielder for Mourinho and he should stabilise the area, providing greater freedom and clarity to the likes of Gedson Fernandes and Dele Alli. Matt Doherty is a vital upgrade on Serge Aurier, too, giving Mourinho the solid back four upon which to build.
Tactically, the Tottenham squad always looked well suited to Mourinho’s football. Harry Kane is the ideal presence up front, mimicking how Karim Benzema or Didier Drogba excelled under the Portuguese.
Heung-Min Son and Lucas Moura are intelligent and quick wingers who can flourish when running at defenders on the counter. Toby Alderweireld and Eric Dier are players Mourinho has tried to sign in the past.
Winning the Premier League title is clearly beyond them – and beyond anyone apart from Liverpool and Manchester City, two teams with an extraordinary tactical intricacy unmatched in European football.
But while both Chelsea and Spurs have managers who preach free-form attacks – who fail to coach the minute details in the final third – Lampard’s fundamental shape is open while Mourinho’s is closed. To counterattack from a position of defensive strength and organisation is considerably more secure than to probe and thread from a position of near-random alignments.
The fashion for hiring young, inexperienced club legends cannot last, and certainly will not become the norm in England, where up to six clubs can realistically expect a title challenge in the next few years.
Eventually, Mauricio Pochettino, Max Allegri, Conte, Nagelsmann, and the rest will be given a chance in the Premier League and shine a light on the folly of picking Lampard or Ole Gunnar Solskjaer over coaches nurtured and tested before qualifying for the top jobs.
As for 2020-21, despite the loud distraction of Chelsea’s new signings, it is their rivals Tottenham who look more organised – more complete – than the year before.