At Chelsea last season, there were two basic narratives: firstly, the fans hated Rafa Benitez, who it seemed won the Europa League almost to spite them; and secondly, Frank Lampard’s contract expired at the end of the season and there seemed little prospect of a new deal, despite a series of excellent performances in the spring. Whenever he was asked about Lampard, Benitez would smile beatifically and point out he was only the interim manager and so couldn’t be expected to know about that kind of thing.
Lampard eventually signed a one-year contract the day after the Europa League final but there have been a couple of moments this season when it’s been hard not to wonder whether that was the right decision. Lampard is 35 now and the problem when you reach your mid-thirties as a player is that any misjudgement leads to the suspicion that “his legs have gone”.
The incident midway through the first half on Sunday, for instance, when Lampard clattered into Fernandinho and was booked seemed irrefutable evidence. The foul wasn’t malicious or cynical: he just got there a fraction later than he needed to. Coming after a couple of less than stellar performances for England in the World Cup qualifiers against Montenegro and Poland (as a substitute), it’s only natural the question of whether he is now over the hill should be asked. And, equally, it’s only natural that we be wary of the availability heuristic that dictates that because we’re aware that there may be a narrative of decline, we remember the evidence that supports that case.
Looking at Lampard’s data for this season and comparing it to the previous four, the most striking detail is how much less involved he has become in the final third. In 2009-10, he averaged 3.9 shots per game and 3.2 key passes, both of which figures have shown a basic pattern of decline to stand this season so far at 1.8 shots per game and 1.3 key passes. That, of course, reflects Lampard’s progress back on the pitch. Four seasons ago he was still a dynamic box to box player, usually operating to the left of a midfield holder in a 4-3-3; now he sits deeper, as the more attacking of a holding pair in a 4-2-3-1.
Lampard’s general involvement had also gone down – again, as would be expected as he took on a more withdrawn role – from 53.4 passes per game in 2009-10 to 42.9 last season, and from 2.1 tackles per game to 1.2. Both those figures, slightly surprisingly, have shown an increase this season, to 49.7 passes per game and 2.0 tackles per game – which may reflect that Jose Mourinho’s side has not yet managed to control games in midfield as Rafa Benitez’s did.
But what seems genuinely significant is how Lampard’s interceptions per game have gone down: 1.0 in 2009-10, 1.2 in 2010-11 and 2011-12, to 0.9 in 2012-13 and just 0.6 this season. Perhaps the deeper role offers fewer opportunities for interceptions – although that doesn’t seem immediately intuitive, but it could also be that, because of his declining pace, Lampard is incapable these days of the burst that allows him to steal in and intercept – that, in turn, might explain the increase in tackles this season, if he is having to try to dispossess opponents when they already have the ball rather than taking it shortly before it reaches them.
That theory is given credence by the story of Lampard’s fouls per game. He committed 0.7 in 2009-10, falling to 0.4, then 0.6 and 0.5. This season, he is up to 0.9 per game – a clear sign of a player who, as he did on Sunday, keeps arriving just too late. One foul per game is not a huge number – Victor Wanyama commits three – but it is the trend that is telling. It’s not to say Lampard has nothing to offer Chelsea to say that age is beginning to catch up with him, as is reflected in his WhoScored rating: 7.94 in 2009-10, falling steadily to 7.05 this season. That is still the 80th best player in the Premier League, but Lampard is falling increasingly far from the top of the charts that he used to frequent.
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