If you were active on Chelsea related social media for the past few weeks, you have definitely seen people complaining about Mason Mount playing on the wings, specifically on the left side.
While it’s difficult to argue that the trial has been a successful one, there must be some explanation for its necessity. So, why did Lampard insist on benching his more established wingers to make Mount play on the wings?
To understand what was happening we need to take a deeper look into Lampard’s systems.
The Half Spaces: The ‘Constant despite Changes’
One of the most repeated and continuous criticisms Lampard faces in his tenure is that he doesn’t have a constant system of play. Critics say his constant chops and changes of formations, as well as personnel makes it hard for the team to be gelled.
But if you look closely to his tactical setup, there’s always ‘little things’ that Lampard keeps the same, whatever formation he chooses or whoever gets the nod for the game. One of these is the fact that he insists on occupying both the ‘half spaces’ at the same time in the attacking phase of the game.
All the accomplished managers do the same. Pep uses his advanced midfielders (De Bruyne and Silva/Bernando Silva) with his wingers keeping the width. Klopp uses his wingers (Salah and Mane) as ‘inside forward’ whose starting positions are at the half spaces while his full-backs make the team wider.
Lampard is no less. He, despite his constant changes of formation, intends to have players roaming in that area to affect the game. The wide players to keep the width and make the occasional diagonal runs towards the opposition box.
So how does Lampard occupy both Half spaces in a 4-2-3-1 with Mason Mount?
The 4-2-3-1 is usually conceived as a formation with one advanced attacking midfielder two wide players. But the problem is that the attacking midfielder can’t occupy both the half spaces at the same time. Lampard’s adaptation is a bit different, though, that’s why Mount is very instrumental.
Remember Juan Mata playing from the right for Van Gaal? What about Mesut Özil playing for Germany? Or Christian Ericsen on the right for Spurs? Then you get the gist.
Instead of staying wide as a traditional winger, Mount roams into the middle as often as possible. While Havertz tends to drop to the right half space, Mount stay on the left half space starting from the wing. Chilwell, the left back, then occupies the space left by Mount on the left wing to keep the width. That creates a temporary line of four behind the strikers, two in the half spaces and two staying wide.
Why has Lampard adopted this system & how does it use Mount?
The main reason, in my opinion, is defensive solidity. Instead of using a more elaborate systems (like the 4-3-3 with attacking 8’s), Lampard was trying to be practical. Defensive fragilities meant he opted to start with two deep midfielders (double pivot) because he didn’t seem to trust the defense with only one player protecting it.
The other reason might be the fact that he was easing the players to his favorite advanced 8’s system. Instead of giving his new players (like Havertz) a big defensive responsibility, he may have chosen to ease them step by step to understand his demands.
Limitations of the System
But this system had its own limitations. The first one raises from Mount himself. His inability to take players out one on one meant Chelsea was very limited in the left side. While Chilwell’s constant movement on the left made up for some of it, the attack wasn’t balanced on both wings, making it easier to anticipate and deal with it.
This formation also forced other players to play out of position. Because of Mount (and Ziyech’s Injury), Chelsea’s two prominent Left wingers (Hudson-Odoi and Pulisic) were playing on the right wing. In other words, Lampard didn’t play this players on the right to accommodate Mount, he did it for the sake of balance. However, that restricted the players from making further problems for oppositions’ defense from their natural position.
The lack of a balanced pivot structure challenged Lampard heavily. All the pivot combinations that Lampard tried this season have failed to impress for a long period. The team has been affected negatively by the underwhelming performances of these combinations, in both phases of the game.
But no one is the victim of this system more than Mason Mount himself. His less impressive performances in some games have had a toxic effect, with fans missing the bigger picture. Lampard didn’t clearly did him any favor there, just made him a target of unwarranted criticism (to say the least).
After some unimpressive and yet very important matches, Lampard seem to rip the benefit of his experiment. Firstly, his cautious approaches against Man United and Sevilla had earned him invaluable clean sheets to build upon. And Secondly, The relationship he created between Mount and Havertz, added with two second-half performances against West Brom and Krasnodar, have made it comfortable for the team to adapt to 4-3-3.
There fore, it seems he has found his balance and his system, at least for now. For the upcoming fixtures, it is easy to see that the 4-3-3 is the plan A.
But will he come back to his 4-2-3-1? I think so, for two reasons.
First one is lack of back up players for Mount and Havertz. Loan deals for Barkley and Loftus-Cheek means Chelsea don’t have attacking 8’s on the bench. That will make it harder for Lampard to stick with 4-3-3 for a long time.
Secondly, Lampard’s proactive side will also have an effect. Lampard might make few tweaks, and as a result go back to the 4-2-3-1, especially against tougher oppositions.
So far, when Hakim Ziyech is fit Mount has not featured as a winger. (Ziyech is a player that fits the false winger role) and Mount is thriving in his No. 8 role. Even if he does though, Chelsea fans should make sure that history doesn’t repeat itself, as unfair criticisms and personalized attacks will benefit no one.
Written by Biruk (@birukshegute)
Edited by Robert Pratley @RJPJournalism