Frank Lampard makes case for the defence as forwards take back seat

Jacob Steinberg
·3 min read
<span>Photograph: Phil Noble/EPA</span>
Photograph: Phil Noble/EPA

Splurge on the attack. Make yourself the envy of the world by signing Hakim Ziyech, Timo Werner and Kai Havertz in one wild summer. Make the journey to Old Trafford, where Manchester United were last seen losing 6-1 to Tottenham, and pick a back-five. Take Werner and Havertz off with 20 minutes left. Give Ziyech 10 minutes at the end. Settle for a second consecutive goalless draw. Flip the narrative on its head.

By the end of a grim match it was clear Frank Lampard had no interest in another defensive aberration from his leaky Chelsea side. He will not apologise for setting out to contain United. Attacking cohesion can wait: for a manager accused of failing to focus on shape and resilience during his time at Chelsea, a shutout inspired by Thiago Silva’s serenity in central defence represented another step forward.

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Both sides played as though they were spooked by visions of a defensive calamity on a slick, treacherous surface. The handbrake was on, as Arsène Wenger would say. Chelsea wanted to suffocate, United wanted errors and wonky defending from the visitors. The result was a stalemate for 45 minutes, notable mainly for loose touches, misplaced passes and a host of gifted attackers waiting in vain for a defensive midfielder to give them the ball.

It seemed fitting the half ended with Havertz picking up a booking after a frustrated tug of a red shirt. Perhaps he just wanted to get involved, to make his presence felt, to remind the world he does exist. Otherwise the opening period passed him by, although at least he could console himself with the knowledge the same was true for United’s creators, with Bruno Fernandes searching in vain for space.

Nobody wanted to break the structure. Chelsea set the tone with their system, bringing to mind José Mourinho’s jibe that they always go to a back-five when results are indifferent.

With Mason Mount dropping to the bench, César Azpilicueta came in to provide an extra defensive bolt, sweeping behind Reece James on the right, leaving Marcus Rashford so deprived of service for long spells that the United forward probably had time to log into his Twitter account to embarrass a Tory MP.

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Had Lampard channelled his inner José? Conscious no Chelsea manager in the history of the Premier League has conceded at a higher rate than him, had he set out to kill the spectacle? Maybe – or perhaps he knew United, back to 4-2-3-1 after defeating Paris Saint-Germain with a back three, like teams who attack them.

The risk for Lampard was that ceding the initiative risked negating the effectiveness of his attack. Chelsea controlled the ball but lacked menace. United bided their time, waiting for the errors. Édouard Mendy almost obliged, screwing a pass just wide of his own goal as Lampard congratulated himself on including Petr Cech in his Premier League squad to provide emergency goalkeeping cover – you know, just in case.

Mendy redeemed himself with a couple of fine saves before the interval. The second came from a curling effort from Juan Mata, the first after United had managed to catch Chelsea cold. It came from a sudden spurt of pressing from United, exposing slackness from Jorginho and Thiago Silva, resulting in a loss of possession that would have led to Rashford scoring but for Mendy saving with his feet.

At the other end Werner waited in vain for a chance to stretch his legs and run beyond Harry Maguire. Bar a few surges from Havertz in the second half, Chelsea were pallid in the final third.

Yet they were happier with the draw. United made the attacking changes, introducing Paul Pogba and Edinson Cavani, but there was no change of shape from Lampard when he brought Tammy Abraham and Mount on. His priorities were clear.