Chelsea and the peculiar case of Frank Lampard

If Frank Lampard leaves Stamford Bridge tomorrow morning, I would not give two lights.

If a Chelsea fan had said that to you a few years ago, you would probably think they are either a) stupid, b) mad or c) one of those new fans that liked the look of Roman Abramovich’s money. However, that same comment in July 2007 would be met with a relative amount of indifference by many, by a few more general agreement.

Before I move onto the crux of my point, let’s set a few things straight and dispell any preconceptions that could potentially be made. I, on a personal level, feel that Frank Lampard can be a fine player for club and country on his day. He’s got a lot of attributes to his game when on form, he can finish, he can pass and he is able to drive a team onto victory through his own contribution, an asset critical to anyone who wants to play in a team assembled by Jose Mourinho. However, ask yourself, when was the last time you saw Frank Lampard lead from the front for Chelsea, or for England, on a persistent, sustained basis?

When Lampard joined Chelsea from West Ham for 11 million pounds in 2001, as one of Claudio Ranieri’s mega-money signings from that summer, many were concerned that the club had paid over the odds for a player who had plenty to learn in the game. Lampard did little to remove those concerns in the initial stages of his Chelsea career, and suddenly the fears that the midfielder would go the same way as the likes of Emerson Thome, Bernard Lambourne and infamously, Chris Sutton, were becoming realistic.

It took a while, but Lampard eventually settled into Ranieri’s team at Stamford Bridge and began to play to a higher standard as the weeks progressed. Come the time of the Russian revolution in West London and the ploughing of millions into the club on the part of Roman Abramovich, Lampard was a settled, established member of the Chelsea midfield, but the signings of Claude Makelele, Joe Cole and Juan Veron initially threatened to dislodge Lampard and leave him on the sidelines.

It was at this point where Lampard produced a season of immense quality from midfield, proving a rock of stability in a tumultuous period for the club in transition. As Veron, Cole and Makelele all struggled in their first season or flopped completely, Lampard remained the man to turn to, scoring 15 goals in 58 appearances and being a shining light in an otherwise frustrating season. Were it not for the brilliance of Theirry Henry and co during Arsenal’s unbeaten season, Lampard would have walked away with a plethora of awards from all-comers at the end of the season. This form was replicated for country during England’s run to the quarter finals of Euro 2004, with the midfielder again starring for his side, along with Wayne Rooney. Truly, Lampard had now joined the elite list of world footballers.

A new manager brought new challenges, but Lampard continued to excel himself, going four better than the season before as Jose Mourinho led the Blues to their first league title in half a century. It was John Terry who took the awards at the end of the campaign, but that could not diminish the contribution of Lampard, with Mourinho and Matthias Sammer going as far as to call the Romford man “the best player in the world.” At this point, plenty would have agreed with the sentiments of the two men. A minority said that this level of performance could not be sustained, but the theory was largely discredited, owing to the performances of the midfielder over the previous two seasons.

How right they ultimately proved to be though. Despite Lampard increasing his goal tally in both seasons since the first title victory in 2004/05, there just seems to be something missing from the equation. This is not the same Frank Lampard I saw in the final year of Ranieri’s reign and the beginning of Mourinho’s spell as manager. The stats suggest otherwise, but the vast number of Chelsea fans will tell you the same thing. Putting your finger quite on the root of the issue is the tough part, but if I tried to put it into words, I would say that the all- action style seen in that two-year period is missing now.

There no longer appears to be the demand for the ball, there’s no desire to earn the ball, to track back, to find the correct positions, nor is there the same laser-style passing or finishing as seen between 2003 and 2005. There may be more goals, but there are too many misses, or bad passes, or slack performances. The same applies for country, and although making Lampard the scapegoat for England’s generally inept showing in Germany last summer is somewhat unfair in relation to the rest of the squad, the difference between Euro 2004 and World Cup 2006 was marked.

Which leads on to the issue of whether Lampard should move on from the Bridge and make the move abroad, as has been heavily rumoured by all and sundry for a while now, in order to refresh a career in danger of stalling. For a brief period the name of newly promoted Juventus was mooted by the press, as the club recovered from the calipicoli scandal and looked to rebuild for Serie A under new manager Caludio Ranieri. The link was made between Ranieri and Lampard as it was the Italian who signed the latter for the Blues in the first place, but the suggestion held little weight.

Any player with serious ambitions shouldn’t be touching Serie A at the moment and Lampard would not be naive enough to move to Italy, such is the disastrous state of the league. The signings of Tiago Mendes, Hasan Salihamidzic, Manuele Blasi and Sergio Almiron, along with the established trio of Pavel Nedved, Mauro Camoranesi and Cristiano Zanetti among others means Juve have an already bloated midfield, signing Lampard would not make sense nor boost morale amongst the players already at Della Alpi.

Barcelona’s interest is more viable and prolonged however, even though currently mixed messages are coming out of Camp Nou over his potential signing. Joan Laporta is a well-known fan of Lampard, and in seasons gone by, has apparently tempted Chelsea with sky-high bids for the player, although the level of truth in these bids is somewhat debatable, but he would indeed welcome Lampard to the Camp Nou if the situation arose. However, in recent days it has been reported that the idea does not appeal to Frank Rijkaard and that he is finished bringing in new names for the summer.

On ground level, Ronaldinho has long spoke of his admiration for the player and in several interviews has said that he would enjoy playing alongside Lampard for the Catalan club, but that is merely his take on the player. As much as Ronaldinho may like a player, it is ultimately up to the top brass, namely Laporta and Rijkaard, to decide who joins and who leaves, therefore you tend to believe that in the long run, Barca’s pursuit of Lampard may be a false dawn.

There does not appear to be the level of interference from the board in deciding who signs for Barca (Ignoring Laporta’s presidential candidacy pledge) as has plagued Real Madrid’s numerous managers for years. As such, Rijkaard’s apparent disinterest in bringing Lampard in may mean that in the long run, there is no bid forthcoming from Los Cules. More importantly, the signings that have already been brought in over the summer may put pay to any chase for Lampard.

The liklihood is that Rijkaard will have to start with the big four of Henry, Messi, Eto’o and Ronaldinho at every possible turn, either as a front four or with two wingers. This would leave only two, three spaces left in midfield at most. Xavi isn’t going anywhere soon and Yaya Toure has not been bought for close to 7 million to be left on the bench. Leaving only one possible space in midfield, with Eidur Gudjonhsen, Deco and Thiago Motta all left to battle for it, even though questions are rife about the future of all three men. Assuming they do stay, and fight it out, a few people are going to be unhappy before too long.

Introducing Lampard to the frame will just complicate matters further. As such, it would not make sense at the moment for Barca to be buying any more players, certainly not with the top-heavy unit they have at the moment. Real Madrid have also been alleged to be sniffing around Lampard, but the fact that they have made no significant advances thus far this summer, along with the number of players already available to play in central midfield (Guti, Diarra, Emerson, Gago et al) would make that move also seem unreasonable.

So in essence this takes us back to where we were at the start. It can be reasonably assumed that Frank Lampard will stay at Chelsea, will continue to be a key part of Mourinho’s plans and all the rumours that have surrounded him for weeks held no weight at all. But then the question needs to be asked: Does Chelsea really need Frank Lampard?

Based on the evidence given, Lampard should not be leaving Chelsea as there is no need for any of the other big clubs around Europe to sign him or they are not in a position to do so. Taking that logic to one side for a momen though, let’s say that Real do weigh in with an offer so grand it would be impossible to refuse, ditto for Barca, or Juve, or any other club you wish to insert in here. How much would Chelsea miss him? The answer I came to when I considered the issue is actually not that much at all.

When you look at the squad assembled now by Mourinho at Chelsea, the one area that stands out is the talent at disposal in midfield. Michael Essien, Joe Cole, Michael Ballack, Jon Obi Mikel, Steve Sidwell and Lampard are all options to play in the centre now for Chelsea, with Claude Makelele and Lassana Diarra also stand-by options, even though they prefer to take up a deeper role.

Those first five are all players of a good to excellent standard and all five could do a job for Chelsea if Lampard did indeed leave. Essien is the standout of the five and would fit into any central midfield in the world at the moment, Joe Cole is not far behind, even though he may be preferred in a wide role by Mourinho. Ballack recieved much criticism last season for his lacklustre showings, but this season, much like Andriy Shevchenko, he could come good, there are no reasons for him not to any more. Mikel and Sidwell are still two candidates who have something to prove, but Mikel should become a good player if he can remove the hot-headedness from his game, while Sidwell needs to prove he is up to the standard expected at Chelsea, something I personally expect him to do with aplomb, if he is given the opportunity.

All things said, it’s a quintet which Chelsea fans can pin their hopes on. Lampard is also an automatic option within the squad, but if that is taken away during the summer, then the midfield would not be affected too perversely, the options are definately in place, with or without Lampard as another choice.

There is also the issue, perhaps even the fear that at the age of 29, Lampard may have peaked in terms of the football he plays. Perhaps those who criticise him are going by the yardstick of the 2003/04 and 04/05 seasons where he was one of, if not the best performer in the Premiership, therefore measuring up to that level once again is the impossible feat. However, to look at him last season, there was just something not quite right about Lampard’s game. He seemed off the boil far too often, there would be seldom contribution in a number of games and when the team really needed him, at times he was unable to produce the goods, the 2-0 defeat at Anfield in February particularly sticks out in the mind.

These are the games where the cream of the crop need to prove why they are so well regarded. Michael Essien did it last season, so did Didier Drogba, while you’re at it, add John Terry, Ricardo Carvalho and Petr Cech to that list as well. Not Lampard. Where he would have been leading from the front a few seasons ago, now he seems somewhat distant too often, not doing enough for the Chelsea cause. There are plenty of goals to his name, but there are plenty of lacklustre performances for club and country, too many to go unnoticed.

Many people will disagree and point to his goalscoring record in recent seasons which, admittedly is very impressive for a midfielder of any type and of any calibre, but there hasn’t been the genuine advancement in his game which many expected. The goals are there, but the drive, passion and energy are surprisingly absent in some occasions from Lampard. Fans who travel the country to watch him, fans who shell out 30 quid a week to watch him at Stamford Bridge should demand more from a man on a contract such as his, fans who follow the Three Lions should demand more desire in the red and white shirt. The basis was there in previous seasons for Lampard to become a player of consistent, world-class quality, but he isn’t living up to the promise as expected. The fans need more from Lampard and they should expect more, because we all know what he is capable of.

Tackling an issue like this brings about it’s own contradictions and I’m sure in some instances in this article my point appears convuluted and hypocritical. However, it’s just one of those things I hope Chelsea and England fans can relate to, that football fans can understand and realise where the frustrations comes from. I go back to the efforts of Lampard in this two golden seasons, when he truly proved that he was no longer the boy from West Ham with the over-the-top price-tag and little substance to his game. In those two seasons, he was the man for Chelsea, and everything was there to suggest he would continue to scale the heights along with fellow midfielders Ronaldinho, Kaka and Cristiano Ronaldo. It can be argued that all three have advanced in their game since 2005 and are now three of, if not the top trio of midfielders in the world game.

Lampard has stagnated, the Romford boy needs to go out and prove his worth again and show us, the fans, why he should be the first name on the team-sheet for club and country. He’s climbed the proverbial mountain once, now he needs to ascend it again to show us why’s he the real deal in the modern game. Otherwise, if Barcelona come in with a 25 million bid and prise him away to join the Dream Team now being assembled in Catalonia, don’t expect me to shed any tears at his departure.

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