Chelsea's vertical evolution is good news for Torres, bad for Lampard
Chelsea is transitioning from the core that won the 2005 league title
Under Andre Villas-Boas the team is starting to play more vertically
New system calls for quicker passes which doesn't suit Frank Lampard
The two key figures in Chelsea's 4-1 win over Swansea City on Saturday weren't on the pitch at the final whistle. They weren't even in sight of it, Fernando Torres having been sent off and Frank Lampard having left the bench a couple of minutes from the end. In their respective narratives is bound up the story of the new Chelsea that is beginning to emerge.
All football clubs need to evolve. Of all Sir Alex Ferguson's many talents, his ability for moving his team forward is perhaps the greatest. Who else would have had the courage to take a side that had finished second in the league and lost in the FA Cup final, as he did in 1995, and sell off three of the most established players -- Paul Ince, Andre Kanchelskis and Mark Hughes -- trusting in the gifts of his young side? And who else would have been rewarded for that decision by winning the double the following season.
Bela Guttmann, the great Hungarian coach, always insisted that "the third season is fatal:" by then players had heard everything a manager had to say, and had settled into complacency. Other teams knew how it played and if that was a problem when Guttmann was coaching in the fifties and sixties, it is infinitely more so now, with blanket television coverage and in-depth video analysis. Either the manager had to go -- as Guttmann, one of life's great wanderers, did, again and again -- or the playing staff had to be revised.
Chelsea's core is still the core that won Chelsea's first title in half a century under Jose Mourinho in 2005: Petr Cech, John Terry, Didier Drogba and Lampard. That is partly why successive managers who have tried to change the way Chelsea play have found themselves reverting to the 4-3-3 Mourinho ended up favoring. There is a sense of a cabal of Mourinho loyalists, whether consciously or not, resisting change. It happens at other clubs too: it appears that Mourinho is such a charismatic coach that once players have played for him they struggle to move on. At least one of the four coaches who have come and gone since Mourinho has been ousted because of the discontent of key players.
To have a core like that can be a positive. United has benefited because the likes of Ryan Giggs, Gary Neville and Paul Scholes stayed on as a living embodiment of what could be achieved under Ferguson. They were loyal to him, and that in turn inspired loyalty from others in the dressing room. The problem comes when there is a dislocation between senior players and coach. It is essential to Andre Villas-Boas' project at Chelsea that he either gets that core onside or breaks it up, particularly as, at 33, he is a matter of months older than Lampard and Drogba. The situations of both are complicated by that of Torres.
Whether Torres was designed as a replacement for Drogba or not, that is the role he is now attempting to fulfill. It never seemed likely that the pair would be able to play effectively in tandem, and that was proved when Carlo Ancelotti fielded both last season. So Drogba, at 33, logically becomes a bit-part player, filling in for Torres, or perhaps occasionally coming on for him, with Daniel Sturridge offering a young alternative. But there is an additional issue which is that Drogba and Torres interpret the role of center forward very differently.
Where Drogba has become almost the archetypal leader of the line, Torres is at his best when chasing on to passes played beyond the defense; he is a player whose game is based far more on pace than the more physically imposing Drogba. Against packed defenses, he can struggle because there simply isn't the space to exploit his pace. It would be wrong to suggest that pace is his only asset, but that is his default; if things aren't going well for him, if confidence is low, that is the basic on which he relies.
It is presumably an awareness of that which led to the notorious interview in which he criticized his Chelsea teammates for being slow. He needs the ball played to him quickly, while opposing defenders are still setting themselves, before they have had a chance to retreat and raise the barricades. In essence, his comment was nothing more than a slightly clumsy variant on what Villas-Boas has being saying all season, that Chelsea need to start playing quicker, "more vertical" passes. Torres's goal at Old Trafford, his late miss and the ball he rolled across goal for Ramires to stub into the Manchester United goalkeeper David De Gea, all came from just that sort of play. This is the stylistic evolution Villas Boas is trying to affect, the reason he signed Juan Mata and tried to sign Luka Modric.
That, though, is problematic for Lampard, for whom two issues have come at once. His strength was always his energy, his ability to time late runs into the box, which brought him more than 20 goals a season in six successive years -- a truly remarkable record. He has never been somebody who distributes the ball particularly quickly or imaginatively. Now, at 33, he finds his stamina waning, age sapping at his legs, which means he must adjust both his game and his expectations. He was a player renowned for playing every week -- and holds the record for most consecutive Premier League appearances by an outfielder (164) outfield; now he must accept that he will not be a regular -- or at least not such a regular --any longer. At the same time, the style of Chelsea is changing to something to which he is not particularly naturally suited.
On Saturday, Lampard, having been named as a substitute, was reported by one Sunday tabloid to have "stormed" from the bench once he realized he wasn't going to be brought on. The level of dudgeon he was in when absenting himself is hard to quantify, but, whatever his feels on the matter, sitting on the bench is something he's going to have to get used to.
Torres, meanwhile, was sent off for a horrible lunge on Swansea's Mark Gower that, fortunately, made minimal contact. As at Old Trafford the week before, a fine finish earlier in the game was rather obscured by what he did later. The challenge was, frankly, inexplicable: out of character for both the player and the game. It was, though, very in keeping with the way things have gone for Torres since his £50 million ($80M) move from Liverpool. The positive is that at least he'd played well enough to have a performance to spoil; the problem now could be that a three-game ban could stall the momentum he's begun to generate.
Generally, though, the sense is of a team and striker slowly coming into sync, of Mourinho's Chelsea finally being evolved into the past.
Jonathan Wilson is the author of Inverting the Pyramid; Behind the Curtain; Sunderland: A Club Transformed; and The Anatomy of England. Editor of The Blizzard.
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