by Daisy Cutter
Any surprise at how quickly and splendidly Frank Lampard has applied himself at Manchester City and stamped his influence upon the team is surprising in itself.
Even at his ripe age Lampard is, by common consensus, the complete professional, a head-up player who always looks to make something happen but first and foremost appreciates the precious value in retaining possession. At 36 the spring may be absent from the step but for a player who has always thought his way through games this represents little problem while a career largely free of injury in reality chips off another couple of years.
It also helps that in thirteen seasons at the Bridge he’s been there, seen it all, and on three occasions worn a t-shirt declaring himself a league winner. Such vast experience is a priceless commodity for any team, reigning champions or otherwise.
When City snapped up arguably the finest midfielder of the Premier League era in a six month loan ahead of his New York encore it was viewed as a mutually beneficial deal. The player keeps his fitness peaked and enjoys a brief domestic swansong all in exchange for a couple of telling cameos. More sceptical souls suggested it was also a convenient way for City to maintain their homegrown quota in compliance with FFP regulations.
Yet such has been Lampard’s impact there have already been calls to extend his temporary stay until the latest possible juncture while at the Etihad last week all eyes fell to the bench for ‘Super’ Frank after an hour of dismal fare against Roma.
Just two months in and already a Chelsea legend – and supposed bit-part addition – has become Manchester City’s go-to guy.
There are extenuating reasons for this besides Lampard’s undoubted class. The form of Yaya Toure has been patchy while an early injury to fellow newcomer Fernando deprived City of a promising presence.
There is another reason too why a player previously mocked by Blues for being ‘fat’ and personifying all that is Cockney is suddenly being lavished with praise and admiration in east Manchester and it is this reason I’d like to extend upon. For me it hints at a fundamental flaw in the modern game and offers a fascinating solution.
Let me elaborate.
Like a handful of other top flight clubs City’s adherence to their long-term model for success trumps all other considerations, including the recruiting of personnel. At least that was the case until the arrival of Lampard.
It is why Pellegrini was brought in ahead of Mourinho. It is why Eliquim Mangala was so patiently sought after. Because they fit into the exacting strategy and philosophy being implemented by chief exec Ferran Soriano and director of football Txiki Begiristain.
It is a strategy that has echoes of Barcelona’s blueprint that brought the Catalan club so much glory in recent times and incorporates a style of play that is mirrored throughout the club from the kids up.
Across the road from the Etihad stadium a state of the art La Masia-style academy is due to be unveiled and an array of exciting young prospects will be drilled into playing the ‘City way’. Defenders will be taught to press high and hard like Kompany. Possession will be patient, one-touch probing with speculation minimised. Short, simple passes are the law of the land with intelligent movement the key to making it all succeed.
So where does Lampard fit into all of this? Well that is precisely my point – he doesn’t. And City are patently reaping the benefit.
When Mangala arrived post-World Cup he was purposely held back for several weeks. This was partly to allow him time to undergo his own personal pre-season but additionally he was told to sit, study, and take it all in, to assess exactly how he was expected to defend in accordance with the team’s mandate.
Lampard was not afforded such a luxury. Due to the counter-productivity of teaching an old dog new tricks and the shortness of his stay he was thrown straight into the fray and so what we’re witnessing is a Chelsea player playing the Chelsea way all within a meticulously structured City framework.
When Frank receives the ball his first instinct is to look up and seek to spray the ball out wide to an advancing full-back. There have been occasions already when Clichy or Zabaleta have looked visibly shocked and delighted to be able to run onto an early ball with space ahead of them. It is a ball that usually arrives in instalments.
Consider too Lampard’s predilection for ghosting into the box. City players do not ghost into the box; it’s simply not the done thing and viewed as almost gauche. Instead they halt on the 18 yard line and seek out a full-back-splitting one-two. Any element of directness is always eschewed for craft.
Now the likes of Milner carve out space on the edge of the box and suddenly spies a flash of light blue darting into the penalty area. The result – three goals already from the bench.
Manchester City are certainly not alone in having a regimented style of play they adhere to. And when it works – as it mostly does – it can be sensational. When it doesn’t however the tick-tick-tick passes become a slow thud of a metronome; they become pedestrian and predictable. Their methods become a straightjacket.
Lampard’s more direct style – perfected mostly from five seasons under Mourinho – is the grit in the oyster and has been used to devastating effect.
Time was – according to cliché – when all a team needed to win a game was to possess that one flair player, a player capable of pulling off the unexpected. Now, such is the meticulous and methodical nature of the modern game, those magicians – the Silvas, Coutinhos, and Hazards – have been assimilated into the group ethic. They’ve become merely the shiniest link in a chain.
Perhaps what is required to unlock stubborn resistance is a player from another team playing that other team’s way? The odd man out. The Super Frankie Lampard.