Amid all the praise that Chelsea’s youngsters have received this season, the improvements of midfield duo Mateo Kovacic and Jorginho have gone largely unheralded.
Mason Mount and Christian Pulisic have provided an attacking and creative flair feared missing after the departure of Eden Hazard, Tammy Abraham has supplied a hatful of goals, while Fikayo Tomori and Reece James have surprised with their defensive maturity.
But underpinning it all has been a midfield powerhouse turning Chelsea’s defence into attack at electrifying pace.
Kovacic and Jorginho have both seemingly received a new lease of life under Lampard which, given they were signed by his predecessor Maurizio Sarri, is slightly ironic.
When Chelsea face Manchester City tomorrow evening, there will be no fear of a repeat of the 6-0 drubbing they received at the Etihad Stadium just nine months ago.
This Blues team now looks an entirely different prospect under Lampard’s regime and they travel to the Etihad Stadium having won seven successive away matches – for the first time since 1989 – and currently sit one point ahead of champions City in third place in the Premier League.
In truth, Lampard has not yet established his best team, typically having to accommodate two of Jorginho, Kovacic and N’Golo Kante in a midfield pairing behind No10 Mason Mount.
Leaving Kante on the bench hardly feels an option but his string of injuries this campaign have allowed the Jorginho-Kovacic pivot to flourish; the trio have started just one game together, the 2-1 defeat at home to Liverpool in September.
While Jorginho has been a mainstay of the team and Kante more out than in, Kovacic has partnered the Italian in midfield from the start on 13 occasions. Ross Barkley has also been used in that position, although with decreasing frequency.
Lampard has insisted there is no reason why the pair and Kante cannot form a trio going forward as his team “rotate and work together” in the midfield and “try to be adaptable”.
But while Jorginho’s slick passing and ball retention skills have come as little surprise given the reputation with which he arrived in England, it is Kovacic, who joined last season on loan from Real Madrid before making the switch permanent this summer, who has really flourished.
Disruptive and creative
While he does not pile in with assists or goals – he is yet to score for Chelsea – his involvement in the team’s build-up play is crucial.
The 25-year-old has completed 99.3 touches and 81.8 passes per 90 minutes this season, compared with 93.5 and 75.7 respectively last, and has the fourth-best pass-completion rate in the league of players to have made more than 200 passes into the final third.
Kovacic is also noticeably completing more dribbles, up to 3.3 per 90 minutes compared with last year’s 2.2 as he helps to drive his team forward.
It is the most of any Chelsea player and more than any other deep-lying midfielder in the Premier League, with the likes of Paul Pogba, Matteo Guendouzi and Tanguy N’Dombele completing around 1.6 dribbles per game so far this season. Liverpool’s Fabinho has completed 0.7 dribbles per game and City’s Rodri 1.4.
The Croatian has praised the “more direct game” Chelsea are playing under Lampard, but he has become as important to quelling the opposition’s attack as he has to moving the ball from back to front.
This campaign he has averaged 2.8 tackles – also the most of any Chelsea player – and 0.8 interceptions per 90 minutes, up from 2.3 and 0.4 respectively under Sarri.
It is more tackles per game than Fabinho’s 2.6, Rodri’s 2.5 and Granit Xhaka’s 2.0, and among the best in the league, if some way off Leicester’s Wilfred Ndidi’s astonishing 5.4 tackles per game.
Three-time Champions League winner Kovacic is versatile enough to play any role in a midfield three, although he admits being one of a central two is his preference due to the freedom it gives him.
“My game is to open spaces for other people,” he said last week. “It’s a big strength and I have felt I am trying it a lot more because we play a little bit different football to last year. Now we are more direct, more aggressive, we just try things we didn’t try last year. I feel better.”
If Lampard can find a way to fit Kovacic, Jorginho and Kante into the same team, they will be a midfield trio to be reckoned with.