Thursday, 15 December 2011

Frank Lampard and the rise of The Undroppables

There must be some glum faces in the Bleakley-Lampard household as we move towards Christmas.  First Christine gets dumped from Daybreak, along with Adrian ‘Happy’ Chiles. Then Frank gets hauled off after just 60 minutes of Chelsea’s match with Newcastle United and is relegated to the subs' bench for the next couple of games.

Having said that, Christine’s got a new show alongside Philip Schofield (becoming a modern-day Gordon the Gopher if you will) and good old Lamps got to come off the bench and score a penalty against Manchester City (I wonder if Christine told him to text Santa asking for a match-winning performance.)

That Lampard still has something to offer the Stamford Bridge club is, I think, pretty clear.  That he should be starting and finishing every game isn’t, although you could be forgiven for thinking otherwise from the way the Press is carrying on.

Frank prepares for life in the retirement home
A couple of Sundays ago following that match at St James’ Park (or whatever it’s called now) when Lampard was clearly not happy to have been substituted, the Sunday Express’ John Richardson was prompted to say on The Sunday Supplement: “If there’s something wrong with his head it means there’s something wrong with that football club because Frank is level-headed and wants to do the best for the club.  He’s one of the main stalwarts of the club.  Now, if you’re upsetting him you’re probably upsetting John Terry and other experienced players and that’s not good.”

Perhaps the win against Valencia, which saw Chelsea through to the last 16 of the Champions League, while the Manchester duopoly crashed out, and the win against Manchester City which, according to the Press, sees Chelsea “right back in” a Championship race they were never really out of will have made Richardson change his mind but either way it was a bizarre thing to say in the first place.

Does he really think the job of the manager is to keep the senior players happy?  Surely the job of a manager is to build a balanced squad, and then to constantly refresh it by bringing younger players through, while easing older players out.

I can think of at least a couple of people who might take the latter point of view, a pair who have demonstrated time and again that age and seniority do not, indeed should not, guarantee a starting place and a pair who command such respect that many senior players happily buy into that ethos. You’ve probably guessed that those two are Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsène Wenger.

The way Ferguson has handled Ryan Giggs is a prime example.  Giggs is a physically fit bloke (a combination of yoga and shagging about) and is still an important player for Manchester United, but he doesn’t command a regular starting place.  “Okay, but he’s a lot older than Lamps,” I hear you say.  “What about when he was the same age as the Chelsea man is now?”

Giggs was 33 and a half at the beginning of the 2007/08 season.  Of Manchester United’s 38 Premier League games that season, he started 17, was substituted in nine, came off the bench in five and he was not involved in seven.  Interestingly Giggs played the full 90 minutes in nine of the first 15 matches and started another four of them.

However, in the second 15 he played the full 90 minutes less often (five times) than he was not in the match-day squad at all (six).  In the last eight games he came on from the bench as often as he played the full 90 (three each).  He was a substitute in the last game of the season against Wigan scoring the second goal, which effectively sealed the title and 10 days later he came off the bench again to replace another old timer – Paul Scholes – in the Champions League final win against Chelsea.

Now, you can make statistics say anything you want them to (just ask George Osborne), but what is clear is that when Giggs was the age Lampard is now he was very much a squad player, Ferguson husbanding his resources and Giggs happy (to this day in fact) to accept that state of affairs.

In Old London Town, Wenger arguably takes an even harsher attitude to older players.  The Frenchman is quoted in the book Arsènal, by Alex Fynn and Kevin Whitcher, talking during the Invincibles season about the optimum ages for players in each position.

He said that for goalkeepers it was 30 to 35, for a central defender 26 to 34, for a midfielder 26 to 32 and for strikers 24 to 30.  Wenger also introduced, starting with Dennis Bergkamp, one-year contract extensions for over-30s.  So, for Wenger, Lampard is already 18 months past his sell-by date. Now, Wenger isn’t stupid and, like Ferguson, he has made exceptions Bergkamp being the most notable example with the Dutchman staying at Arsenal until he was 37 but being used increasingly sparingly.

In Why England Lose Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski tell how Wenger began to substitute Bergkamp towards the end of games when the player was in his early thirties.  When the player complained, Wenger would produce his statistical analysis and demonstrate how the Dutchman was running less and was doing so less quickly late in the second half.  Maybe Andre Villas-Boas, another stats nerd, has identified a similar reduction in output from Lampard, perhaps one that is not visible from the Press box.

You're old 'cos I say you are.
Kuper and Szymanski also point out that Patrick Vera (29), Thierry Henry (29), Emmanuel Petit (29) and Marc Overmars (27) were sold by Wenger for handsome fees and never quite reached the same personal heights again.  And they quote from the biography of Peter Taylor (Brian Clough’s soul mate, not the twat that used to manage Leicester City) in which he wrote: “I’ve noticed over the years how often Liverpool sell players as they near or pass their thirtieth birthday.”  Perhaps diet, training and medical science have upped that age a bit, but the point remains the same: Every player has a sell-by date and just because they’ve given a club great service, and might get a bit upset if they don't play aren’t reasons to ignore that.

It is also interesting to note that Flynn and Whitcher suggest Henry actually inhibited the development of younger players in his final season at the club.  They quote Cesc Fabregas saying: “Henry intimidated us.  He is a great player but it was not easy to play alongside him.”  So, not only is there the player’s physical condition to consider but also the impact his seniority, and more importantly how he wields it, has on those around him.


Unfortunately, given our general obsession with celebrity, none of this will stop the Press pack rabidly feeding on the Lampard ‘story’.  On Monday night as the Chelsea man ran to the crowd predictably kissing his badge to celebrate his penalty against Manchester City Ray Wilkins told SkySports viewers it was “in the script”.  Now, either he accidentally let slip what many of us have suspected for a while or he was lazily buying into English football’s hero fixation, a fixation which has led to a number of players being considered undroppable at club and international level.

Cast your mind back to the problems Sven-Goran Eriksson and Schteve McClaren had trying to shoehorn Lampard and Steven Gerrard into the same England midfield (something that might have worked had they moved away from 4-4-2, which would itself have neccesitated the exclusion of other 'undroppable' players). 

Lampard displeasure with his predicament is perhaps understandable, after all football (or any physical team sport) is one of the few careers where age and experience lead to demotion rather than promotion, but if he is the “superb professional” Richardson says he is (and, let’s be honest with a GCSE in Latin to his name, he probably is) then sooner rather than later, Lampard will come to terms with the situation and recognise that the likes of Raul Merles (28) and particularly Oriole Romeo (20) are the long-term future for the Chelsea midfield, not him. Whether the Press can do the same is a different matter.

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