Frank Lampard: How Much Playing Time Will Chelsea's Talisman See Next Season?
It's the sad reality no Chelsea fan wants to face: Frank Lampard is getting old, and he's no longer the Frank Lampard who'll put up roughly 20 goals and 15 assists a season. So what should be done about it?
For anyone still in doubt, let's be clear: Chelsea are a team in transition. Last year's league campaign made this plainly obvious, though the team's FA Cup and Champions League double under Roberto Di Matteo has papered over many cracks.
But Roman Abramovich and management were wise enough to remember the pre-RDM days and take action to make sure they wouldn't return when RDM's "new manager boost" wore off.
They made the tough but right choice of allowing Didier Drogba to leave, and allowed soon-to-be-30 Jose Bosingwa and perennial bench player Salomon Kalou to leave.
They've brought the average of the squad down considerably by signing 23-year-old Marko Marin, 21-year-old Eden Hazard, 21-year-old Kevin De Bruyne, and have reportedly (via Fox News) added 20-year-old Oscar from Brazil for £25 million.
These changes have done much of the dirty work for Chelsea in transitioning the club from its glory days at the start of the Abramovich revolution to what many Chelsea fans will hope will be the start of a new era of Chelsea glory.
There are holdovers of course, but for the most part, they will be easy to deal with when their time to leave comes.
Paulo Ferreira is nothing more than a back-up role player for when injuries creep up on the squad, and is satisfied with this role.The same can be said about Florent Malouda and Yossi Benayoun.
Ashley Cole, Petr Cech and John Terry have cracked the 30-year-old mark, but they're still in good form and won't have to be replaced for another 2-4 years, or maybe even longer in Cech's case.
That leaves just one big question mark for RDM to address next season: What should be done with Frank Lampard?
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Of course, brushing Lampard off as "washed-up" or "past-it" would be a big mistake; arguably, it was one of the biggest mistakes Andre-Villas Boas made, and one that factored heavily into him losing his job. Despite his age, Lampard proved last year that he can still make key contributions to the club's campaigns.
This was exhibited several times last season, be it during Chelsea's 5-1 mauling on Bolton, with Lampard recording a hat-trick, or scoring the match-winners against Blackburn, Manchester City and Wolves.
In the Champions League especially, only Drogba played a more direct role in the club's success, as Lampard scored a goal and an assist in the miraculous comeback vs Napoli, scored a penalty vs Benfica, and most importantly, stripped Lionel Messi of the ball and found Ramires with a perfect pass to setup Drogba's opening goal vs Barcelona in the first leg of the Champions League semifinals.
He also contributed a goal and assist in the FA Cup semifinal win over Tottenham, and assisted Chelsea's winning goal in the FA Cup final victory over Liverpool.
Clearly, given how influential he was in Chelsea's previous campaign, it'd be a tad ridiculous to insinuate that Lampard's become useless to Chelsea. As saying goes, form is temporary, class is permanent, and Lampard is just about as classy as they come.
Nevertheless, no player or human being can escape time, and even last year, it was apparent on several occasions that Lampard was not the player he was from 2004-2010, when putting up 20 goals and 15 assists was just business as usual for Lampard.
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I highly doubt that Lampard will be benched at the start of the season; RDM knows very well that he's got plenty of energy left in his tank, is still hungry, and as of the end of last season, was still playing at a very, very high level.
If that level dips though, then and only then will (or should) the question of Lampard being benched arise. Even then though, I expect RDM will be patient with Lampard.
After all, Lampard has quietly but surely transformed his game, evolving into more of a box-to-box or holding midfielder, as opposed to an attacking midfielder. In this new position, Lampard's only current competition is John Obi Mikel and Raul Meireles, neither of whom have shown themselves to be particularly gifted or deserving of a regular spot in the starting lineup.
How Many Starts Will Lampard Accumulate in the EPL next season?
And of course, there's still the question of how Michael Essien will perform next season, having never really bounced back to his imperious best during the 2011-12 campaign.
The reality is that, at some point, every player reaches a point in their career when they have to admit that they're no longer good enough, and have to accept the reduced role that comes with that realization.
However, we've seen several examples of top midfielders delaying that point much further than usual. Andrea Pirlo, at the age of 33, was one of the best midfielders at Euro 2012, and was spectacular throughout the 2011-12 season for Juventus.
Paul Scholes, at the age of 37, continues to perform well when called upon for Manchester United. The same can be said for 38-year-old Ryan Giggs. And outside England, you have 38-year-old Javier Zanetti displaying remarkable fitness for Inter Milan, year after year, often as a midfielder.
Only a top, top player can extend his career to such long lengths, but Lampard has indeed proven himself to be such a player. Given how well his transition went last year, I think we could see Lampard make it through the season as a regular starter for Chelsea.
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