There have been many false dawns when observers have called time on Frank Lampard’s career.
Anyone thinking the arrival of Nemanja Matic at Stamford Bridge may in fact be the real thing this time out will find themselves similarly mistaken.
Chelsea re-signed the Serbian midfielder from Benfica for around £22 million on Wednesday—three years after they sold him to the same club for just £3 million.
Where Lampard is concerned, that’s neither here nor there, however. The club’s business dealings are not his concern, but what may cause him a few sleepless nights is where Matic’s return leaves his Stamford Bridge future.
Whereas Matic was a young upstart, the face of the next generation of Chelsea during his first spell, he arrives back in West London a changed man—a player all the better for his move to Portugal in 2011.
Back then Lampard remained the focal point of Chelsea’s midfield, but with aging legs and new trends in football, his influence has waned somewhat.
He remains a player of excellent quality, sure, but the days of the Englishman’s box-to-box displays are long behind him.
Indeed, with the emergence of Chelsea’s preferred 4-2-3-1 formation, the 35-year-old has been forced to adapt his game in the three years since we last saw Matic in a Chelsea shirt.
Sitting deeper, leaving those ahead of him to make the significant impact in front of goal, this isn’t the same Lampard Chelsea fans have adored for well over a decade.
Lampard still finds himself on the scoresheet, only it’s less frequently these days on account of his more defensive duties.
Having an embarrassment of riches in attack, Jose Mourinho hasn’t been so fortunate when it comes to his defensive midfield options.
Marco van Ginkel suffered serious injury early into his Chelsea career, while the likes of John Obi Mikel and Michael Essien haven’t shown they are capable of consistently protecting the Blues’ back line from the opposition’s threat.
Of all the combinations he’s rotated, the Lampard-Ramires pivot has served the Chelsea manager best. It’s when his team has looked most dangerous and when building from the back, most balanced. That said, it still hasn’t been the most ideal partnership, with both players not exactly a natural fit.
Which is where the perceived threat of Matic comes into the picture.
Mourinho hasn’t paid over £20 million for the 25-year-old to be warming the bench. His arrival is another part of the Portuguese’s development of this team, strengthening an area that was in desperate need of attention.
The talk is of Chelsea’s strikers not scoring the goals that will win them a championship. Well, Matic will help stop them at the other end, a fact that will be equally vital in deciding whether or not the Premier League trophy resides in West London come May.
So what does this all mean for Lampard?
With energetic displays of his own, Ramires looks the best option to partner Matic in this developing Chelsea midfield. The Brazilian operates in a way Lampard no longer can on a consistent basis, with Matic the man able to complement his attacking instincts by remaining disciplined with his defensive duties.
Far from bringing down the curtain on Lampard’s time at Chelsea, though, Matic’s arrival should help extend it.
It’s no coincidence that after eight appearances throughout December, 2013 ended with Lampard hobbling off at half time with a thigh injury against Liverpool on Dec. 29.
The manager had little choice given the other players at his disposal, but Mourinho had overplayed his midfielder.
It was a risk worth taking and in spite of Lampard’s injury, it’s one that paid off after he helped the Blues to record five wins in all competitions, most importantly maintaining their title challenge.
Now Matic’s presence will allow him to be rotated more effectively, protecting his body from the rigors of back-to-back matches at unrelenting times of the season.
It will also mean he can focus his attentions elsewhere on the pitch, namely getting forward and influencing Chelsea’s play in the opponent's half much more effectively.
We may see less of Lampard as a result, but Matic’s signing means we’ll see the best of him more often.
Garry Hayes is Bleacher Report's lead Chelsea correspondent and will be following the club from a London base throughout the 2013-14 season. Follow him on Twitter here @garryhayes