The frenetic football restart continues for Chelsea with a fourth game in 11 days away at West Ham tonight and Frank Lampard believes the prospect of facing his former club as a manager has a slightly different meaning for him compared to past meetings as a player.
The Blues have won just once on four previous visits to the London Stadium, having also been beaten by the Hammers at Stamford Bridge in the reverse fixture a long seven months ago, though Lampard had a good record against the east Londoners both individually and in terms of team results.
The lack of locals in the stadium will mean the boss is spared his usual welcome in E20 and he anticipates that will only help to sharpen his focus during another crucial contest. Chelsea are two points clear of Manchester United and Wolverhampton Wanderers in the fight for Champions League qualification, while David Moyes’s team have won just twice in the league in 2020 and sit outside the relegation zone courtesy of goal difference alone.
‘As a player, the hostility definitely pushed me on,’ Lampard reflected on previous visits to Upton Park, prior to West Ham’s move to the renamed Olympic Stadium. ‘I didn’t always score or always have the best of games, particularly when I was a bit younger, but it certainly pushed me on to try and perform as well as I could.
‘As a manger, I think my focus is different in terms of how I view and approach the game. It’s not about what I can individually do on the field. It’s more about how I prepare and organise the team to try and get the result because we’re in such a crucial period now.
‘West Ham are desperate for the points but so are we. I’m absolutely focused on that so taking the crowd away from it probably isolates my focus on the job in hand.’
Lampard’s in-game impact has been a topic of conversation since the restart, with Christian Pulisic coming off the bench to score in our first game back at Aston Villa before a triple half-time substitution in the FA Cup at the weekend prompted much-improved energy and performance levels from his team.
Ross Barkley was one of those introduced at Leicester and it took the midfielder a little over 15 minutes to net the only goal of a tight game. Such decisive action from a manager inevitably grabs attention, even though Lampard admitted in the aftermath of victory at the King Power Stadium that he could have made any number of alterations at the break.
Mason Mount was one of the trio to be replaced but Lampard has been quick to insist how important the 21-year-old remains to his plans, citing how he has relied on him throughout his first two seasons in management.
‘He played 90 minutes in the first two games of the restart,’ noted Lampard. ‘At Villa, he was incredibly lively with the ball, gave them a lot of problems going forward and was unfortunate not to score or have an assist.
‘Then the work ethic and quality he showed against Manchester City was also incredible in a team performance which was really good. He had two big performances in a week and at Leicester he didn’t have a bad performance, it was just a performance in line with the team.
‘My choices to change were more about the players I could bring into that performance as opposed to the ones that were on the pitch. I could have made a lot of changes in that game so it was more about bringing some energy into the team.
‘I rely on Mason a lot - I did at Derby and I do at Chelsea. He brings so much to the team with his work ethic, the way he can start the press from midfield and then obviously his quality on the ball, which is only going to get better and is already at a really high level. He works brilliantly every day and he knows how much I trust in him. I had to make a decision but it doesn’t affect my thinking for West Ham or going forward.’
That reliance is evident when looking at the season statistics, which show that Mount is the one Chelsea player to have featured in every Premier League game this campaign, with only captain Cesar Azpilicueta having clocked more minutes on the field than the Academy graduate.
If selected once again at West Ham, Mount will likely be up against his good friend Declan Rice in midfield. The two developed a strong and enduring friendship growing up in the Chelsea Academy, playing alongside each other in the same age group before Rice’s switch across the capital at the age of 14.
Now England international team-mates, there has been speculation of a reunion with Rice at club level in recent months, a subject addressed by Lampard in his press conference on Tuesday afternoon. For now though, friendships must be put to one side.
‘I think it spurs you on more if you have a personal relationship either way, whether you’re best friends or maybe don’t even like each other,’ Lampard said when assessing the impact of being friends or foes on the field.
‘They’re two very good young players. The only thing I ask from Mason is that he texts him beforehand, smiles at him in the tunnel or whatever it is but if and when they go up against each other, he has to try and beat him in every individual battle that he possibly can. Sensing Declan’s character, I think they’ll both be like-minded on that one.’
The two were photographed having a kickabout early on in lockdown, a mistake accepted and apologised for swiftly.
‘I had the shortest-ever conversation with Mason about that,’ revealed Lampard. ‘I saw him in a couple of places get compared to players that went out and partied or did different things like that but what Mason did was very innocently go out to kick a ball about. That’s so typical Mason with how he lives his life.
‘It was naive but wrong at the same time and he quickly held his hands up to that. He was pretty apologetic straight away that he’d got it wrong and we moved on.’
On the topic of lockdown, Lampard provided an insight into the type of reflection that he was able to have with football paused and no games to prepare for. Three wins from three since the restart indicate that his thinking time has paid dividends, though he insists now is not the time to get carried away.
‘I’m probably self-critical every day of the week, lockdown or no lockdown, because that’s how I am,’ he revealed. ‘Every training session I put on or team I pick or subs I make or press conferences I do, I try to unpick and wonder how I can do better next time.
‘In normal circumstances, you’re playing all the time and it’s very difficult to have a big reflection on a season or a patch of games because you’re always looking to the next one. When that was taken away slightly, there was more time to reflect on how we train, how we work, the things that are really important to us that we have to work even harder on.
‘I came into the job last summer and couldn’t make huge changes because of the transfer ban so there was always going to be a slight element to work against this season to get where we want to be. It was never going to be plain sailing so to reflect on that was a really positive thing for me as a manager and for us as a team.
‘I’m not going to get excited about three results meaning that my reflections and the reaction to it has been this great masterpiece of work. I’ll always keep reflecting and keep trying to improve going forward.
You rely on the buy-in from the players and they came back from the lockdown in really good shape with a really positive mentality, particularly once we got through phase one of training, which was slightly difficult to approach mentally for everybody because it was so new.
‘Once we got through that I felt a real steeliness within the group and they’ve shown that in week one. I hate to jump the gun because we’ve got so many tough games coming up that we must never think we’ve cracked it. The next five or six weeks are going to be huge for the club.’