“They wanted to play too much.”
Frank Lampard was right. At Stamford Bridge on Saturday, his Chelsea side, buoyed by their work in the first half, decided to carry on as normal. To continue with the sharp passing that had progressed them up the field, stretching their opposition every which way. Though the perils of doing so were laid out to them with the concession of a goal on the cusp of half-time, the two goals they scored themselves made a compelling counter-argument.
Come 90 minutes – or rather, 92 – that approach had done them dirty. Jannik Vestergaard’s header had made it 3-3. Despite holding leads of 2-0 and 3-2, no win was forthcoming.
From Ralph Hasenhuttl’s point of view, things were quite the opposite. “The first half”, he said, “was far away from what we wanted.” And so, Southampton emerged from the break better organised and more combative in the Chelsea half: both equalisers coming through clinical pressing further up the pitch. To put it another way – Southampton began to play.
“I felt like we tried to make too many short passes in our own half, which gave them the possibility to win it back there,” said a disgruntled Lampard after the match. “The message was for the players to miss that out, I don’t think we did enough and that made it much more difficult for us to have the control that we did in the first half.”
The simple conclusion to arrived based on the limited evidence of this draw is that Hasenhuttl out-coached Lampard. When changes had to be made, only the Austrian was able to do so to alter the result. A simpler, perhaps slightly reductive conclusion is that Hasenhuttl is the superior manager.
Just because it is an easy theory to walk out, that does not necessarily make it wrong. A look at both squads makes a clearer path: Transfermarkt value Chelsea’s at £755m, while Southampton’s is just £197m. Despite the vast differences in resources, the teams are only split by a single point after five matches of this campaign.
Yet we know in our hearts that football is not that simple, even if our wandering minds tell us otherwise. We also know the challenges both face to put together something functional across 90 minutes, if not a season, are different because of "who" rather than "what" they have to work with.
Management requires encouragement, realism and, especially in this era of football, making players subservient to the method of the team. And you could argue that few since the start of the year have been able to wed all three as well as Hasenhuttl.
He successfully turned Southampton’s 2019/20 around, from 19th after 13 matches to 11th after 38, lifting that same group of players to greater heights. Not just by making them feel 10-feet tall but getting them to embrace a more cerebral side of their games. This is why they have been able to flourish in a 4-4-2 shorn of the formation's traditional belt and braces.
Even when Chelsea were having their run of things, Hasenhuttl was loudest on the touchline, bellowing encouragement like a proud father: exclaiming patronising “gooooood”s when Kyle Walker-Peters shifted inside with the ball to find options or Che Adams hurried another defender, as if they’d seen off their greens. Meanwhile, Lampard, especially in the second-half, bristled like the parent on an adjacent table wondering why his kids fall short despite such a moneyed education.
Lampard’s issues were not quite of his own making. He did warn his players of the incoming pressure in their own half, and even offered them judgement-free solutions of longer, agricultural balls down the ground. As he explained after the match: “If high pressure is coming, missing out the pressure is certainly a route. That was my biggest disappointment in the second half.”
That this was not heeded, he said, was not down to miscommunication but, in essence, down to the calibre of those receiving the warning. Ones who believed they had what it took to jink out of trouble.
They were not totally wrong: the third Chelsea goal which re-established the lead was the result of exactly this. The interplay between Timo Werner and Christian Pulisic, leading to the former cross to Kai Havertz who had pre-empted how the move would play out was one of the moves of the weekend. But, as they found out deep into injury time via a set-piece obtained after Southampton retrieved the ball in enemy territory, the occasions it works do not always offset the occasions it doesn’t.
Interestingly, Lampard’s main gripe was not simply that his instructions were ignored, but that the “superior” group did not work it out for themselves. “I‘m talking about game management. Sometimes the players have to gauge that as a top player.”
That last line is important. Because while Lampard is the beneficiary of a “former player privilege” to have the Chelsea job in the first place, a privilege countless before him have received and many more will continue to enjoy, he was once “a top player”. One who, ultimately, created his legacy by gauging what needed to be done and when.
Perhaps it's a side to him he should access more as a manager. After all, the 42-year-old’s career is one many under his watch will remember. With three league titles, a Champions League winner’s medal and 106 international caps – one they all will aspire to. If anyone can speak first-hand on the merits of adhering to a system, even if it requires you to play within yourself, and the success it can bring, it’s him. That is certainly something he has over the Austrian.
How effective a system Lampard is able to implement is a question that has been hanging over his head for the last 12 months. There remain doubts that he is the man to come up with an answer.
He’d do well to take cues from the man in the other dugout who seems more in control of his wares and, thus, more at peace. As Hasenhuttl said when finishing off the cheerier of the two press conferences: “If you have an idea, you have to be convinced it is the right one.”