Frank Lampard cut a frustrated figure in the press room at Vicarage Road on Saturday night. Chelsea were leaving with three points, a club record seventh consecutive away win cementing their position in the top four. But he was not happy and you could understand why.
Despite dominating proceedings, only a late save from Kepa Arrizabalaga – the last act of the match – prevented opposition goalkeeper Ben Foster snatching a point for Watford. For all the sprightly play in the final third from Chelsea’s front four, here was another instance their lack of ruthlessness was laid bare.
Of course, there was also a VAR controversy to address: a seemingly inconsequential contact on the shin of Gerard Deulofeu re-refereed and awarded as a penalty which gave the hosts hope and subsequently a flattering 2-1 scoreline. This set Lampard off on what was a fairly dignified rant, though one imagines the silencer would have been off had it affected the result. However, his mood shifted considerably when commenting on Christian Pulisic’s goal to make it 2-0.
Ostensibly, it was as bland as they come: a ball squared across and tapped in from inside the six-yard box. The odds firmly stacked in the American’s favour – viral fodder had he somehow managed to miss.
But what Lampard was particularly enamoured by was the run that preceded it. As the play builds on the right, Pulisic pulls to the left, entering the box over the right shoulder of wing-back Daryl Janmaat before darting to the front post to nip in ahead of Christian Kabasele and convert from Tammy Abraham’s pass.
“It’s great to see Christian scoring a goal from four yards out,” beamed Lampard. “I love to see that because he could have decided not to go the extra mile and then that ball flashes across the face but nobody gets on the end of it. If he continues doing that sort of thing then the goals will rack up because there are a lot of goals to get in the six-yard box.”
It is inevitable that such a goal, a marriage of work rate and a poacher’s instinct, would elicit such feelings within the 41-year old. It’s what he did best.
Of Lampard’s 177 Premier League goals, 104 came from open play within the 18-yard box. The majority of those will have been as a result of arriving fashionably late. It was at Chelsea he developed an appreciation of timing: rarely stationary or checking his runs, and thus almost impossible to track.
The line at the end – “there are a lot of goals to get in the six-yard box” – felt at the time like a call to action. This was an area where he prospered and, since his retirement, very few have been back to feast on the fertile ground he exploited.
What you don’t see in Lampard’s statistics are the number of times he made a run into the box and wasn’t found. When a pass went awry or even ignored outright for another option. Or indeed when he did receive the ball and fluffed his lines. Over his career there will be countless occasions when these scenarios played out. More than enough to deter him.
But without constantly rolling the dice, there is a chance you won’t be around when your number comes up. Had Lampard entertained the futility of his actions, he would not be the highest-scoring midfielder in Premier League history.
Where has this kind of “gambling” gone, by the way? It seems every week a player is chastised for not putting himself in “you never know” positions. This week it was Marcus Rashford: Alan Shearer bemoaning the Manchester United forward for standing idly on the edge of the box as a hopeful shot from Scott McTominay was spilled by Bournemouth’s Aaron Ramsdale. Had he been more pro-active, United could have rescued a point.
Even the tail-end of Pulisic’s run – that dart in front of the defender to the near post - was a bit of a throwback. With fewer and fewer teams operating with two up top, moves such as cross-runs – where strikers shift positions on a call, with one peeling to the back post to create space for the other to nip in at the front – are a rarity. Fewer attacking players in the box, and with defensive shape naturally skewed towards where the ball is to be crossed from, it's easier to find space on the far side.
It’s why Lampard referred to this bit of the American’s movement as “the extra mile”. Of the eight players within eight yards of the Watford goal that the ball could have broken to when Abraham played it across, he was the only one in blue, and the only one who actively sought it.
This was Pulisic’s fourth goal for Chelsea and, with so much football to be played, he'll have the chance to improve on his previous season’s best of 11, for Borussia Dortmund last term. The first time he has registered double figures.
Of all his qualities, goalscoring ranks pretty far down on the list. But in a system with two sitting midfielders and supplementary forwards who prefer using space outside the box with the ball at their feet, being the player who can support Abraham by offering assistance in front of goal could be the £57 million signing’s unique selling point.
Pulisic certainly wouldn’t be the first person to remodel himself at the age of 21. And to do so now by embracing these forgotten arts, under the guidance of the one who utilised them best, feels like perfect timing.
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