Few members of the Chelsea squad could have been as thrilled to see illustrious centre midfielder Frank Lampard installed as head coach in summer 2019 as Mateo Kovacic and Jorginho.
Here was the opportunity to work intimately with a master of their position on a daily basis, ready to impart his footballing wisdom on two players who had been struggling to impose themselves on English football to that point.
You can imagine the scene as Lampard breezed through the doors at Cobham, with the reaction likely something akin to when Frodo wakes up in Minas Tirith’s Houses of Healing to be greeted by Gandalf and the whole Fellowship.
Sadly, the real world is not filled with such wonder and whimsy, and the Chelsea boss has been unable to work his magic on his central midfield cohort, leaving himself with a problem at what he will hope is the nadir of a sharp downturn in form; while his struggling attack has grabbed the headlines, the midfield is toiling too.
It feels like an age since Kovacic was named the Blues’ player of the 2019/20 campaign, with the Croatian falling victim to Lampard’s deployment of Mason Mount as a box-to-box centre midfielder this season, rather than an attacking midfielder or winger.
While Kovacic was the standout performer as a combative, all-action figure in Lampard’s debut season, he has looked a shadow of that player this time around, with him and Jorginho regularly trading places in the starting XI or both being benched for Kai Havertz.
His display in Chelsea’s latest and most egregious league defeat to Manchester City was particularly vapid, with Kovacic going astray sandwiched between N’Golo Kanté and Mount in midfield, failing to fulfil both his attacking and defensive duties as Chelsea looked blunt and City’s midfield had the freedom of west London; he failed to make a single tackle in his 77 minutes on the pitch, and only completed one of his trademark dribbles from deep.
Meanwhile, Jorginho is struggling to find any consistency in imposing his unique regista style on the Premier League, and despite decent showings against Brighton, Crystal Palace and – most recently – Aston Villa this season, his job share with Kovacic means he has been limited to ten league appearances, while his Croatian counterpart has 12.
With each passing matchday it is becoming clear that Lampard has no idea who the more effective option is alongside undoubted starters Kanté and Mount, with neither really fulfilling their purpose in the centre of the park.
That could and perhaps should lead him into the transfer window in January, and he already has his sights set upon the ideal solution to his quandary: Declan Rice.
Eyebrows were raised when Chelsea were linked with an £80m move for the 21-year-old – who was dumped by the Blues’ academy in 2013 – to complete their heavy spending in the summer, and while that fee remains extortionate, his form to this point means his true value is climbing gradually closer to that figure.
The attitude of Chelsea supporters at the time was one of ‘nice…but perhaps a tad frivolous after £200m spent’, with Havertz signed to likely play as one of the midfield three, Kovacic in fine fettle and Jorginho an above-average alternative; how times change.
Rice has excelled for West Ham this season, surmounting expectations exponentially after a fine campaign in 2019/20. He has progressed exactly as West Ham would have hoped, becoming an accomplished defensive-cum-box-to-box midfielder – which happens to be exactly what Chelsea are dearly lacking.
A quick comparison demonstrates the England international has outdone Jorginho and Kovacic in almost every department, although it should be noted he has played more than double the minutes of both the Chelsea men.
Defensively, Rice averages more tackles, interceptions, clearances and blocks – but that is perhaps predictable given his emergence as one of the finest defensive midfielders in the league. What is surprising, though, is that he has bettered Chelsea’s current midfield crop going forward, too.
Per WhoScored, the Hammers’ vice-captain averages 0.8 key passes per game and 1.1 successful dribbles, and he gets through more passes and crosses than the Chelsea pair, despite Jorginho’s reputation as a quality ball-player.
But beyond the statistics, his physique and stature mean he is far more capable of dominating the midfield in the Premier League than the more slight figures of Jorginho and Kovacic. He couples that physicality with a nice touch of aggression (something the tepid second half against City demonstrated Chelsea are in dire need of), unafraid to tussle with his opponents and fly into the odd tackle, even at the expense of a foul. It seems those attributes have been recognised by Lampard too, who is reportedly keen to use him at centre-back if he does get his man.
That all makes it even more painfully, painfully ironic that he was released by Chelsea’s academy eight years ago because of both his lack of physicality AND versatility (per The Athletic). Now it seems (at least) £80m will be the price to pay to right that wrong, and although it is unclear whether Rice is Lampard’s desire or the club’s, be it this month or in the summer, it is becoming increasingly clear that the Blues need to eat their words and cough up the cash.