As the top-scoring midfielder in Premier League history, Frank Lampard was always part of an exceptionally rare breed.
But as the Chelsea legend celebrates his 39th Birthday today, five months after his retirement, the change in how midfielders of his unique type are valued in the Premier League has become staggeringly evident.
Indeed, once a defining feature of English football alongside his Liverpudlian arch-rival Steven Gerrard and later Manchester City’s powerhouse Yaya Toure, the last few seasons in Lampard’s absence have witnessed the death of the goalscoring midfielder in the Premier League.
2013/14 was far from a stellar season for Lampard, finishing up with his first non-double-digits return across all competitions for a decade and just six goals in the Premier League – his worst haul since 2002/03, the season before Claudio Ranieri made him the beating heart of the Chelsea first team. It ended with his departure from Stamford Bridge after 13 years and subsequently his retirement from England duty after the World Cup in Brazil, signalling the Premier League great’s inevitable decline.
Yet, throughout the Premier League, that season epitomised how important goalscoring midfielders like Lampard truly were. Arsenal finished fourth with Aaron Ramsey netting ten, Chelsea finished third with Lampard netting six, Liverpool finished second with Gerrard netting 13 and City clinched the title with Yaya Toure providing 20.
Back then, 4-3-3 or variations of ruled supreme over the Premier League. Even Liverpool’s diamond formation was essentially a nomadic three-man front-line that fluidly changed structure, backed up by a sturdier three-man midfield that protected Gerrard in a deeper role. Accordingly, goalscoring midfielders were vital to support the lone striker, making late runs to latch onto loose balls and drill them into the net – something Lampard had done to unprecedented success for much of his career – or quite simply, blast goals from long range. They were, by design, the secondary goal threat.
That season, goalscoring impact from midfield was at a seven-season high, representing the peak of a three-year rise prior and a three-year decline since. As our infographic shows, 353 goals were scored from either attacking midfield, central midfield or defensive midfield positions, representing a staggering 34% of all Premier League goals – some going when two Premier League clubs, Liverpool and City, netted over 100 strikes for the first time in the competition’s history.
Likewise, 2013/14 saw the second-most different goalscorers from those positions during the last seven years, the highest individual return from those positions (Toure with 20), the most long-range goals and the second-most players to hit double figures, three. It was the absolute pinnacle of midfield goalscorer prowess, showing not only how important those players were but secondly how teams set up in a way to consistently create opportunities for them to find the net.
Since then, the percentage of Premier League goals scored from players lining up as part of the central engine room has dropped with nearly every season, levelling out at 30% over 2015/16 and 2016/17. Likewise, the number of goals from attacking, central or defensive midfield scored from outside the penalty area has almost halved, and the number of different goalscorers has reached its second-lowest in seven years.
The real saving grace has been the only player currently in the Premier League who can truly hold a candle to Lampard’s midfield netting prowess – Tottenham Hotspur’s dazzling 21-year-old Dele Alli, who finished last season with 18 goals. Yet, whether he’s actually scored his goals from midfield this season is another debate within itself, one which gives an invaluable insight into how goalscoring midfielders have seemingly disappeared in such a short space of time.
No question, Alli arrived at Tottenham as a midfielder and throughout his first season emerged as an increasingly vital part of Mauricio Pochettino’s engine room. But 2016/17 saw his role change, moving him from the tip of the midfield to part of the attack as 3-4-3 began to take the Premier League by storm. Every club in the top six utilised 3-4-3 at some point last season, including Jose Mourinho who once made 4-3-3 notorious and Arsene Wenger who hadn’t used a three-man defence since his first season at Arsenal.
Whether Alli’s new role counts as an inside forward or an attacking midfielder is a matter of interpretation, but it’s certainly true that the England international found himself more consistently in goalscoring positions last season, usually inside the penalty area, and that he made a far more proactive effort to run off Harry Kane rather than link up with the midfielders behind him.
Deeper midfielders, meanwhile, have become more restrained. The presence of just two instead of three in the engine room requires both midfielders to put in their shifts defensively and possess the natural athleticism and power to do so. Not only are they therefore often more defensive players by trade – such as N’Golo Kante and Nemanja Matic at Chelsea – but they’re also tasked with holding shape rather than bursting forward, which would leave just one midfielder to protect a three-man defence on the counter.
Whereas Chelsea’s midfield was structured to let Lampard roam with two men covering and push up behind the striker, usually Didier Drogba, but he was still considered him to be part of the engine room, the separate roles have now become much sparser. You’re either one of the two holding, often in deeper positions than the wing-backs, or at the very most operating as an industrious box-to-box, or you’re part of the attack in channels either side of the striker.
Of course, 3-4-3 may simply be a fad that peters out over the next few seasons, although it appears to be a natural response to the lone front-man, leaving three to mark him instead of four and therefore freeing up a body further forward.
But it does force a consideration of how Lampard, Gerrard and Toure would be utilised and interpreted if they were coming to fore now amid the Premier League’s current tactical climate. Would they be dynamic, midfield goalscorers bursting from the engine room onto loose balls and knockdowns, or would they be playing either side of the striker, like Alli, using their netting prowess in slightly different capacities?
Either way, 3-4-3 is leaving the traditional midfield goalscorer behind. Lampard, Gerrard and Toure may soon prove to be the last of their breed.