Frank Lampard’s quest for balance has taken him to one of Russia’s southern outposts. Chelsea arrive in Krasnodar with a reputation as adventurers compromised by successive stalemates.
If cavalier attacking may have come at too great a cost, the shift towards solidity may have gone too far.
"I am least worried about the front end of the pitch with the players we have there," said Lampard after Sunday's 0-0 draw with Manchester United. Cautious tactics made it harder to accommodate them all.
That 3-4-3 formation left him with Christian Pulisic, Timo Werner and Kai Havertz, with Mason Mount joining Tammy Abraham and Hakim Ziyech on the bench.
Each came on and the last presents the most intriguing issue. If Pulisic, Werner and Havertz represent the A-list, where does that leave Ziyech?
The Moroccan appears a contradiction. He is the first summer signing, a man whose deal was announced in February but whose full debut may not arrive until November. After a knee injury and three cameos, a maiden start may beckon. "Hakim Ziyech is coming close to starting a game with his fitness," Lampard said.
He felt an example of forward planning when his move was announced, his £36 million ($46.9m) price seeming a bargain when it was announced, but before the impact of Covid-19 reduced prices.
Yet rewind to February and few thought Chelsea could get Werner or Havertz. The striker seemed bound for Liverpool. The attacking midfielder might be headed for Bayern Munich or Real Madrid. Roman Abramovich allowed Chelsea to spend when others could not and Chelsea instead poached the two Germans.
Yet had they the foresight to know they would become available, would they have signed Ziyech? The first recruit can feel the afterthought now. He has stated his preference is to play as a No 10, but that is Havertz’s favourite role, too. There is likelier to be a vacancy on the right.
It would be fitting if the chance comes in the Champions League. It is the competition that brought Ziyech to a wider audience and, indeed, provided his outstanding display to date at Stamford Bridge. So far, it defines him, and yet denied him the crowning glory.
Chelsea 0 Sevilla 0: player ratings
Rewind 17 months and he set up Donny van de Beek's semi-final goal against Tottenham. Ajax took a 1-0 lead back to Amsterdam and, when Ziyech put them 2-0 ahead on the night, they were 3-0 up on aggregate. Enter Lucas Moura, whose hat-trick was completed in the 96th minute. "Crazy," Ziyech recalled last week.
Which may have served as a description of his only start at Stamford Bridge. His in-swinging deliveries from the right led to two Ajax goals – one diverted into his own net by Kepa Arrizabalaga – but his side had two centre-backs sent off in the same passage of play and drew 4-4. It was little wonder he attracted Lampard's attention.
Since then, shinier and newer, younger and costlier players have caught Chelsea’s eye. Werner got 34 goals for Leipzig last season and Havertz 18 for Bayer Leverkusen, whereas the Dutch campaign was curtailed. Ziyech’s 21-goal, 16-assist year in 2018-19 thus feels like more distant history.
He faces competition from Mount, Lampard’s protégé, and each will suffer from the system, unless he reverts to 4-2-3-1, sacrificing a defender for a further attacker.
But only Angel di Maria, Kylian Mbappe and Robert Lewandowski registered more assists in last season’s Champions League than Ziyech and, whereas they played in the final, he did not feature after the group stages.
As Chelsea look to recapture their attacking edge, it could be an opportunity to see what a man whose European exploits propelled him to Stamford Bridge can do.