After some wild swings over the past few weeks, and matches that went in all manner of directions, Saturday’s meeting at Old Trafford comes down to one single question: will Frank Lampard go for it against Manchester United? Will he play into their feet?
It is certainly the Chelsea manager who has much more to ponder. For Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, everything suddenly feels much more simple.
He doesn’t have so much weighing on his mind. The hugely impressive victory over Paris Saint-Germain, to build on that 4-1 victory over Newcastle United, was exactly what he needed to restore confidence among a group of players that do like him.
The “malaise” among the squad from only a week ago has evaporated, replaced by good feeling. The 6-1 defeat by Tottenham Hotspur feels so distant. There’s now a sense of momentum, after just two matches.
That’s kind of been the nature of this season, where it feels entire perceptions are reset on an almost weekly basis.
Some of this good feeling has also resulted from the nature of the win over PSG. It does feel like it suits Solskjaer more to be able to set up against a team, and adapt to them, rather than take an approach to them. Virtually all of his best performances have come from such situations.
This isn’t to say it’s backs-to-the-wall or smash-and-grab. There are a spectrum of reactive approaches. This was a controlled and cleverly contained gameplan, where Solskjaer pushed when he needed to. The Norwegian has many flaws as a manager, but his knack for reading these games and adapting to them is one of his qualities. A classic example here came with Paul Pogba. Having taken the strong decision to leave him on the bench, Solskjaer then introduced the midfielder just when United were losing their initiative, with that helping to turn the game.
His game management in these circumstances is good, and he has so far shown himself much more adept at it than Lampard.
The Chelsea manager had actually discussed this with his players before his side’s own 0-0 draw with Sevilla. It was one of the main topics of his team talk, even more than keeping tight defensively, since this is what is supposed to help keep tight defensively. And yet it still feels like Lampard is figuring out himself. This draw displayed another issue that the Chelsea manager has to solve, that may actually serve as his central issue. He has to figure out the right balance for this team.
It still feels like Chelsea are too porous at the back when he goes attacking, but too constrained in attack when he tries to shore it up. It is like it is only ever one or the other: entertaining chaos or relatively dull control.
In that, he is also the opposite to Solskjaer in some ways. Lampard’s instinct is to be proactive. This is the way he fundamentally looks to set up. Solskjaer may say he wants to be proactive, but his best successes have come when he can be reactive.
It’s hard not to think United will fall into that pattern this Saturday, and that could well mean the game falls into their hands - depending on what Lampard does.
Going out against United may be how the Chelsea manager wants to play, but it looks exactly the wrong approach against a team that have just enjoyed such a transformative result. There’s also the fact Solskjaer got so many results against Lampard last season through exactly this - that was, until the last time.
Chelsea offered their own more controlled, contained approach in the FA Cup semi-final, and it served to frustrate United, and not allow those outlets.
It will be instructive to see whether Lampard goes for something similar again, or gives in to instinct and that array of attacking talent.
Then again, the nature of both their seasons - and the 2020/21 campaign as a whole - has been those wild and unexpected swings. It would be entirely in-keeping if this saw another.