After over a year of contract confusion, controversy, and injuries, Frank Lampard finally made his debut for NYCFC against the Montreal Impact last weekend. While his short cameo off the bench was far from his best performance (indeed, he had the lowest passing percentage of any NYCFC player in the game), it was an exciting moment for many NYC fans who had been waiting a very long time to see "Super Frank" on the pitch. Add to that the recent debut of the amazing Andrea Pirlo, and it's a very exciting time to be an NYCFC fan. So now that the Age of Lampard and Pirlo is upon us, the question must be asked: what exactly do they bring to the table, and where might they be best used to make the most of their talents?
The best way to answer this question is to look at the performances of Lampard and Pirlo in their most recent full seasons, at Manchester City and Juventus, respectively. For a bit of context, we will also look at two other big MLS central midfield signings in Steven Gerrard and Kaka, along with USMNT star and arguably the most well-rounded midfielder in MLS last season, Michael Bradley. To control for the differences in minutes played, we will focus on per-90-minutes statistics.
Defense - It's A Dirty Job But Someone Has To Do It
The first general sector of play in which we'll be evaluating the players is for defensive contributions. We will take a look at tackles (both won and lost), interceptions, fouls, and blocks. The reason I have chosen these particular metrics is because these are the quantifiable instances throughout the course of a game in which a player, and especially a midfield player, breaks up the play of their opponent and generally stops them from doing whatever it is that they are trying to do in attack. Some might argue that fouls committed are actually harmful since they lead to set pieces and potential scoring chances, and that would certainly be true for defenders, but since we are looking at midfielders, on average, they tend to do more good than harm. The same goes for tackles lost, which are tackles that do not result in the team regaining possession, but at least take the ball away from the feet of a dribbling opponent and stop them advancing. Add up those four categories and we get a metric I like to call "TFIB" and which is a good catch-all measure for the total defensive contributions by midfielders over the course of a game. Note that I have not included clearances, as it is usually the job of the defenders to commit those, and for midfielders it makes more sense to focus on just the categories in which they actually put up significant numbers.
Right off the bat, we see that both Pirlo and Lampard score very highly in TFIB per 90, with only Michael Bradley coming in ahead of them. More specifically, Lampard and Pirlo come in at numbers one and two, respectively, for tackles, and also score very highly for interceptions. It is only in the area of fouls per 90 that Michael Bradley has a significant advantage. Indeed, both Lampard and Pirlo both offer much more defensively than either Gerrard or Kaka, who tend to focus more on attacking than the other side of the game. That bodes very well for a team like NYCFC, whose porous defense needs all the shielding it can get.
Passing and Creativity - The Beautiful Game
So far we've seen that both Lampard and Pirlo are willing to put in a shift on the defensive side, and fight to win the ball back for their team when called upon. But what about after they get on the ball? How good are they at controlling the tempo of the game and creating chances for their teammates? Certainly, we've already seen Pirlo's genius when it comes to picking out a pass, but we'd love to see some data to figure out just how good he is (and if Lampard can keep up).
As we can see in the table above, of the five players being analyzed, Lampard and Pirlo are arguably the two best passers. Pirlo is hands down number one, as he leads in the categories of forward passes, total passes, pass accuracy, key passes (which are passes leading to a shot on target), and assists. The data verifies what our eyes have seen; Pirlo is a mad genius who creates high quality chances for his teammates at an absurd rate.
Notice, though, that Lampard is very good as well. He has the second highest number of total passes (behind Pirlo), and he does it without losing anything in the accuracy department compared to the other players. Yes, he is slightly lacking in key passes, but still managed have a solid number of assists per 90 minutes. But the thing that really jumps out is that he has the highest number of backward passes of all five players.
Some might argue that this is a bad thing, but veteran fans and veteran players will know that slowing the game down and keeping the ball is another excellent way to slow your opponent's momentum and stop them creating scoring opportunities.
Barcelona, and subsequently the Spanish National Team of the mid-2000s, are the best example of this; sometimes you don't have to defend if you can just keep the ball and slow the game down. For a team that has played a lot of insane 4-4 type games recently, adding a little stability and control to the midfield will probably be a good thing.
With Lampard and Pirlo in midfield, NYCFC have the necessary creativity to score a lot of goals, but they also have the veteran presence and skill on the ball to maintain possession when the game calls for that instead. And as we already saw, even if they do lose the ball, Lampard and Pirlo are both also very capable of getting it back.
Goals - What It's All About
The last general category we have left to look at is the area of shooting and goals, and our new boys in blue certainly do not disappoint here. If Pirlo is one of the best ever creators from the midfield, then in Lampard we have arguably the greatest ever scoring midfielder of all-time.
Consider the fact that only six times in Premier League history has a midfielder scored more than 20 goals in a season, and Lampard is five of those. Consider that he is fourth all-time on the Premier League goal scoring charts (and the highest midfielder) with 177 goals, and that the next best midfielder on the list is Gerrard, coming in at sixteenth with 120 goals. Consider that Lampard is the highest scoring Chelsea player of all-time, a club that has historically been known for its prolific strikers.
Lampard is truly a legend in the midfield goal-scoring department, but that would be worth nothing if he can't do it anymore. The majority of those stats are from his prime, when he was young man plying his trade for Chelsea; what about his most recent season?
Note that Steven Gerrard is considered a massive goal-scoring threat from midfield, but Lampard has him beat for total shots, shot accuracy, shots inside the area, and obviously goals per 90 minutes. Even better, Super Frank had more than twice as many shots per 90 minutes inside the area than Gerrard.
Even a nominally attacking player, like Kaka, who plays much higher up the pitch than Lampard, can't match Frank's productivity in either shooting or scoring. In fact, there are few players in the world who can; among all midfielders who played 1000 minutes or more last season in the EPL, Frank Lampard had the most goals per 90 of all of them.
Like Pirlo with passing, Lampard is by far the best of the bunch when it comes to putting the ball in the back of the net. The gap between Lampard and the rest of the players is even more stunning in a visual format:
Lampard literally towers over the other players in terms of goals per 90 minutes. Equally astonishing, to me at least, is the fact that he takes so many more shots than any of the other players, and still manages to have the highest shot accuracy (and by a wide margin at that). Pirlo, meanwhile, certainly holds his own, coming in at a very respectable 0.22 goal per 90 minutes, although none of his shots were taken from inside the box.
Great, Now What Does It All Mean for NYCFC?
Lampard and Pirlo together really are the complete package. In terms of attacking, there is not a single thing that either does poorly, and one of them is arguably the best midfielder in the MLS at creating while the other is arguably the best at finishing. In terms of the defensive side of the game, they are both very good at putting in a shift and shielding the back four. To me, this sounds like the perfect double pivot for a 4-2-3-1 formation (they'd be the "2" in that shape).
They can both sit deep and defend when they need to, and they can both control the tempo and maintain possession from the center of the pitch when the game calls for that. This shape would also have the benefit of freeing up Mix to use his energy to press the opponent into giving the ball away, and then use his speed and creativity to play as a more traditional number 10 in attack. And when the time comes to get forward and attack, Pirlo and Lampard work perfectly as a tactical unit for that too.
The best use of a double pivot is to have one player who stays further back and one player who bombs forward to join the attack (think of Nemanja Matic and Cesc Fabregas for Chelsea last season, or Fernando and Yaya Toure for Manchester City the season before that); this is in fact where the name "pivot" comes from.
Well, Pirlo is the obvious candidate to sit deep and play the quarterback, while Lampard can make a trademark bombing run forward into the box to blast it past the keeper. But perhaps best of all is that both players are so versatile that there are lots of ways that they can be used to great effect.
Fun times ahead for NYCFC!