Frank Lampard may allow himself a rueful smile, albeit only when the pain begins to ease. At another club, Chelsea’s latest ex-manager might have been granted more time; the means to pull out of the nosedive.
Look at Manchester United and Arsenal, where Ole Gunnar Solskjær and Mikel Arteta have seemed close to crashing and burning at various points. Solskjær appeared doomed after United’s 6-1 home defeat against Tottenham on October 4th while he continued to dice with disaster through November and into the early part of December.
Arteta’s horror period was more sustained, the moments of respite rather more sporadic. When his Arsenal team lost at Everton on December 19th, they had taken only five points from 10 Premier League games.
But United made it clear they would stand by Solskjær and Arsenal did the same with Arteta – the club’s chief executive, Vinai Venkatesham, going on the record with his support on December 12th, describing his manager as a “really, really powerful individual”.
Look at United and Solskjær now, sitting pretty on top of the table and, if Arteta has not completely turned it around at Arsenal, he has at least restored an upward trajectory with four wins and a draw in five league matches.
Lampard has similarities with Solskjær and Arteta. Like them, he was back at the club where he enjoyed success and adulation as a player. The trio are in the same age bracket and they are at early stages of their managerial careers, having taken elite jobs for the first time.
But Lampard always knew that the Chelsea of the Roman Abramovich era has a different culture when it comes to backing a manager through a crisis. As a player at the club, he lived through nine managerial changes in 13 years and each time and, indeed, on those that post-dated his first departure from Stamford Bridge in 2014, there would be no escape once the death roll had started; only silence from the top and a growing sense of inevitability.
It has to affect the players. Top-level professionals are used to constant pressure but when it is ratcheted up to this degree, it takes a particular type to be able to maintain performance. The disillusioned, meanwhile, might begin to think they could outlast the manager.
Lampard was finished on Tuesday of last week after the mess that was the 2-0 defeat at Leicester – his fifth reverse in eight league games – with sources expecting him to depart within 24 hours. That said, when he stayed put and took charge of Sunday’s FA Cup win over Luton, it did raise the prospect of him fighting on for a little longer.
It is strange to remember that Chelsea were third on the morning of December 12th and only two points off the top. The slide then began with the 1-0 loss at Everton but, when the board noted in the communication of Lampard’s sacking on Monday that the team was “without any clear path to sustained improvement”, they were looking at the bigger picture.
It showed this season that whenever Chelsea faced high-calibre opposition in the league, they either drew 0-0 or lost miserably. It showed that expensive signings were lacking direction and belief. And it showed an overall lack of positive collective identity. United and Arsenal could see the on-field structures that their managers were trying to put in place, even in the bad moments. Chelsea, whose directors are notoriously jittery whenever they feel that Champions League qualification is in jeopardy, could not.
Lampard has paid for the lack of progress, with expectations having been inflated by the £220m splurge on new signings last summer. It had felt as if Chelsea’s transfer ban in the summer of 2019 – when Lampard arrived – had offered him a bit of leeway.
This season, the pendulum swung the other way and the struggles of Timo Werner and Kai Havertz, in particular, who were bought for a combined £119.5m, were a large stick with which to beat Lampard. There was a weird symbolism in Werner’s 85th minute penalty miss against Luton, which was pretty much the last act under Lampard.
Recruitment, as ever at Chelsea, has been an issue. Did Lampard truly want so many new attacking options, with Hakim Ziyech added as well? It left him struggling to please a cast that also featured Callum Hudson-Odoi, Mason Mount, Christian Pulisic, Tammy Abraham and Olivier Giroud. The squad was similarly bloated in other areas, including central defence where Lampard’s decision to freeze out Antonio Rüdiger at the start of the season created friction.
There were times, especially in recent weeks, when Lampard was overwhelmed by frustration at the basic errors of various players and he called them out publicly.
It is well-documented that he built his career as a midfielder on a ferocious desire to prove people wrong, to use criticism as a spur and he would argue that his players ought to be able to deal with a few home truths from him. And yet there was the nagging suspicion that he strayed too close to laying the blame for Chelsea’s slump at the feet of his squad, which is a risky business in modern football with the egos involved.
Where Lampard succeeded was last season, in finishing fourth to secure Champions League qualification; in a number of impressive wins – most notably the two over José Mourinho’s Spurs and the one over Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City – and in blooding a clutch of young players, showing that there can be a pathway from the academy to the first team. Mount was the biggest success story, with Reece James and Abraham close behind.
Around it all was something intangible – the connection that Lampard restored between the club and the match-going fans. After the stodge of Maurizio Sarri’s tenure, supporters actually enjoyed going to Stamford Bridge again and they badly wanted Lampard to do well.
In the end, there is the impression that Lampard was merely the latest interchangeable piece of the Chelsea puzzle. He could not say no to the opportunity, even if he had been mindful of his lack of managerial experience – what would that have said about his boldness?
Had Lampard won trophies, it would have been impossibly sweet for Chelsea but now it is on to the next thing in the shape of Thomas Tuchel. This is a club where creative tension around the manager is worn like a badge of honour and considered to be a driver for the honours under Abramovich. Nobody knows what patience and greater stability could bring.