Six months ago, Chelsea arrived in Munich for the second-leg of their Champions League round-of-16 tie against an unstoppable side in Bayern, who would eviscerate the Blues 4-1 on the day and go on to lift Europe’s top prize in Lisbon shortly after. For Lampard and Chelsea, there were few positives to take from what turned out to be a mere formality, besides an encouraging performance from youngster Callum Hudson-Odoi.
Chelsea’s first match of 2021, a 3-1 home defeat to Manchester City, provoked an eerily similar sentiment to that second-leg tie in Germany; a Chelsea team outplayed by better opposition culminating in embarrassment, with blushes only spared by an encouraging youth performance. So, does this stagnation merit the end of Lampard’s reign?
Frank Lampard’s appointment represented a shift amongst the hierarchy at Chelsea towards their managerial recruitment policy. With a season-long transfer ban in place along with the departure of one of the Premier League’s greatest players in Eden Hazard to Real Madrid, for once a manager could sit in the dugout at Chelsea without the ‘galactico-like’ expectations to win. Unlike past managers touted for their trophy successes or style of football, in the cases of Maurizio Sarri and Antonio Conte, Frank Lampard’s charismatic development of a young team during his one-year stint at Derby County seemed a good move for both Lampard and Chelsea.
Fans remarked at the refreshing sight of a manager who encouraged development of youth such as Billy Gilmour, Fikayo Tomori, Reece James, Tammy Abraham and most notably, Mason Mount – whom Lampard had managed during his season at Derby. Having these players feature in blue for incredible wins in Amsterdam, both red and white sides of North London and Wembley was a foreign feeling. This was especially significant to a club associated with the ‘anti-development’ stigma that had led Romelu Lukaku, Kevin de Bruyne and Mohamed Salah to all slip through their ranks.
It appeared Lampard had proven himself worthy of being trusted with investments for the long-term
But whilst a final day victory versus Wolves confirmed Chelsea’s place in Champions League for the current season, it was painfully apparent that Lampard’s project both needed and deserved investment for the relative success it had achieved. This came in the form of some of Europe’s most exciting players in Kai Havertz, Timo Werner and Hakim Ziyech along with a proven Premier League left-back in Ben Chilwell and the free transfer of Thiago Silva. Including Edouard Mendy, it brought the number of new additions to six, and with an outlay of over £200m it appeared Lampard had proven himself worthy of being trusted with investments for the long-term.
However, after the full time whistle blew at Stamford Bridge and the Blues trudged off with 4 defeats in their last 6, any lingering hopes of a potential title challenge felt long gone, with a 17-match unbeaten run firmly in the rear view mirror. Questions remain about whether the new stars are integrating well enough, with Lampard’s commitment to a 4-3-3 formation leading to doubts as to the viability of his system in getting the best out of his considerable attacking firepower.
For Lampard, this recent stagnation offers a cruel reminder of just how much work needs to be done at Chelsea
Teams are finding joy between the lines of Chelsea’s midfield and defence, and N’Golo Kanté, an established star, has found himself having a torrid time recently. Minor and major injuries to Hakim Ziyech, Ben Chilwell, Reece James and Andreas Christensen have all cost Chelsea recently in their lack of options going forward and defensive assuredness. The lack of a functional midfield is apparent, not helped by Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Ross Barkley both being sent out on loan.
For Lampard, this recent stagnation offers a cruel reminder of just how much work needs to be done at Chelsea, although, with the calibre of players at his disposal, there is no doubt that Chelsea will continue to push past inferior opposition as they have easily done so this year. But for the anticipated step-up towards challenging for the title, Lampard needs to establish a functional midfield that progresses the ball without completely exposing the defence. Pedro Neto’s winning goal versus the Blues at Molineux and De Bruyne’s goal in the recent loss were prime examples of the defence’s exposure to fast counter attacks, as they were left vulnerable with no protection provided by the midfield.
For Chelsea’s hierarchy however, whether Lampard deserves to be given the chance to take this team to the next level is another question. Whilst his appointment was a breath of fresh air, Lampard has the current lowest points per game of any Abramovich-era manager with 1.67, and as forementioned, limited credentials as a manager to back up belief in him.
Whilst his appointment was in the circumstances different to all the other managers, having outdone expectations and warranted the spending that most Chelsea managers are privy to receiving, he must now produce the results that others were sacked for not getting.
Frank Lampard’s situation represents the impossibility of managing the quintessential super club, in the constant battle between the commitment to a ‘process’, while not jeopardising the financial benefits that winning brings to a club. His situation seems to intuitively warrant a sacking, but as his appointment and current story show, Lampard is not like his predecessors, and should not be treated as such.