As January rolls into town, Chelsea are midway through their annual end-of-year tradition of handing out points to those who need it most and with that comes the inevitable rise of the “*Insert Manager Here* Out” brigade, singing festive hymns of reactionary takes and short term solutions. It is, of course, no surprise, that here at the start of January, as Chelsea sits on 1 win in their last 6, the fanbase appears very much divided on whether Frank Lampard is the right man for the job. This annual furore has been fuelled largely by a Chelsea model that has seen ruthless decision making deliver instant success. None more so than the removal of Andre Villas-Boas in March 2011, replaced by Roberto Di Matteo who then delivered the club its first Champions League trophy. History somewhat repeated itself the very next year when Di Matteo’s reign was cut short in November 2012, replaced by Rafa Benitez who guided the club to its first Europa League triumph. Therefore, it is no surprise that many fans are calling for change, however there is much more at stake this time around.
Chelsea, for the longest time, has been stuck in an internal conflict between the pragmatic style that delivered them success under managers like Mourinho and Conte and a desire to become a more expansive and expressive side, as seen with the short-lived appointments of Sarri and Scolari. This struggle between the two polarising approaches has seen the club frequently throw away long term planning for a chance at instant success. The trophies continued to pile up, however, the foundations they were built upon were seemingly growing weaker with every annual switch in philosophy. The prime example of this being the well-reported casualties of the 14/15 Premier League title win in Kevin De Bruyne, Romelu Lukaku and Mo Salah (what are they up to these days, anyway??).
Those 3 players weren’t the only casualties of course. Promising youth players were farmed out before getting a sniff of the first team, squad players were signed for large fees and wages before immediately being deemed surplus to requirement and squads were ultimately left consisting of players who rarely matched the desired style of the incoming coach. On reflection, it shouldn’t be overly surprising that a squad built by Jose Mourinho struggled under the tutelage of Scolari, yet flourished under the more pragmatic Guus Hiddink. We all watched in bemusement as Frank De Boer and Marco Silva struggled to turn teams previously managed by Sam Allardyce into free-flowing attacking units, yet Chelsea has been equally as guilty. Managers, like players, frequently require the right environment and tools to flourish and whilst not free from blame (looking at you, AVB), the club has to take the lions share of responsibility.
So what’s different now? Well as with most things in football, money talks, and despite a transfer ban supported spending spree last summer, Chelsea quite simply cannot afford to think in the short term anymore as any major missteps could set the club back years, as we’ve seen in recent history with both Manchester United and Arsenal. The club’s hand has been forced to make a shift in philosophy that whilst desired for a long time, has never been committed to. The difficulty now is that such a transition is not being made from a position of power. Chelsea does not have the financial superiority they once had and success has dipped in recent years as Liverpool and Manchester City have continued to advance.
This shift in focus, arguably the biggest transitional phase since Roman first purchased the club in 2003, calls into question what the expectations of Lampard should be. Do we judge him on performances and results as we’ve done for those before him, or do we judge him on the long term progression of the club? The answer, as it often is, is somewhere in the middle. Whilst the immediate results have been inconsistent and at times frustrating, we cannot lose sight of the framework that is being built within the club to ensure long-term stability and success. Rome wasn’t built in a day, it took Klopp 4 years to make Liverpool competitive and despite City building for Guardiola’s arrival years in advance, instant success still wasn’t achieved there either. Additionally, you only need to look at the other side of Manchester to realise that money spent isn’t a guarantee of success.
With that said, both Klopp and Guardiola are two managers who between them boasted 27 trophies before moving to the Premier League and were widely regarded to be two of the best managers world football. Their experience, whilst increasing initial expectations, provided confidence to fans and the board alike that even in moments of inconsistency, they had the ability to deliver long term success. This is where Frank Lampard, despite 14 trophies as a player, is at a disadvantage. In only his third year in management, the minimal experience and relative lack of success makes it incredibly difficult to make a definitive call on whether Lampard can deliver the success that Chelsea, sooner rather than later, will demand.
Even the most die-hard fans of Lampard would not try and convince you that his appointment in July 2019 was primarily driven by his performance as Derby manager. Chelsea at the time was a club that required structure and direction following the fallout of Antonio Conte and the divisive season that followed under Sarri. Without a doubt, the high pressing, possession-oriented football he played at Derby would have helped his cause but the club required more than just a tactical shake-up, this was a team that had been accused by the last 3 managers of lacking motivation and an elite mentality. Lampard inherited a squad that perfectly summarised the mismanagement of seasons past, a combination of players signed for the conservative football of Mourinho and Conte, a limited, possession-based midfielder in Jorginho and a seemingly never-ending list of squad players from the past, returning from their 10th loan spell. However, unlike Sarri before him, Lampard had to continue the transition to a more expansive style of play without Eden Hazard, a man who had been involved in 49.1% of Chelsea’s goals the season before and who’s individual brilliance frequently masked the declining quality in the squad around him.
What Lampard did, however, is something that no manager under Abramovic has done before, utilising the resources already at the club within the academy to revolutionise the squad. Many managers in the past spoke positively of the youth but opportunities for the players were limited to little more than cameos in dead rubbers, such as Mourinho’s “Academy Day” which saw Ruben Loftus Cheek get an 8-minute outing in a game of zero consequence. Many will say Lampard’s hand was forced by the transfer ban however the immediate and consistent use of Mount (2nd highest at 3,741 minutes), Abraham (8th highest at 2,960 minutes), James (9th highest at 2,386), Tomori (15th highest at 1,868) and to a lesser extent Hudson Odoi (1,472) and Gilmour (508 minutes), over their more experienced counterparts, was a decision made out of choice rather than necessity.
The benefit of Lampard’s brave selections has also had a substantial impact on the club’s financial situation and transfer strategy. Given the emergence of the previously named youth players, there was no need to sign squad players and instead, the transfer funds went solely into players who improve the starting line up, with 6 of the 7 first team acquisitions this summer slotting in as regular starters. In addition to this, rather than a squad filled with squad players on inflated wages who may be hard to move on, the squad now largely consists of assets that are consistently growing in value, so much so that Hudson-Odoi was subject to a bid in excess of £70m last summer. This is a stark contrast to the summer of 2017 where the club signed Davide Zappacosta, Emerson and Danny Drinkwater for £74m (excluding wages) in return for a combined 74 Premier League starts at the time of writing. That very same summer, the club sold Nathan Ake, Nathaniel Chalobah and Ola Aina for a combined £34.9m.
Additionally, by Lampard’s own admission, there is still work to be done with the squad, particularly when it comes to outgoings. The impact of Covid-19 on the transfer market has meant that the club has struggled to offload players, preferring to hold onto them instead of taking a financial hit with a reduced selling fee. As such, the squad whilst deep in numbers, is not necessarily deep in quality with injuries to key personnel such as Hakim Ziyech often resulting in wholesale tactical changes due to a lack of alternatives with similar skill sets (see @CFCParee’s article on squad depth for more detail on this here).
Despite the incredible progress made off the field, results in the 2020-2021 have been inconsistent at best with the most recent, a 3-1 humbling defeat at home against Manchester City, calling into question whether Lampard has taken Chelsea as far as he can. As previously alluded to, in years gone by, such a run of results would have seen a change of manager made as fears grew of falling further behind. Lampard himself will know this all to well having seen the likes of Mourinho (twice) and Di Matteo removed from their duties despite their legendary status at the club. However, unlike the aforementioned replacements, the decision to stick or twist runs deeper than just changing the coach, the entire framework that has been put in place must be considered.
It is crucial that fans, and more importantly the board, do not lose sight of what Lampard’s appointment meant for the club. This was a man who lived and breathed Chelsea throughout his 648 games for the club, a man who understood what it meant to be Chelsea and immediately brought unity and excitement to a fanbase that had been divided by the previous seasons. Within a year, the long desired pathway between the academy and first-team squad was established, reducing the temptation to look at the market for squad player and his vision was so appealing that the club were able to sign a number of the most sought after players in the world, something they had struggled to do in seasons past.
There is perhaps merit to the argument that Lampard’s tenure is more akin to Ranieri’s than Mourinho’s, overseeing a successful rebuild of the squad and ultimately setting up someone with more experience to elevate them to the next level, however the decision over whether to replace him is far more complex than simply identifying if a subjectively ‘better’ coach is available. Whereas previously the club would do their best (not always successfully) to match the style of the incoming coach, now the coach must match the style of the club. It quite simply is no longer enough for a manager to join the club with a track record of success, they must continue the progression to the expansive side that Chelsea are becoming, they must share the invested interest in continuing the pathway from the academy and resist the urge to move in the transfer market for anything other than elite players. Failure to make the right call will not only see Chelsea lose a manager who has the best interests in the long term stability of the club, but also the progress that he, and everyone else at the club, have worked so hard to achieve over the last 18 months.
Regardless of the decision that the board make, what is clear is that Lampard, as he did as a player, will leave the club in a much better position than when he joined it.