When Frank Lampard was sacked after a rollercoaster 18 months in charge of Chelsea in January 2021, no one could have predicted that the club’s record scorer would be called upon to take up the managerial reigns again just over two years later. However bizarre the fan favourite’s return may seem, it pales in comparison to the events that led us to this point, including: a European Cup triumph, a record £600 million spent in two transfer windows and the small matter of the club almost ceasing to exist following government sanctions. With Lampard back at the helm for at least another 10 games, the question many are asking is what he must achieve in his second spell for it to be considered a success. The answer is that there is no answer. At least not definitively. This article will focus on the three main schools of thought that could prevail when it comes to evaluating Lampard’s temporary spell in charge.
1) Win Now:
Regardless of what he says in the press, there is no doubt that Lampard craves this job on a permanent basis, and what better way to secure his future than winning the club’s third Champions League title and overseeing a late surge domestically out of the doldrums of mid-table? This is purely hypothetical, and the enormous scale of the task at hand has been laid bare by the insipid defeat at Wolves last Saturday, but it is still something that the manager can aim for.
Traditionally a ‘win-now’ manager would turn to older players, putting youth development on the back burner as all sights are set on immediate success. Some older players with ‘big game experience’ that Lampard may lean on include Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Cesar Azpilicueta and Kalidou Koulibaly – all of whom may depart the club in the summer.
Many in the media were left questioning Potter’s decision to freeze out goal-getter Aubameyang, preferring the hapless Havertz in the number 9 position instead. With Chelsea (29) currently being outscored by Haaland (30) in the league this season – yes that statistic is correct! – Lampard may turn to a traditional centre forward to solve the goal scoring issue, and who better than the man he yearned for in the summer transfer window of 2020? In Lampard’s first game bac at Wolves, Aubameyang came off the bench and picked up a couple of dangerous positions (a blocked header and a blocked shot from a cut-back) which may encourage Lampard to call on his dangerous runs and eye for goal down the home stretch of the season.
Azpilicueta was often selected by Lampard during his first spell at the club. With Reece James now arguably the most gifted right back in Europe, Lampard may opt to play Azpilicueta on the right of a back 3, as he did for big away games previously. Koulibaly has failed to impress on the back of his big money summer move, but the veteran is better suited to the slower, continental style of play in the Champions League, and Lampard may decide to select him in a back four or on the left of a back three.
A whole host of younger players would be impacted by these selections: Havertz (23 years old), Badiashille (22) and Chalobah (23) to name a few. None of these players are the finished article, and with the exception of Havertz, none of them have the wealth of European experience that Lampard may desire.
This mindset is further complicated by Chelsea’s two loan signings – Joao Felix and Denis Zakaria. Unless Chelsea want to spend up to £120 million on the former (who signed a new long-term deal at parent club Atletico Madrid before departing for English shores) and around £25 million for the injury prone Zakaria, the two players will be heading into their final two months at the club. With an abundance of young talent competing for starting places, a long-term focus would likely involve reducing game time for the loanees. That would lead to more minutes for Noni Madueke and Mykhailo Mudryk in place of Felix, and increased opportunities for Carney Chukwuemeka and Conor Gallagher over Zakaria.
However, if Lampard feels that Zakaria is the defensive midfielder he needs to free up Enzo Fernandez and N’Golo Kanté to form a cohesive midfield three in his preferred 4-3-3 formation, then Chukwuemeka may be a casualty. Likewise, if Lampard opts for Felix’s ball progression and shot volume – not to mention his experience of playing Champions League quarter final opponents Real Madrid – over the direct dribbling and pace of Madueke and Mudryk, he may feel that he can justify it by claiming that it increases his side’s chance of victory.
In conclusion, this short-term focus from Lampard could prove to be a huge risk. The last thing the manager for next season (whether that is Lampard or not) needs is for expensive signings such as Mudryk to be left on the periphery of a bloated squad whilst still needing time to adjust to the league as his minutes were given to a player who likely won’t be donning Chelsea blue next season. Lampard may feel a shot at Champions League glory is worth the short-term approach, regardless of how it affects this side’s future, but if the Blues are left trophy-less and behind the likes of Fulham and Brentford in the league standings, this would be seen as a massive failure.
2) Lay the foundations for the future
If you couple Lampard’s interim status with the fact that this season, bar an unlikely Champions League run, is looking likely to be a write-off, then it could be argued that the Englishman’s focus should be placed on leaving Chelsea in the best place possible for whoever takes over long-term this summer. He could even impress the new ownership enough with his integration of youth, expansive style, and a winning record in the next couple of months to convince them to give him the job long-term.
Lampard’s first spell in charge at Chelsea is remembered for his blooding in of youngsters post-transfer embargo. Mason Mount, Tammy Abraham, Reece James, Fikayo Tomori and Callum Hudson-Odoi all became key components of the squad, whilst Billy Gilmour was also given chances to impress.
Lampard’s commitment to giving Cobham’s finest a chance to star in the first team led to a belief that academy players could finally dream of becoming integral components of the side, rather than being sent on a conveyor-belt of loans before inevitably departing (as had been the norm in the Abramovich era).
The long-lasting effects of Lampard’s approach are still clear to see today. Mount and James have become two of the side’s most important players, Abraham and Tomori have netted the club around £60 million in transfer fees, and players such as Trevoh Chalobah, Lewis Hall and Omari Hutchinson have continued the pattern of transitioning from academy to first team post-Lampard’s sacking.
January’s transfer splurge of £323 million (as per ESPN) was largely focussed on recruiting young players – with the age profile of the Cobham graduates previously leaned on by Lampard – on long-term, low-cost contracts. Fernandez, Mudryk, Madueke and Badiashille were purchased with the intention of immediately being integrated into the first team, whilst David Dato Fofana, Andrey Santos and Malo Gusto were signed with one eye on the future, in keeping with the Cesare Casadei and Omari Hutchinson deals in the summer window.
There has, however, been immediate debate as to whether Graham Potter was integral in making many of these signings or whether Boehly and the new sporting directors – Christopher Vivell, Laurence Stewart and Paul Winstanley – were the driving voice in discussions. This argument is backed up by the lack of league minutes afforded to Mudryk (354 minutes), Madueke (216) and summer signing Carney Chukwuemeka (224).
Compare these gametimes to ever-present loanee Joao Felix – 764 minutes despite a 3-game ban for a debut red card – and it is clear to see that none of the players have had the opportunities that their incredible talent demands. Chukwuemeka, for example, signed on the promise of increased game time (and a huge wage hike!) following his frustration at a lack of consistent Premier League action at Aston Villa. Mudryk, Madueke and Chukwuemeka are a trio of some of Europe’s most exciting young players, yet their contribution so far does not reflect that.
A common gripe of Graham Potter’s tenure was that the side did not play with enough pace. Enter Mudryk and Madueke. The former has been clocked as the fastest player in both the Champions League (36.6km/hour) and Premier League (36.63km/hour), and the latter was known for his electric pace and dribbling prowess at previous club PSV. Given the dire recent form of Sterling (1 league goal in 2023) and Felix (2), it would seem a prime opportunity for Lampard to give the two January recruits a consistent chance in the starting side, if only to bed them in before the new season.
Throw in the fact that Pulisic and Ziyech – two players very much surplus to requirements who will have to leave this summer if Chelsea are to meet Financial Fair Play (FFP) rules – have been given starts and minutes off the bench ahead of the duo and it is easy to see why they might be frustrated at a lack of gametime. Lampard could be the man to unleash two raw but hungry, exciting prospects on Premier League defences before the end of the campaign.
Thomas Tuchel (remember him?), Graham Potter and now Frank Lampard have all publicly flattered Chukwuemeka in the press and yet the incredibly talented 19-year-old has started just once. The midfielder’s tall, powerful frame and quick feet combine to make him the ultimate box-to-box midfielder, capable of carrying the ball forward at pace, making intelligent final passes and arriving late in the box to fire shots at goal. Chukwuemeka revealed that Lampard was his hero growing up, so who better than the best goalscoring midfielder in Premier League history to mould the former Villa man into a prolific player ready to solve Chelsea’s midfield problem next season?
3) Appease an angry fanbase
This season has been an unmitigated disaster for a board keen on winning over the hearts and minds of a fanbase still yearning for the success of the Abramovich owner. The Clearlake consortium’s £4.25 billion acquisition of the club may have been the most dramatic takeover in history, with the government sanctioning Chelsea due to Abramovich’s links to Putin, and whilst many fans were glad to see the club alive and well coming into this season, many demanded instant success. Sitting 11th in the league after 30 games and having been knocked out in the third round of both domestic cups (albeit away to Manchester City on both occasions!) – this was hardly the season that this faction of supporters were hoping for!
Boehly and Eghbali paid a reported £21.5 million to release Potter and his staff from their contracts at Brighton, handing out 5-year deals to all of them. This was a show of faith, and was evidence to back up the pairs’ claim of a long-term focus at the club to replace the hire-and-fire years of the Abramovich reign. Few could have predicted then that the duo would sack Potter before the season’s end – not even their infamous predecessor dismissed two managers in a single campaign before! In an attempt to avoid a two-month drift into the summer, Lampard was appointed, not only to reignite some passion in the playing squad, but also to revitalise the match-going fans, many of whom had turned on Potter by his final game.
Lampard is a figure who is unanimously loved by the Stamford Bridge regulars, the majority of whom would have been devastated when he was sacked first time round – particularly as COVID-19 limited capacity to support Lampard’s side during the slump that led to his sacking. This very much feels like a way for Lampard to claim the plaudits and love from the fans that he was denied first time around, and no doubt his return to the Bridge next weekend will be met by raucous support and a huge fan-led tribute.
This feel-good factor could help temporarily distract the fans from the horrendous season that has passed, buying Boehly and co time to cut the bloated squad of 33 players, sanction the signings of a number 9, a defensive midfielder and perhaps a goalkeeper, as well as a permanent manager, before the side begin another campaign.
Finally, and potentially most importantly, this appointment could persuade one of Chelsea’s key players to commit their future to the club. Mason Mount has been in talks over a new contract to reflect his level of importance in the squad – his current £90,000 per week is less than what 19-year-old Chukwuemeka makes – for months now, and according to The Athletic these talks have reached a stale mate. With his contract expiring next summer, Mount must either renew or face being sold from his boyhood club this summer.
Mount has struggled for form this season, his 5 goal contributions in the league so far are dwarfed by his 21 last time out. This is partly due to injury, but it also seems that the incredibly heavy burden of playing week-in-week-out, on top of the idiotic online abuse he receives constantly, have finally taken their toll. Mount was confident that a strong World Cup showing would encourage Chelsea to offer him better terms, however, following a positive showing against Iran, Mount struggled and ended up on the bench. This slump in form has come at the worst possible time for him, and so Lampard’s reappointment may have been exactly what Mount needs to reenergise his campaign and demonstrate his immense value to the squad.
Ever since contributing 13 league goals for Derby in Lampard’s debut managerial season, Mount has become almost synonymous with the manager, which has become a stick to beat him with online. 12 goal contributions in his debut Premier League followed, a hugely impressive figure for a 21-year-old often playing outside of his natural position on the right-hand side of attack.
No manager since has been able to get the same quality of performance or production from Mount as Lampard did when playing him as a ‘free’ 8 in his chaotic 4-3-3 system. With Mount back in training before the Madrid game, it is possible that an uptick in performance to his usual lofty standards could persuade the owners to offer a lucrative contract in the region of the £250,000-a-week deal that Reece James earned earlier this campaign. If this were to happen, Lampard’s legacy second time around would have been securing the future of the club’s most consistently important player – something that could save the club around £100 million (on buying a replacement) and give the fans an icon to support for the next decade.
So, what does define success for Lampard as a manager this time around? Would an unexpected run to Champions League glory, inspired by loanees and ageing stars unsure of their future at the London club, suffice? Or would fans look back more fondly at the integration of Madueke, Mudryk and Chukwuemeka helping build a spine for years to come? Perhaps the average match-day goer will simply be happy to see a club legend return following a turgid season and be content to give him the send-off he wasn’t afforded last time out. A new contract for Mason Mount to go with those dished out to Ben Chilwell, Reece James and Armando Broja wouldn’t go amiss either.
There is no one definitive answer – maybe Lampard can achieve all of these things! – and in reality a two-month tenure is not long enough to make any meaningful difference. So, this writer suggests that you live, eat and sleep Chelsea for the remainder of the season, enjoying every moment of ‘Super Frank’ while you can. Regardless of results, it’s sure to be a magical ride.
By Danny New
Leave a Reply