Frank Lampard helped script many fairytales at Chelsea as a player including the club’s first Premier League title in 50 years and its first-ever Champions League win. But his spell as a manager that seemed nothing short of another fairytale at the outset has been ended abruptly with the 42-year-old getting the sack midway through his second season.
The ruthless side of Chelsea, a club that has sacked 13 managers in 18 years under Roman Abramovich, once again came to the fore on Monday after what seemed like a change of direction when Lampard, a manager with just a year’s experience in management was appointed in 2019.
A calculated risk
However, in truth, keeping all the romantic narratives aside, Lampard was a convenient appointment. With a transfer embargo in place, a squad lacking the depth and quality to match the club’s ambitions and the departure of Eden Hazard, the only truly world-class player in the team, the Chelsea job was a lot less attractive than what it had ever been.
In Lampard, the club found a person who wasn’t just willing to take the job but also one who was adored by the fan base and one who knew the club well.
So for Chelsea, it was much more a calculated risk than a change of approach.
However, eighteen months on what Lampard achieved at Stamford Bridge has been nothing short of pathbreaking. The final team he picked as Chelsea boss and the subsequent result was evidence of it.
Against Luton in the FA Cup, Chelsea were led by Mason Mount, an academy graduate. Tammy Abraham another Comham product scored all three goals for the Blues in a 3-1 victory. Two of those goals were assisted by another couple of homegrown talents in Reece James and Callum Hudson-Odoi as 19-year-old Billy Gilmour played a huge part in their forward play.
These players were in the team on merit and it was by no means a weak Chelsea side. It not a case of charity minutes offered to young players against lower league opposition in the cup. The academy graduates played as they were good enough to do the job.
In previous regimes, it was not the case. Maybe a couple of these players would have got 20 odd minutes in this game, while the rest would have been on loan at Vitesse in the Dutch league or at other English clubs.
Even though forced by transfer ban, Lampard deserves credit for not just giving the young players a chance but also incorporating them into the first team. Whoever the new manager is, will rely on these players as they are an integral part of the first team and offer plenty of quality on the pitch.
In the last months of Lampard’s tenure, the academy graduates have outshone the new expensive recruits, a position Chelsea have never been in the Abramovich era despite his heavy investment in the academy.
The Blues have been made to rue the loss of several academy graduates who they would now consider buying at premium prices.
Big spending, raised expectations
Transitioning academy players into the first team was a big part of Lampard’s brief when he took over the job in unusual circumstances. The special dispensation though had an expiry date and once Chelsea were able to operate in the transfer market, promotion of homegrown talent was only just a part of a larger brief that demanded as much from Lampard as any previous manager.
The former midfielder though was backed like no previous head coach as the Blues spent over £250 million on the squad. Unlike the early days of the Roman era, where winning the big trophies was considered a must, Lampard’s red line was also lower with qualification for the Champions League viewed as crucial.
A lack of tactical identity
An improvement in the level of performances and a clear identity in the way the team played, a basic requirement at any top club was also necessary especially with Chelsea having spent the money they had.
Apart from Jose Mourinho in his first term, no Chelsea manager had been dismissed for the identity or the lack of it that they brought to the team. It was usually due to poor results or a tiff with the board members that brought curtains on a manager’s reigns.
In Lampard’s case, the doubts over a specific style of play or a tactical identity persisted even after his first season that was largely considered an overwhelming success.
Lampard’s Chelsea were often found out on defensive transitions and conceded a whopping 54 goals in the 2019-’20 season. It was a problem that was evident in the very first game of his tenure, a 4-0 defeat to Manchester United.
It was a game that Chelsea dominated for large parts, but ended up getting beaten comprehensively. A theme for the Blues under Lampard.
“Whether you play with a high block or a low block depends on your principle of play. But you always have to be in the block and Chelsea were never like that,” Jose Mourinho, then a Sky Sports pundit had said analysing Chelsea’s defensive transitions in that 4-0 loss against Man United.
“Chelsea played with a block of six that attacked and with a block of four at the back. There was a big gap in between and it became too easy for Man United to counter-attack when they recovered the ball,” he added.
There were many instances of this fragmented press by Chelsea in the 2019-’20 campaign when Lampard helped Blues qualify for the Champions League without signing a new player.
It was an issue many felt could be solved by addition of better personnel.
During the transfer window, Chelsea focussed mainly on attacking players, not all of whom Lampard wanted according to a report in The Athletic. The board, however, did give him his top priority signing in left-back Ben Chilwell while centre-back Thiago Silva was also signed, a player he was happy to get even though not previously on his wish list.
However, almost half-way through the second season, the same issues plagued Lampard’s Chelsea.
In a 3-1 home loss to Manchester City earlier this month, City exploited the gap between Chelsea’s midfield and defence lines playing Kevin de Bruyne in a false nine position.
Once again Chelsea didn’t press as a unit. The midfield line pushed up to press high while the defence stayed back leaving a huge space between the lines. City had a field day and Chelsea looked devoid of ideas.
This tactical flaw in Lampard’s system that was never fixed and it with every passing game in his tenure it became evident that it was not down to the players at his disposal.
Apart from the pressing, the lack of numbers while defending counter-attacks was always an issue. Lampard liked his team to progress the ball through his full-backs who provided the team with the necessary width.
But on transitions, they left behind too much space to cover even for N’Golo Kante, a player considered one of the best in the world in that shielding midfield role.
Previously, even Antonio Conte used his wing-backs to provide the width for his side, but his basic team structure was designed to foil counter-attacks. His successor Maurizio Sarri used a distinctly different system but had a solid defensive structure. Even though lacklustre going forward, the Blues were the league’s third-best defence under the Italian.
Lampard’s lack of tactical clarity became even more evident when he failed to find a system to make his expensively assembled forward line work. Timo Werner and Kai Havertz the pick of Chelsea’s signings looked clueless of the pitch while Christian Pulisic who was so impressive last season also looked lost.
Lampard used 17 different combinations in his front three across the Premier League and Champions League this season highlighting the lack of clarity in his tactical approach. It was no different in midfield as Lampard constantly changed his midfield three, leading to a lack of chemistry.
A few Chelsea players complained that a lack of tactical instruction from Lampard left them confused as per The Athletic.
Towards the end of his tenure, he also was unsure about his back four a part of the Chelsea team that had largely remained constant this season.
Chelsea in the last month that led to Lampard’s sack seemed like a team that didn’t know what they were supposed to do on the pitch, a situation untenable at any top club, let alone at trigger-happy Chelsea.
Lampard’s spell at Chelsea was unprecedented in both the good and the bad ways. He did a unique job for Chelsea at a very difficult time for the club but couldn’t quite earn the ticket for the longer term. Sadly for him as normalcy returned to Stamford Bridge, normal service too had to, if not with him then without him.