Frank Lampard was relieved of his duties as Chelsea manager by notoriously ruthless club owner Roman Abramovich after twenty months in the job.
While many have reacted with confusion and dismay regarding the sacking of club legend Lampard, ultimately, Chelsea’s all-time record goalscorer never got to grips with the task at hand of returning Chelsea to the pinnacle of domestic and European football.
Punters and pundits alike saw Lampard’s first season in the top job at the London club as a free-hit and an opportunity to create a new culture at Chelsea of nurturing their academy players by promoting them into the first team. Lampard’s hand was forced early on in his tenure due to a transfer ban enforced by FIFA on the club last season. Whether he liked it or not he was going to have to swap incoming stars for potential ones.
Lampard embraced this challenge from the offset and looked to be on the right path with his Chelsea squad, led by the youthful exuberance of Mason Mount, Tammy Abraham, Fikayo Tomori and Ruben Loftus-Cheek. The Blues finished in a respectable, albeit not spectacular, fourth position and in doing so ensured Champions League football would return to Stamford Bridge for the 2020/2021 season. Despite missing out on the chance to win his maiden trophy as a manager in the 2020 FA Cup final after suffering a 2-1 defeat at the hands of Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal, a solid platform was seemingly put in place for Chelsea to launch an assault on the Premier League’s big guns of Liverpool and Man City and reclaim English football’s biggest prize for the first time since 2017.
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Unfortunately, it all unraveled for Lampard as preparations began for the 2020/2021 season. Chelsea went on a spending spree, giving a stark reminder to football supporters across Europe that Abramovich was still capable of standing toe-to-toe with the heavyweights in an increasingly inflated transfer market. Chelsea conceded 54 league goals in the 2019/20 season, the most of any team in the top-half of the table. Lampard’s side had proven that they had the firepower to be reckoned with in the same campaign, scoring more goals than any other side with the exception of champions Liverpool and runners-up Manchester City. Chelsea were on the end of eye catching defeats throughout the course of the season. 4-0 away to Manchester United on the opening day, 3-0 at Bramall Lane against Sheffield United and 5-3 against recently crowned Premier league champions Liverpool. ‘The Boys from the Bridge’ were also left with no excuses as they were brutally disposed of over two legs by eventual UEFA Champions League winners Bayern Munich on an aggregate score of 7-1 in Europe’s premier club competition.
It was clear what positions Chelsea needed to invest in. A competent goalkeeper was required to replace the most expensive ‘keeper in football history Kepa Arrizabalaga, who set the Chelsea owner back £71 million on his arrival from Athletic Bilbao. At least one top class centre-back was needed to command a defence that had a tendency to leak goals. In addition, a proven goalscorer was a must for Chelsea to make the jump from pretenders to contenders. Lampard and the powers that be at the club decided to spend £222.48 million on Timo Werner, Hakim Ziyech, Kai Havertz, Thiago Silva, Malang Sarr, Ben Chilwell and Edouard Mendy. Only Chilwell had previous Premier League experience.
Lampard now had an overload of technical midfield players in his squad and was still short of proven quality upfront. His solution to his biggest problem of all, the defence, was to sign Stade Rennais’ 28-year-old goalkeeper Mendy who no other big club had decided to go after prior to Chelsea, and a once world-class centre-back in Thiago Silva who at best would be a short-term fix to a long term problem. What was even more worrying was the fact that Chilwell and Silva were both signed after the forward players were brought to the club. Mendy wasn’t a Chelsea player until close to two weeks after the start of the season. He had got his priorities wrong. Lampard was going into a defining season for him as a manager with a group of players who were disjointed and clearly not capable of improving Chelsea right from the offset.
The first game of the new season was the best example of Lampard’s lack of a clear vision for this Chelsea team. The former Derby County manager seemed to have no understanding of his best team or even if he wanted players to remain in the squad for the season ahead. Despite a 1-3 victory away to Brighton, Kepa, Marcos Alonso, Andreas Christensen and Ruben Loftus-Cheek all started the game. Ross Barkley got thirty minutes off the bench. In their next game, a 0-2 home defeat to Liverpool, Kepa, Alonso, Christensen, Barkley and Fikayo Tomori all played. Barkley and Loftus-Cheek would be loaned out to Aston Villa and Fulham respectively. Tomori eventually went on loan to AC Milan in January. Alonso, Christensen and Kepa all fell out of favour. Antonio Rudiger, who was deemed to not be at the required standard to make the matchday squad for the defeat to Liverpool, would ironically start alongside Thiago Silva in Lampard’s final Premier League game, a 2-0 defeat against Leicester City at the King Power Stadium.
The Blues’ boss never quite seemed comfortable with his starting line-ups, consistently making three to five changes between games. In the space of a week Abraham, Giroud and Werner all started as the lone striker in a team that were not given a chance to gel or develop relationships as a result of the manager’s constant tinkering with the starting line-up. When a manager is spiraling into a state of confusion and panic, his players tend to follow suit. Unfortunately for Lampard, this was the case with his Chelsea squad and the defeat to Leicester highlighted the exact same problems that were showcased in Lampard’s first game in charge of the club he served so well as a player, a 4-0 defeat against Manchester United at Old Trafford. There was no defence that he could trust with holding out against any period of sustained pressure by the opposition, while his attack was spearheaded by the same striker as he had chosen at Old Trafford in Tammy Abraham, who has consistently failed to reach anywhere near the required standard despite the managers seemingly blind trust in him.
A failure to adequately fix the issues that Chelsea struggled with in his first season on top of a hazy vision in terms of style and personnel ultimately means that Lampard can have no complaints that he paid the ultimate price. Languishing in ninth position after spending close to quarter of a billion pounds quite simply did not meet the required standard at a club as successful as Chelsea since the Russian oligarch Abramovich became the club’s owner.
Lampard will be a better manager for his experience at Chelsea, however. He will return to a top job in due course bringing with him a wealth of knowledge he did not possess prior to becoming the boss at Chelsea. For those who say that Chelsea is a poisoned chalice for managers in the Abramovich era, here is a list of some of the managers who had run their course at the London club: Claudio Ranieri, Jose Mourinho (x2), Rafael Benitez, Antonio Conte and Maurizio Sarri. Does anyone know how their careers have gone since their Chelsea departures? If the top job at Chelsea is a poisoned chalice, then maybe Lampard can count himself lucky that he was one of the fortunate ones who got to drink from it.