And where they go from here…
Well, we have reached the moment we all secretly knew was coming.
Chelsea announced the sacking of manager Frank Lampard, a day after the club’s 4-1 win over Luton Town in the FA Cup seemingly eased some of the pressure on the Englishman’s shoulders. Even then, with only two wins in their last eight league matches and the club sitting in 9th, the arguments to sack him were quite hard to ignore. Chelsea’s owner Roman Abramovich, notoriously trigger-happy when it comes to firing managers, decided to make the decision now, and I will try to explain why. There is blame to be shared.
For starters, and let us be completely honest with ourselves, Chelsea fans. Frank Lampard was in over his head.
Yes, he is a club legend and probably the best player in the club’s history, but is his name the only thing that got him this job? Yes, most likely so. Did he really show anything in his one year of management at Derby County that indicated that he deserved to take one of the biggest jobs in the country? No, he absolutely did not. He had a very talented team at Derby that he arguably underachieved with, losing in the playoff final to an Aston Villa team that miraculously survived relegation a year later. Yes, he did finish top four in his first season at Chelsea and did reach a FA Cup Final, and those are two things to be praised. With the transfer ban and loss of Eden Hazard, Lampard’s results in his first season are worthy of acclaim, but it was not exactly “succeeding with a youth team”, as some Chelsea fans describe it.
The team was very good, utilizing many experienced first team players alongside a few younger players, specifically Mason Mount, Tammy Abraham, and Fikayo Tomori, who had significant first team experience despite their young age. His success also came in a down year for many clubs, with Arsenal and Spurs specifically suffering from serious struggles in form and both sacking managers. Even with losing Hazard, they still had a team capable of competing with the teams around him and one that was good enough to finish in the top four. While his first season achievements are good and worthy of praise, you cannot put too much weight on it.
Then we get to this season, and to be honest, they started well. Free of the transfer ban, they spent a whopping £222 million on transfers in the summer window and brought in Timo Werner, Hakim Ziyech, Kai Havertz, Ben Chilwell, Edouard Mendy, and Thiago Silva. That spending spree put the spotlight directly on the club, with many considering them favorites to win the league. They only lost one of their first 11 matches, a run that took them to the top of the league, and they seemed to be the league title challengers that they were billed to be.
Since then, they only won twice and fell down the table. You could see the issues coming, too. Timo Werner and Kai Havertz have not lived up to expectation, the defense and goalkeeper issues are still prevalent even after the signings made in those areas, the midfield was very imbalanced, the team lacked serious creative outlets when Christian Pulisic and Hakim Ziyech were injured, and Lampard is still seemingly unsure of what his best team is. He has been unable to find the best tactical set up to take advantage of his new signings, despite allegedly being the one pushing for the club to bring in Werner and Havertz.
The tactical output just did not seem to be there. Lampard was facing many questions and did not have any answers for them. He was buckling under the pressure. With the serious investment Abramovich made into the squad, there might be ramifications if the club were to miss out on the Champions League. With only half of the season to go, bringing in someone else did make sense when the stakes are as high as they are.
This sacking has naturally caused a strong reaction from Chelsea supporters, with many believing that Lampard was not given enough time and that this was another cruel decision from a cruel board. Do not get me wrong, the board are not free of blame, but I do think many Chelsea fans were not willing to see the writing on the wall. Many were in love with the idea of Lampard as Chelsea manager instead of the reality of Lampard as Chelsea manager. Many dreamed of their greatest ever player bringing in more silverware as a manager, being so wrapped up in those dreams that they were not willing to see or accept that he was not cut out for the job. If his name was not Frank Lampard, I imagine he would not have gotten this long of a leash from the fans, and I do not think he could have gotten away with setting the team’s expectations so low after the spending spree of the previous summer.
Let us compare to Maurizio Sarri. Sarri was a manager that Chelsea fans did not love in the slightest. Seemingly every decision he made was in question, even as early as when he brought Jorginho in from Napoli and displaced N’Golo Kanté. He was not afforded any leeway with the fans, even leading to a situation where chants of “f**k Sarriball” rang through Stamford Bridge. Fans were convinced he would never amount to anything, he would never win trophies with the club and he would not get them back to the Champions League.
Well, despite the negativity and toxicity, Sarri actually did a good job. You could actually see a tactical identity forming with the club. Yes, they were overly-reliant on Hazard at times, but that over-reliance can only carry you so far. And, at the end of the day, they got results. They finished third and won the Europa League, after all. There was more signs of genuine progress and in formation of a playing identity in one season than in a season and a half under Lampard. Could things have been going poorly behind the scenes? Sure. Could things have fallen apart in year two? Absolutely. But I find it baffling the degree to which Chelsea fans are willing to defend Lampard’s management purely because of his name. You do not have to hate the man, but at least accepting he might not be the man for the job is not too much to ask.
But do not go away, Chelsea board, because you have some explaining to do as well.
Now, when talking about Chelsea, you have to know how ruthless they are with their managers. This is the 14th managerial change since Abramovich bought the club in 2003. A toxic relationship with Jose Mourinho led to the Portuguese walking away from the club during his first tenure. Avram Grant was sacked after guiding the club to the 2008 Champions League Final. Carlo Ancelotti was told of his sacking, ironically, in the tunnel at Goodison Park following defeat to Everton. Roberto Di Matteo was sacked mere months after being the first Chelsea manager to win the Champions League. Abramovich’s ruthlessness knows no bounds, and, like it or not (I do not), this is just how the club is.
But why Lampard? Why did we have to end up here in the first place?
Regardless of whether Sarri left on his own accord to return to Italy or if he was forced out, why would you go with Lampard over a more experienced manager? I truly do not get it, but I can try to rationalize it in either one of two ways.
On one hand, he could have been used as a sort of scapegoat manager, used to bide time. With Chelsea’s transfer ban and the impending departure of Eden Hazard, it is possible that Abramovich, knowing it would be hard for the club to land a big name manager in that current state, wanted to get the less experienced Lampard in to get the fans on his side and remove the toxicity from Sarri’s tenure, as well as to get a less experienced manager in to absorb the negative hits and pressure that may come. Lampard would be able to guide the club through the struggles and leave them in an alright position for a bigger name manager to come in and take the reins from there. If that is the case, then firstly, that is an absolutely awful way to treat your greatest ever player. Have Lampard come in and deal with the difficult bits to keep the pressure off ownership? He does not deserve that type of scapegoating. Secondly, why was he signed to a three year deal? I am sure paying coaches out of their contracts is not new for Chelsea ownership, but if he was just a transitional figure, why would you promise him a longer term tenure and then pull the rug out from underneath him? I get the idea behind it, but it is not an honest and respectful way to treat a club legend. I want to emphasize that this is complete speculation, and I do not have any evidence to say that any of the above is true, but it does feel like an explanation for the last year and a half.
The other explanation is, logically, that Lampard was their choice, and the club wanted to invest in him long-term. This would follow the “Zidane trend” in managerial choice, one that has led to former players being appointed managers for Man United and Arsenal. If this is true, then why in the world did you sack him at the first sign of trouble? Do not get me wrong, I still think Lampard was the wrong guy and was in over his head, but certainly any soundly-ran club would understand that hiring a basically brand new manager would lead to some growing pains, right? If he really was your guy for the long term, then you would understand that he is still figuring out management and that patience and time is needed to see the results of the project. You would understand that it is a project, which, by definition, requires a level of investment and patience up front in order to see results further down the road. If sacking managers at the first sign of any issue was the norm, then Ole Gunnar Solskjær would have been gone ages ago, and maybe United would not be where they are now as a result. I know it is against the trend at Chelsea to not be quick to fire managers, but hiring Lampard without the understanding that things could get rocky is just incredibly irresponsible management of the team and shows a lack of any major long-term project planning at a club that has been far off of title contention for a few years now.
And that issue creates another one: how many managers really want the Chelsea job knowing you can be axed at the first sign of trouble? Yes, Lampard was the wrong “project manager” to bring in, but would a better candidate in that sort of mold want the Chelsea job? Will they just continue chopping and changing managers the moment things go wrong? That is exactly what they have done since Abramovich bought the club, and it has worked, but how much longer will they find success doing that? They are far off the pace of Man City and Liverpool, and with the other “Big Six” sides improving over time, as well as the gap narrowing between the “Big Six” and the chasing pack, the lack of consistency and overall vision at Chelsea could come back to haunt them.
Despite Lampard’s struggles, I do still think he can turn into a good manager. He clearly is very intelligent and has a high football I.Q., and he also clearly works well with players. He just needs time to mature as a tactical mind and understand how to plan and build a team around that tactical vision. Chelsea was still right to part ways with him, as he was too much of a project manager and was rightfully not going to be afforded that necessary time at Chelsea, but if he took a job at a “lower tier” club in Britain and worked his way back up, I am sure he can become a successful manager. Some rumors are linking him with the Celtic job as a replacement for the under-pressure Neil Lennon, and I think that would be a good launching point for him. Celtic are a big club with still significant, albeit not Chelsea-level, resources. He can work under the pressure of a title charge but at a club that is willing to work with a manager and build a project. A job in the Championship or even a mid-table Premier League side could be a good starting point as well, but Lampard generally needs to find shallower waters in which to grow his career. His move to Chelsea was jumping into the deep end too quickly.
Where does Chelsea go from here? Well, we already know. They did not waste any time in appointing Lampard’s replacement, former Dortmund and PSG manager Thomas Tuchel. It is not the perfect appointment, as the German’s time in Dortmund and Paris does give me concerns. Despite his titles and Champions League final appearance at PSG, I never thought Tuchel established his team and his style. There was never really a playing philosophy, he never seemed to know his best team, and he ran through several different formations and systems to try and find something that fit. The Parisians’ success during that time came much more from the individual brilliance of the players, namely Neymar and Marquinhos, as well as the ineptitude of any potential league title challengers and their relatively easy Champions League path, rather than anything specific that Tuchel did. It was notable that this season, where PSG faced multiple competent title challengers in Lille and Lyon, as well as a rigorous Champions League group with Man United and RB Leipzig, was when the cracks began to really show for Tuchel’s team. He also struggled with dealing with the behind-the-scenes politics at Dortmund and PSG, something that is quite prevalent at big clubs. He struggled to get on the good side of the board of either club, and he had some issues with the dressing room at both clubs. Both will likely be issues at Chelsea, where he is working with a cutthroat board and a notoriously difficult dressing room of players.
Tuchel was a great tactical manager at Mainz earlier in his career. His tactical mind and ability to work well with players and with limited resources helped keep Mainz, a relatively small club, in the top half of the table and got them into the Europa League qualifying rounds. It was this great tactical mind and ability with players that got him the Dortmund and PSG jobs, but I am afraid that the recent trends will follow and could plague Tuchel’s Chelsea reign. There are seemingly two Thomas Tuchels: the one from his time at Mainz and the first half of his time at Dortmund, and the one from the second half of his time at Dortmund and his time at PSG. One is very good, one is very bad. Chelsea fans have to hope they get the former, rather than the latter.
Well, Lampard is gone. The seemingly inevitable happened. I have some issues, but ultimately Lampard was not cut out for the job. I hope he is able to find a suitable club to get his managerial career back on track, and the options are seemingly out there. I wish Tuchel the best of luck. He will need it.
Who knows? Maybe he will come back in a few years and be ready for the Chelsea job. What a story that would be.
Are you sure, Chelsea? On Sunday, AC Milan announced the loan signing of young English center back Fikayo Tomori from Chelsea. The player joins the Italian giants on loan for the rest of the season, but the loan also, perplexingly, includes a buy option of around €30 million (£25 million) should Milan want to make […]
Where do I begin with the Young Lions? The club was formed in 2003 to provide some of the most talented Under-23 footballers with regular professional footballing experience. Besides having the chance to play together on a regular basis and maintaining team cohesion, the Young Lions project provided these players the opportunity to play against […]
In part 1, I looked at Darren Teh’s beginnings as a footballer and the professional journey he embarked on. Since signing with Geylang in 2017, Darren Teh has largely been a mainstay in the Eagles backline. In this second part, I will look at his professional career thus far, his national team call-up, and his […]
Bit of a damp squib of a match… Well, that did not live up to the hype and expectation. Liverpool 0-0 Manchester United. The points are shared at Anfield, and the match that was billed as the match of the season did not end up being the best match of the weekend (thanks for picking […]