Frank Lampard, like so many before him, is gone as Chelsea manager. Sacked for the winter downturn in results that saw his side go from top of the league and Champions League group winners in early December, to ninth in the table with only four wins in 11 across all competitions since.
So now the chorus of questions about when he would be sacked will turn to whether he should have been sacked, often from the same people. With the first question answered, we can work on the second.
It is surely beyond debate that recent results were not good enough. Since an impressive first week of December that saw Olivier Giroud score all the goals in a 4-0 away win at Sevilla to win the Champions League group, followed by a 3-1 victory over Leeds in which they outran Marcelo Bielsa’s famously hardworking side, Chelsea have lost five times, including comprehensive defeats against supposed rivals at the top of the table in Arsenal, Manchester City and Leicester.
The victories have been uncertain ones against West Ham and Fulham, and twice against lower-league opposition in the FA Cup.
But sacking a manager is as much about what will happen as what has happened. Clearly it was the Chelsea hierarchy’s judgment that things were unlikely to improve since Lampard did not appear to be capable of arresting the slide, and once the talk of a sacking starts at Chelsea, it nearly always ends with one.
But then, when Chelsea were beaten 6-0 at Manchester City and 4-0 at Bournemouth in quick succession under Maurizio Sarri, it certainly looked unlikely that they would end up finishing third and with the Europa League trophy.Embed from Getty Images
Obviously, it is impossible to know what would happen from this point, but Chelsea have gone through disastrous winter periods under much more qualified managers than Lampard, so it is hardly unique to him. Then again none of those managers lasted beyond the end of the season.
Of course, he is still learning on the job, as everybody knew when he was appointed. His side has been consistently inconsistent, so an upturn in fortunes could well have followed this slump, as the slump followed a 17-game unbeaten run.
While everyone is looking for a Jurgen Klopp or a Pep Guardiola to come in and revolutionise the club, there are not that many managers like that around, and there was nothing from his season at Derby to suggest Lampard was ready to be that yet.Embed from Getty Images
So, while there seems to be a lack of coherent strategy and tactics from the former Chelsea player, it is probably to be expected.
Indeed, it seems likely that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, another ex-player turned over-promoted manager, would probably have been sacked multiple times by now had he been in charge of Chelsea.
The Norwegian did not appear to have much of a signature style himself, until the club handed him Bruno Fernandes (and arguably since referees keep handing Fernandes penalties), and now they are suddenly top of the league and have just knocked Liverpool out of the FA Cup – Lampard, of course, knocked both of them out of the competition on route to the final last season.
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On one hand, reaching the final of the FA Cup and qualifying for the Champions League in his first season has to be seen as a fairly decent job by Lampard, but on the other, the defeat to Arsenal in that final was poor, and like Sarri before him, Chelsea seemed to maintain a spot in the top four by default due to everyone aside from Liverpool and Manchester City being even more inconsistent than Chelsea.
The poor quality of most of the league would seem to be backed up by the stat that recently did the rounds showing Lampard had the lowest points per game ratio (1.67) of any manager since Roman Abramovich bought the club.
Crucially, his record against the top sides has not been good enough, starting with an admittedly slightly unlucky 4-0 loss at Manchester United in his first game in charge.Embed from Getty Images
While there were a few good results last season, such as the FA Cup run or the double over Jose Mourinho’s Tottenham, there have been no wins this season against top-six sides which inevitably counted against him.
Contributing to these poor records was Chelsea’s routinely appalling defence, which conceded 54 goals in the league last season for the club’s worst figure in over 20 years, and inability to prevent counterattacks.
It is fair to wonder what those stats would look like had the world’s most expensive keeper, Kepa Arrizabalaga, not been having an existential crisis in goal, a situation the club should be at fault for more than the manager, but Lampard did not seem to have the tactical ability to do anything about that trend.Embed from Getty Images
However, we are often reminded that his tenure was during far from normal circumstances. When he took the job, Chelsea had just sold Eden Hazard and were operating under a transfer ban.
The Hazard point is certainly valid, he was the star and could easily have been Lampard’s Fernandes, but the transfer ban argument is perhaps overblown – they did still spend £40m making Mateo Kovacic’s loan move permanent, and £57m Christian Pulisic was still to arrive, from his transfer agreed in the previous window.
It is however true that nobody was brought in during the January window after the ban had ended, which Lampard was unhappy about.
It is an undeniable positive that Lampard responded to the situation by finally promoting some of the numerous youth team players that fans have been crying out for year after year, even if some of his decisions with some of those players have been confusing.Embed from Getty Images
While he seems devoted to Mason Mount, a talented player who is unfairly criticised as a result, Callum Hudson-Odoi has had an uphill battle to get in the team despite his strong form this season, and Fikayo Tomori was mysteriously banished midway through last season despite consistent issues in defence.
Similarly, with veteran players like Olivier Giroud or Antonio Rudiger, they have switched between being key starters and being nowhere near the first 11 without much apparent strategy.
While they were winning, such changes were praised as clever squad management, but now there are reports that the players were as in the dark about Lampard’s thinking as most of the fans at times.
While a Sir Alex Ferguson character could maybe get away with that, the game has changed, and it seems strange that Lampard would have communication issues, if that is true, since he retired from playing himself less than four years ago.
It seems doubly strange, again if true, that Lampard got into a situation where players were complaining to the board about him, when this was a criticism routinely levelled at the Chelsea dressing room which he was a key figure in when multiple previous Chelsea managers were sacked.
The fact that Chelsea capitalised on their savings last year by spending over £200m, their largest ever summer spend, before the start of this season heighted the pressure on Lampard to produce results hugely.
That the two marquee attacking signings, Timo Werner and Kai Havertz, have struggled so much whilst often being played out of position could have been enough alone to put his job at risk.Embed from Getty Images
The problems Andriy Shevchenko and Fernando Torres had helped send first-incarnation Jose Mourinho, and Carlo Ancelotti on their way respectively, even if subsequent years suggested the managers were not really the issue.
Supposedly, of the new arrivals, only Ben Chilwell was one that the manager specifically wanted, but Lampard’s fixation on West Ham midfielder Declan Rice being the world-class centre back Chelsea needed might suggest that his judgment was questionable, plus it is rare these days for managers to control transfer policy.
Having said that, Lampard is far from the first Chelsea manager to have had issues with the board over signings, Antonio Conte and Mourinho being particularly upset not to have been given the players they wanted having just delivered Premier League titles.Embed from Getty Images
This pattern will have to be broken if the club want to hold onto a manager for more than a couple of years. But then again, maybe they do not.
Again, with the new signings, it is not easy to instantly drop multiple new players into a team and expect everything to just work, and Lampard can justifiably point to the lack of pre-season, and reduced time to train and work on tactics due to a congested fixture schedule, all thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Similarly, while there have been issues regarding relationships with some players, Lampard is said to have spent a lot of time working with Kai Havertz. Any effect this has had on the German’s development has probably been negated by the prolonged recovery since he was badly affected by contracting the virus.Embed from Getty Images
Various elements of what has not been working yet could well have fit into place given another year or two to develop, like seems to be happening at Manchester United, or even as happened at Liverpool or Manchester City – it is easily forgotten that world-renowned coaches Klopp and Guardiola did not walk into the Premier League and instantly work miracles.
Potentially not qualifying for next season’s Champions League is usually a key factor quoted when Chelsea change the manager mid-season, especially when the top clubs around Europe all seem to do their accounting based on the assumption of the money it brings, and it is reasonable to doubt the likelihood of that on current form.
Even during the unbeaten run it would probably have relied upon other sides at the top of the table dropping more points elsewhere since Chelsea could do no better than draws in head-to-head matches, and that was before three losses to those teams since.
But then, there was always going to be that risk when appointing a coach with a single season’s experience in the Championship.
Unless Abramovich and Marina Granovskaia genuinely thought Lampard was going to be Chelsea’s version of Guardiola taking over at Barcelona, or even Zinedine Zidane at Real Madrid, it seems pointless to give him the job if they were not going to allow him the time to grow.Embed from Getty Images
Unless, that is, they only ever saw him as a useful stooge to keep the fans happy during a season they suspected would be painful, without Hazard, without much transfer activity, and potentially without many other takers for the manager position.
It is at least logical that other potential options thought it was a hospital pass of a job in such a season and so the club needed somebody who would be attracted to it for separate reasons, but who would not upset the fans – although, granted, Abramovich did not seem too worried about that during the Rafael Benitez era.
If that was the case, then they likely assumed last season would go worse than it did, and Lampard could be let go on relatively friendly terms at the end of it.Embed from Getty Images
When Lampard essentially delivered what he had been asked for they then felt obliged to keep him for the spending spree, which history suggests they would have done largely on their own terms whoever was manager.
By keeping him and sacking him now, they appear to have held him to the same standards they have pretty much everyone else since 2003, which is fine to a point – Lampard knew fully well what the club is like in that way – but it certainly leaves them open to the question ‘Well, what were you expecting?’
Maybe it is as simple as Lampard and the club both knew it was unlikely to work but they would treat it like a regular appointment in-house, while suggesting to the fans and media that it was a new attitude appointment of a rookie club legend, who could grow into the role whilst instilling a special Chelsea ethos.
However, for all his acknowledgement of the pressure for results, it appears Lampard himself was more of the latter mindset than the former, as The Athletic reports him seeing issues with the mentality of the squad and wanting to move players out of the club to change this.
Therefore, should Lampard have been sacked? It depends on how you look at it.
As a Chelsea manager who has dropped to mid-table, is not beating the top teams, is not getting the best out of big-money signings, and is at risk of missing out on Champions League qualification, then probably yes.
That is how it works at this club under this owner, regardless of their achievements previously, as Mourinho, Ancelotti, and Conte can attest.
But as a young manager who operated in unprecedented circumstances, where most minus points come with fairly significant caveats, and yet has on balance done fairly well then it seems pointlessly premature.
Abramovich has been sacking managers for nearly 20 years now and this is the first time where he has made a personal statement about a footballing matter, so it is apparently slightly different that it is Lampard this time.
Ultimately though, the result is the same. Despite being what most would consider dysfunctional, Chelsea are still one of the most successful clubs in the country this century, so he is unlikely to change his methods any time soon.
Thomas Tuchel should probably not get too comfortable.
Click here for the match report from Lampard’s last game in charge.
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