It was supposed to be different this time.
When Chelsea appointed Frank Lampard in the summer of 2019, the indication was they had moved to break their ruthless hire and fire cycle.
Following the sale of Eden Hazard and amid a transfer ban, the club, which had gone through 14 managerial changes in the 16 years leading to that point, were looking for a new direction.
It was time for a refresh, an overhaul, and the Chelsea hierarchy seemed willing to create time and space for their young, emerging squad to grow and develop. A period to unpick the problems of the past so as to come again stronger.
Chelsea legend Lampard seemed a fitting figurehead for the project. While he was still green in terms of his own managerial career, he had that intangible quality of knowing the club and knew what these young players would have to go through to become winners at the highest level.
Considering it was nine years into his own playing career before he lifted a trophy, he knew the importance of time and patience, too.
It was an intriguing journey Lampard and his players were embarking on. An experiment to see whether things could be done differently in west London.
But Chelsea have pulled the plug on the process and Lampard has been sacked 18 months after his appointment. A poor recent run has left Chelsea 11 points off the top of the table, and the search for a replacement who can have an instant impact begins again.
A long-term vision cut short
It’s a familiar situation Chelsea find themselves in – and one they were intending to avoid when they put their all-time top scorer in charge a couple of summers ago.
His debut campaign was initially labelled as a ‘transition’ season. It was a tag the ambitious Lampard didn’t much like and one he tried to distance himself from – although keeping perspective on the bigger picture at Chelsea was key to assessing their returns in 2019/20.
Achieving top four would have constituted an “amazing season”, given the circumstances, said Sky Sports pundit Jamie Redknapp when Lampard was appointed. Amid the pressure of the run-in, when Chelsea were wobbling in the league, fifth or less felt like it would go down as a major disappointment.
Fourth place was achieved, though, with a final day win over Wolves securing Champions League qualification. There was a run to the FA Cup final, too.
Among the other highlights was an impressively tactical 1-0 win away to Ajax in the Champions League group stages, a standout victory over Manchester City following football’s restart in June, and Lampard doing the double over his former boss Jose Mourinho.
They were encouraging signs – but Chelsea ended their season with a 4-1 beating at the hands of Bayern Munich which completed a 7-1 aggregate defeat against the eventual Champions League winners.
Those round of 16 games, combined with the 33-point gap between Chelsea and Premier League winners Liverpool, demonstrated the sizeable ground Lampard and his players still had to make up on the best teams.
A mid-season slump, when Chelsea lost five out of seven and then, shortly after, won just one in six in the Premier League, saw Lampard struggle to come up with ways for his side to unlock deep defences and highlighted there was no easy fix. A similar collapse halfway through his second campaign suggested lessons hadn’t been learnt – and proved far more costly.
Speaking with Lampard in the summer about what it takes to build a winning mentality among a group of players, he was open and interesting on the process, and expanded on comparisons with the journey Jurgen Klopp and his Liverpool team went through and the setbacks they endured along the way.
Game-changing summer spending
Significantly, the Chelsea board – who had held fire in the January 2020 window, despite the transfer embargo being reduced from two windows to one – opened their cheque book soon after that conversation in an attempt to speed the club along the path.
They moved to address the problems which had emerged – but that spending saw the ground shift and expectations rise.
There was a weakness in attack. Chelsea had ranked 16th in the Premier League in 2019/20 for converting clear-cut chances, despite only Manchester City and Liverpool creating more. That sparked a £153m outlay on Timo Werner, Hakim Ziyech and Kai Havertz, who had accounted for 46 goals and 26 assists between them that previous season.
There was a vulnerability to set-pieces and the counter-attack. Only six Premier League teams conceded more from free-kicks and corners last season, and no side conceded more than the eight Chelsea let in from fast breaks. That led to the hiring of experienced Paris St-Germain centre-back Thiago Silva on a free transfer – but with hefty wages – and £50m Ben Chilwell brought in to become first-choice at left-back.
The error-prone and underperforming record signing Kepa Arrizabalaga was replaced in goal by £22m Edouard Mendy.
Two wins in the opening six Premier League fixtures caused concern but when that run became an unbeaten streak of 16 matches across all competitions, with Chelsea winning their Champions League group and going top of the table at the start of December, it seemed Chelsea were on a fast track to success.
Lampard didn’t see it that way and tried to urge caution and perspective. One win in the next six in the Premier League delivered a reality check to any Chelsea fans who hadn’t been listening and sent the team tumbling down the table.
While one of the four defeats in that run came through an injury-time winner from Wolves’ Pedro Neto, it also included an awful Boxing Day performance against previously out-of-sorts Arsenal, and what Lampard described as “a lesson” from Manchester City.
He again accepted his side were a distant second-best in defeat at Leicester, following a scrappy win at 10-man Fulham had fuelled hopes of a revival.
Few signs of progress
Those losses to Manchester City and Leicester mean Chelsea haven’t won any of the six games they’ve had against teams currently above them in the table. It’s a statistic that does not reflect well on a head coach who is aiming to win respect for his tactical ability.
Nor did the constant team changes over recent weeks, which saw Antonio Rudiger swiftly promoted from exile to first-choice centre back, Jorginho suddenly return to midfield – and Lampard use no fewer than 17 combinations in the front three across the Premier League and Champions League.
The goals conceded column, set-piece susceptibility, and wasteful finishing continued to hold the team back, despite the expensive outlay, and Lampard leaves the team ninth in the Premier League on 29 points. That’s five places and three points worse off than at the same point last season.
They are statistics which deal a blow to the perception of the work that was done by Lampard and his coaching staff. The signs of progress were hard to find.
It’s hardly the return Roman Abramovich and the Chelsea board were expecting when they invested over £200m to kick on and, clearly, Lampard’s reasons for the new signings not yet transforming Chelsea’s results – injuries, coronavirus, adapting to the Premier League – haven’t been sympathetically received.
But with time, those issues will subside. It’s hard to believe that a player of Werner’s calibre won’t start firing in the Premier League, for instance, or that Havertz will be unable to realise his vast potential on these shores.
Time, though, is something Lampard hasn’t been afforded. It won’t be him enjoying the fruits of the seeds sewn at Chelsea.
Lampard’s youthful Chelsea
Chelsea’s average starting XI age in the league under Frank Lampard was 26 years, 58 days – only four sides have been younger in the Premier League since he arrived (Man Utd, Bournemouth, Aston Villa and Fulham).
The case for his defence was diminishing by the match, with consistency and confidence elusive, and no clear plan for a recovery to see beyond, in Lampard’s words, “working harder” in the hope things would turn around.
But Lampard’s dismissal is still striking, given his status at Stamford Bridge, the challenges he’s faced, his relatively short time in charge, and coming so soon after Chelsea were top of the table in this unique season. Ultimately, there was little leniency, even for a club legend.
The ruthless Chelsea treatment of underperforming managers has been seen again.
The experiment in a more patient, long-term approach is over. The search for a replacement and an instant lift begins once more.