“It intensified [the pressure] for me a while ago. Expectations at this club are high. That is something that will always be there. It is not my decision. Some things are always beyond your control. That I can’t answer.”
– Frank Lampard post Leicester defeat
It was as though Frank Lampard was treating viewers to a game of ‘football manager about to be sacked’ bingo as he addressed the media after another defeat left his Chelsea side at their lowest ebb on Tuesday night.
A 2-0 reverse at Leicester was dismally predictable, and now – after five losses in eight Premier League games – it feels the sense of malaise is too deep set for the former midfielder to alleviate. Lampard has spent so much time scowling on the touchline in the past month that his brow is now permanently furrowed. It’s an expression that feels emblematic of his management style.
The head coach’s status as a club legend at Chelsea is irrevocable, but it is a title that is destined to be synonymous with his playing career alone. For followers of the west London club, the time has come to distinguish between the two; some cerebral separation between the iconic champion and the gloomy manager.
As the perfect tough-tackling, goalscoring, all-action midfielder who lived and breathed Chelsea, Lampard was the personification of the ‘us against them’, foxhole mentality that brought unprecedented success during the noughties and late 2010s, ending his time at Stamford Bridge with three league titles, four FA Cups and that famous Champions League crown.
But that snarling, cut-throat tact that translated so perfectly into dogged winning performances on the pitch is far less endearing off it; while certain sections of the Chelsea fanbase still see the club’s former number eight through the rosiest of rose-tinted glasses, his public approval rating is way down, making him arguably the least popular manager in the Premier League at present.
This is thanks in no small part to his barbed post-match interviews, his, er, political beliefs, and the expletive-laden touchline to-and-fro with the neutral’s favourite manager, Jürgen Klopp. In short, having been the darling of Chelsea supporters for more than a decade, the veil of likability is slipping as time goes on.
Only the head coach and his players will know whether his demeanour is reflected in his man-management, but the handling of Marcos Alonso, Toni Rudiger, Fikayo Tomori and, most recently, Timo Werner suggests something is amiss. With members of his squad frozen out yet still training with the first team, there’s no way it can be a wholly happy camp.
Werner’s struggles have been well documented, and Lampard – who reportedly got on the blower himself to convince the German to make the £47.5m switch to Stamford Bridge – has publicly backed him to succeed, only to drop him and seemingly dig him out on two occasions.
Speaking after being outplayed at the King Power, he pointedly said: “There are players who are not playing as well as they should be, that’s a simple fact. It was clear tonight and they’re the only ones who can deal with that.
“The things you can deal with, how you work in training, how you prepare, how you handle setbacks, will be what define you. There are players in the team who are in that position.”
Lampard’s issue is that it’s not just a select few who are seriously underperforming, with arguably only Mason Mount able to hold his head up high after the events of recent weeks. The common denominator is, unfortunately, the head coach, his cognitive dissonance with team selections, muddled tactics and lack of a discernible style of play.
His appointment in 2019 offered a beacon of hope in what could have been a very dark era for the club, and he undeniably deserves huge credit for weathering a transfer ban to guide Chelsea safely into the Champions League last season, thought it must be said that the Blues ultimately crawled over the line and benefitted hugely from their challengers – including Leicester – faltering.
There is an air of inevitability that, with £200m spent in the summer, it has transpired that Lampard is not the man to take Chelsea to the next level, and the finger should rightly be pointed at those members of the hierarchy who thought it just to hand the novice coach a three-year contract.
Those who defend Lampard point to the idea of a ‘project’, which last season certainly was with the need to navigate the embargo and promote youth – but that arguably would have been the case whoever was in charge. The summer’s lavish outlay has thrown the notion of a project out the window, with the club inevitably reverting back to type in a bid to quickly re-establish itself among Europe’s elite.
“The process is sometimes tough. You would’ve seen that perhaps in year one, two or three at Liverpool under Jurgen Klopp, year one under Pep Guardiola.”
– Lampard speaking pre-Man City defeat
Supporters in some quarters feel he deserves more time, but with this poor form now stretching back ten games that would only be justified on the proviso that there are signs of recovery, which simply isn’t the case as things stand.
Lampard has spoken himself about requiring patience, just as Klopp and Pep Guardiola were afforded in their early days at Liverpool and Man City respectively. The problem is, he is evidently not a Klopp or Guardiola, but you have to admire the temerity.
Who knows, after a few years of development elsewhere he may well emerge as a top-level coach, but at the moment he is out of his depth. As difficult as it might be, it’s time for the club’s supporters and top brass alike to remove those rose-tinted glasses and look beyond the legend.
In the 18-year Roman Abramovich era, no manager has survived such a torrid period, and indeed several have been relieved for far less egregious runs of form. At the nadir of an abysmal streak with a title challenge in tatters and Champions League hopes hanging in the balance, why should Lampard be treated any differently?