Every time Chelsea struggle at the height of the season – and make no mistake, seven points from a possible 24 in the final eight rounds of the Premier League – it’s a huge setback, and it revolves around an impatient Roman Abramovich surrounded by a virtual courtyard (perhaps Zoom, or more likely Telegram) of Game of Thrones – trusted agents, advisers and friends pushing for potential replacements and the imperative for change.
That seems plausible, given that Chelsea (without Steve Holland or Ray Wilkins and their one-off offers) have made 13 coaching changes since Roman Abramovich took the reins of the club in 2003. It’s more than Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal combined. Add to that the fact that Chelsea are in that position (eighth in the table) after the end of their fourth season and the start of their summer transfer campaign, which resulted in a net spend of £170.9 million according to Transfermarkt. Again, it’s more than Liverpool, Manchester United and Arsenal combined.
So questions are inevitable. Is Frank Lampard’s work safe? Who replaces him at Chelsea? How long before Lampard leaves?
Signs that this is all premature come from the club. No one is guaranteed a job forever, but there are many things Lampard did well during his 18 months at the helm of the company, and the goal is to give him every opportunity to succeed. That basically means he stays here unless the situation deteriorates further, or Chelsea suddenly think a top-four finish is seriously threatened and someone else can come along now and give him his best chance in the Champions League next season.
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Are these empty words? Perhaps, but a closer look at Chelsea’s past and present suggests they may be telling the truth. And there are many clues as to why.
Especially that the manager-manager who replaced Abramovich is a bit overworked, especially in recent seasons. Yes, Lampard is their seventh coach since he won the Champions League in 2012, but two of the six (Rafa Benitez and Guus Hiddink) were interim coaches on short-term contracts. Roberto Di Matteo himself was a temporary coach who became permanent when he won the European Champions Cup, but he was never seen as a long-term solution.
While it is true that he could have been fired anyway, Maurizio Sarri was actually going to run Juventus. Jose Mourinho’s return has finally put the club a point above the relegation zone: not exactly a blow to the currency. Eventually Antonio Conte lasted until the end of his second season, although his relationship with the club deteriorated rapidly and severely.
Lampard is frustrated and has made some big mistakes in the Chelsea team this season, but the team’s problems are not just down to his leadership. TIM KEETON/POOL/AFP via Getty Images
More importantly, Chelsea made a major decision last summer that went against the conventional wisdom and actions of almost every other major club: They doubled down and spent a lot of money recruiting new players during a pandemic, when they knew revenues would be severely affected (which they were), and they didn’t know how long it would last. Match revenues fell to zero, media revenues fell as broadcasters asked for (and received) discounts, while commercial partners began to reduce their revenues.
Chelsea’s decision to sign players during the pandemic and Timo Werner, Edouard Mendy, Malang Sarr, Ben Chilwell and Kai Havertz (plus Hakeem Ziyeh, whose contract was signed before we knew what COVID-19 was, and Thiago Silva, who came as a free transfer but with a high salary) may have been counterintuitive, but from a certain point of view it made sense. They were building assets at a time when competition was generally waning – assets that would have increased in value if they had played well and, because they were young, would have retained their value if they had fought back.
The problem is that the pandemic has worked both ways.
It would be cheaper to buy, but it has also become very difficult to sell or even borrow players with the kind of salary Chelsea players have. At least 11 players – and their salaries – were still separated at Stamford Bridge, waiting to see what the future holds for them at the start of the season. Some, like Ross Barkley and Reuben Loftus-Cheek, arrived early in the campaign. Lampard, who already had a very limited pre-season, had to deal with a bloated team, which only made the task more difficult. With the injuries of some key players (Ziyech, Christian Pulisic) and the late arrival of Haverz, there was simply no time to make the decisions and experiments that are usually made in pre-season.
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The club are well aware of this, as well as the fact that integrating six regulars (or at least fixed-price players) into the XI will be anything but easy, so the argument that Lampard needs time to fully evaluate is valid. However, there is no doubt that mistakes were made, whether it was the change of character in midfield and the expansion of the team, Timo Werner playing alone in attack or the bumpy relationship with Antonio Rudiger at the start of the year.
The fact that Lampard has changed course and taken a different approach is seen by some club members as encouraging and a sign of intelligence. But sooner or later you have to do it right and get results.
Frank Lebouf wants Chelsea FC players to take responsibility for their appalling performance against Leicester City.
Another factor in Lampard’s favor is that despite a great team, he has a clear weakness. Everyone knows that Chelsea only have one midfielder who specializes in defense in N’Golo Kante, and that he rarely plays like a purebred midfielder who finds himself in front of all four defenders. Chelsea was linked to Declan Rice for most of the summer, and to many observers, that made sense. Twenty-two years old, three years in the Premier League, eight years at Chelsea Youth Academy before being released, and his partner Mason Mount… what’s wrong?
Except that this deal never happened, and while Rice may not be the reincarnation of Claude Makelele as some Chelsea fans think, there is no doubt that he would have made the team more balanced in the middle of the park by providing more protection to the back line and a platform for the forward players. We don’t know why this didn’t happen, we know it was talked about all summer and we can assume the £80m price West Ham paid for his services had something to do with it.
Under normal circumstances players like Barkley, Loftus-Cheek and maybe Jorginho would have been sold to raise the necessary funds, but the pandemic football economy is not a normal situation. Which begs the question: What if Chelsea had spent Havertz’s money (£72m plus bonuses) on Rice instead? Is this a situation where you have to choose between one or the other? And if that were the case, what would Lampard want?
There is no doubt that Havertz is a generational talent, but there is also no doubt that he is a very young player whose price tag is very high and who will have to adjust to a new league without the benefit of the preseason. Moreover, there is still no consensus on his natural position, which is why Lampard has used him in at least four different roles. In each of these roles, Chelsea already had much more depth than Rice would have had.
There is also no doubt that Havertz has not lived up to his price or salary: He hasn’t played 90 minutes of football since mid-October. He can still flourish, of course, but in many ways his signing symbolises the ongoing tension between a club that thinks long-term and a manager who necessarily thinks about his job and gets results this season.
Pointing out the signs and saying who wants who is useless and destructive, and Chelsea really wants to avoid that. It was a joint decision between Lampard, football director Petr Cech, international scouting leader Scott McLachlan and others. That’s all I’m saying. But those in attendance know who made the discussion, and they know why and how they didn’t sign Rice or a player like Rice. Abramovich probably knows that too.
Last season’s performance combined with the above three factors will keep a manager in place, provided the results start to improve. Lampard is far from perfect, and he’d be the first to admit it. In fact, it would be strange if a man with two seasons of management experience didn’t make mistakes. But in addition to the usual mitigating circumstances, others apply here, including some like B. Rice, which may be just below the surface.
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