Frank Lampard will be announced as Chelsea’s new manager this week.
The decision to hire the 41 year-old is as radical as any made by Roman Abramovich since his purchase of the club in 2003, and has already caused quite some consternation in an already divided fan base in the short-term as to the appropriateness of the move, while also creating an intriguing dynamic for the months and hopefully years ahead.
Is it any more of a radical choice than Maurizio Sarri was a year ago, though? Then, you might recall, the Italian was the first manager permanently installed by Chelsea without a major honour on his resume since Gianluca Vialli took the reins from Ruud Gullit back in 1998. Roberto Di Matteo was hired on an interim basis in 2011, before going on to win both the FA Cup and the holy grail of the Champions League before his appointment was confirmed on a full-time basis, leaving Sarri as something of a left-field choice made primarily for ideas above and beyond success.
His was an arrival intended to fan the winds of change around Stamford Bridge. For Abramovich, the pursuit of success has not been enough; an affinity for a certain style of play has always been a tempting mistress, and a flirtation with so-called ‘attractive football’ has seen Luiz Felipe Scolari, Andre Vilas Boas and now Sarri come and go without ever really hitting the right notes. At every failed juncture, the Blues’ owner has scurried back to safe ground; Scolari was replaced first by Guus Hiddink and then Carlo Ancelotti, while Vilas Boas gave way to the steady hands of Rafael Benitez and Jose Mourinho. Even when The Special One left for the second time late in 2015, Hiddink came calling again, before Antonio Conte righted a ship heading for increasingly murky waters.
And now here we are with Lampard at the wheel. Yet, rather than it being an aesthetically-motivated choice, Chelsea appear to have gone with their heart rather than their head, which presents a certain irony amid claims that the heart has been slowly and agonisingly torn out from the club over the last half a decade or more. This, now more than ever and with Petr Cech’s return as Technical Advisor, is an attempt at unifying a fractured and frustrated support, leaning on the icons of yesterday and hoping to catch lightning in a bottle for the second time. At the very least, cynics might say it’s a transparent attempt at insulating the club against the trials and tribulations to come, but even then it makes sense in that particular vacuum. The incessant links with Lampards’s former team-mates bear further towards the suggestion that, by bringing together something of an Old Boys’ Club, Chelsea are buying themselves time while fighting against a strong tide heading their way.
Understandably, however, there are major doubts as to whether Lampard is ready for the job. Critics both mature and juvenile look at the underlying stats behind Derby’s sixth-place finish in the Championship – and subsequent Playoff Final defeat to Aston Villa – and ask whether everything was quite as it seems. Mark O’Haire, a freelance analyst, has been a favoured source of information for the loudest Lampard sceptics.
Cherry-picking statistics without applying context, however, is rather like submitting a book review without ever opening the tome, instead making a judgement based solely on the back cover. A top-down look at those numbers might suggest Derby were a possession-heavy team that struggled to create quality goalscoring chances, instead relying on a clutch of attacking midfielders to shoot from distance, which they managed to do with accuracy but without producing high-value scoring opportunities.
And that would be fair to an extent. The deep and very deep completions (defined by the author as “a completed forward pass collected 25 yards from goal is a deep completion, 15 yards from goal is considered very deep”) catch the eye for their perilously low ranking, but does it tell us about an inability to play passes in the penalty area, or a preference to shoot instead? Were Derby better off trying to score through the likes of Mason Mount, Tom Lawrence and Harry Wilson, rather than relying on a group of strikers lacking consistency and fitness? Was this approach made by the coaching staff to maximise Derby’s chances of success with the tools at their disposal?
Like everything else, these numbers give you a starting point when you put on the film and watch the Rams play football, and you can then begin to tell the full story. Few Chelsea fans invested more time in watching Derby last season than the aptly-named Ram Srinivas (@rramesss), and his quick summation of their efforts is worthy of consideration.
“Early on, he wanted his team to fit into a particular template or style of play, and persisted with it for a while before tailoring things more accordingly as opponents would press the CBs and DM high while playing with a low block. But he began to adapt gradually, and wasn’t quite so rooted in his ideals. Their reliance on individual quality suppressed their systematic development but, again, that began to improve towards the end of the season.”
Incidentally, Ram has produced an excellent analysis of his own that you should read here.
That initial simple analysis is supported by a look at the 46-game journey they went on in the league. The Championship is as unforgiving a competition as there is in football; it is relentless, ultra-competitive, and has chewed up and spat out some of the biggest clubs in England that thought they could half-arse their way towards their targets. Derby went into the 2018-19 campaign with a younger and more inexperienced squad through choice and financial fair play concerns combined, with Mount, Wilson, Fikayo Tomori, Jayden Bogle and Mason Bennett among their key players all aged 21 or under on the opening day, yet they spent just 18 days outside of the top eight all season, tallying nicely with pre-season betting odds that had them ranked anywhere between 6th and 10th in the table.
Frank will be the first to admit there were lessons learned and any number of things he could have done better in his debut year in management but, in isolation, being ninety minutes away from hauling his team into the Premier League at the first time of asking is a genuinely credible effort. Whether that makes him ready to manage Chelsea or not is besides the point; the reasons for his appointment go well beyond statistical merit, and we also have to ask ourselves why we should default to the position that what a manager has done in his previous job is what he’ll do in his next one. As a realist who outworked his competition to make the absolute most of the stage he found himself on as a player, it would be churlish to expect anything different from Lampard the manager. A period of adjustment was inevitable at Derby, but particularly towards the end of the season, there were clear signs of the acumen required to succeed anywhere.
Lampard is one of the most successful footballers in English history. He has also worked under a who’s who of the most influential managers of the last 40 years. Harry Redknapp, Claudio Ranieri, Mourinho, Hiddink, Scolari, Carlo Ancelotti, Benitez, Manuel Pellegrini, Sven-Goran Eriksson, Fabio Capello and Roy Hodgson have, between them, won twelve Champions Leagues or continental equivalents, in excess of 50 league titles, more than 100 major honours overall, and a World Cup for the cherry on top of the cake. The coaching trees they have sprouted from, and have forged themselves, reach as far and as wide as Sir Bobby Robson, Pep Guardiola, Arrigo Sacchi and Johan Cruyff. Assistant Manager Jody Morris spent his formative years at Stamford Bridge under the tutelage of Glenn Hoddle and Ruud Gullit. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a coaching team with as wide an array of influential thinkers having impacted the way they work.
Indeed, the Hoddle and Gullit years themselves yielded quite a diverse coaching fraternity. Steve Clarke, Erland Johnsen, John Spencer, Mark Hughes, Dennis Wise, Dan Petrescu, Vialli, Di Matteo, Gianfranco Zola and Gustavo Poyet headline those who swapped the pitch for the dugout when their playing days were over, with plenty more having explored coaching or other non-playing opportunities, all to varied degrees of success. All of this is to say that, while the opportunity to learn from the best to ever do it is no guarantee or marker of future success, it certainly gives you a leg up on the way there. We frequently hear about how Guardiola was influenced by Cruyff, by Marcelo Bielsa and by Juanma Lillo as he transitioned into management; deep thinkers, all with a certain hipster allure, but undeniably important as he made his own way. If you think Lampard hasn’t cultivated his own ideals after 25 years working with a litany of champions, you’re very much mistaken. As he told Premier League World last month, “I’ve tried to take all those little influences but, the important thing I think as a manager is that you don’t try to clone yourself. I don’t want to be the next Mourinho or Ancelotti, no; I’m influenced by them, but I want to be myself as a manager.”
Does it make him any more likely to win at Chelsea? Compared to his predecessors and to his direct rivals in the Premier League probably not, but he is uniquely placed to understand the demands of the job from day one, more so than anyone that has gone before him other than Mourinho at the start of his second spell, because of his long-standing relationship with the club and with Abramovich. In his 2006 autobiography, “Totally Frank”, Lampard was able to astutely distill his relationship with the Russian supremo into the main reason for his return to work under him these thirteen years later:
“He is also a very intelligent and clever manager of people and assets. He has proven that in his field of business and now he is proving it on the football field. Only those behind the scenes who work closely with him – the manager and the players – really know the secret of our success and if pressed to give a single answer I would put spirit ahead of everything else.”
It couldn’t be clearer that the risk in bringing in such an inexperienced manager has been measured against the enmity running through the club, in spite of its consistent success since 2012, and by understanding the manner in which the last three managers have departed the club you get a sense as to what Chelsea want the road forward to look like. Mourinho, in the wake of the deeply shameful Eva Carneiro debacle and with increasing friction between him and the board, became surly and more withdrawn with each passing week up until his pre-Christmas exit. Conte experienced similar frustrations with what he felt was a lack of support after winning the league, but failed dismally in cultivating positive relationships with key players, and ended up focusing on the inevitable payoff that would come with his sacking. Sarri, of course, appeared to lack interest in the more personable aspects of his job, was reportedly curt and dismissive to long-serving players no longer in his plans, and significant portions of the match-going fan base remained unconvinced to the very end.
Even before them, the decision to part company with Di Matteo less than three months into his reign after succeeding where all others had failed in Europe, and to draft in Benitez despite the strength of fan feeling against him, was arguably the start of the ‘palpable discord’ era. In bringing Frank Lampard back home, by bringing Jody Morris with him as his assistant, and with the presumptive addition of academy coaches like Joe Edwards into the first-team environment, Abramovich appears to be turning the page to a new chapter in SW6. The story is yet to be written, but the intended prose is loosely based around Lampard’s playing days; a purposeful coaching team able to create a close-knit playing squad, with opportunities for home-grown talent – both players and coaches – to develop, and to make Chelsea feel like Chelsea again.
That’s a hard concept to define properly; what is Chelsea? To many, it’s their local club that they grew up with as if it was a member of their own family. To others, it’s the relentless Abramovich-era winning machine that almost demands success at all costs. The former are more likely to accept the peaks and troughs that come with football at any level and understand that success is not a given. Many of the latter, weaned on a regular supply of confetti and fireworks and silverware, want the club do whatever it takes to return to the top of the world game. The unifying thread running through it all, though, is surely the Chelsea that Mourinho built, that Lampard and Cech built, that Terry and Drogba and Cole and Carvalho and Essien and so many others built.
Yes, this is a choice made with a heavy dose of nostalgia. Yes, Lampard is working with one hand tied behind his back by comparison to his Blues forefathers; Eden Hazard has gone, the transfer ban is hanging over the club, and there is much work to do on the playing squad. Reports, however, of a demise to mid-table mediocrity, are greatly exaggerated. The correlation between wage bill and club success remains one of the strongest indicators of consistent success and, as long as Chelsea retain one of the largest wage bills in England and in Europe, they will be well-positioned to challenge for not just for honours, but for a consistent place in the upper reaches of the Premier League. He arrives working with a third-placed finish and, despite the loss of Hazard, he has a squad that achieved that finish at his immediate disposal.
Comparisons to other managers who achieved great things early in their careers will abound just as often as criticisms that he doesn’t stack up against the current heavyweights, but these are hollow in the first place. The focus should be on what he brings to the job, spending less time peeking into the house next door, and instead getting your own in order. There are fears too that his inevitable departure will sour his status as a club legend, but a cursory look at similar appointments at every level of the game reveals that people are able to separate the triumphs from the disasters and honour the legends just the same.
Chelsea haven’t had a manager last more than four full seasons since John Neal’s tenure in the mid-1980s. The likes of Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger are the exceptions rather than the rule and, as strong as the allure of a storied dynasty under one leader for two decades is, we must remind ourselves that Frank Rijkaard is the only Barcelona manager to last more than four years since the days of Cruyff, that Real Madrid have had nobody last more than three seasons since Vicente Del Bosque’s reign ended in 2003 and that Bayern Munich have had nobody in the role as long since 2004. The demands of modern football do not allow for long spells in charge of a team. This is how things are done now. Lampard will know that better than most, and life will go on, whether he spends another 13 years here or not.
There is more to football than winning. Chelsea Football Club, as a business and as a sporting institution, does indeed have a certain obligation to win. Lampard is a winner, and understands that better than anyone, but there is a greater power to be satisfied too. The sentimental aspect of all of this demonstrates that life is nothing without feeling, and that Chelsea is nothing without a beating heart. It might not be Lampard that makes the lion rampant again, but he’s the most obvious candidate to do it in 2019, and we’re about to embark upon another rollercoaster ride. Like all rollercoasters, the emotion is as much on the way up as it is coming back down, and the story is as much about the journey as the destination. Strap yourselves in.