There’s an alternate world where Frank Lampard is in the middle of his third season as Derby manager, developing his style on a smaller scale, at his own pace, away from Champions League expectations and the Premier League’s global eye. And while no one would blame Lampard for taking the Chelsea job at the beginning of the 2019 season after just one season at Derby, his firing just 18 months later is no surprise. It wasn’t so much an indictment on Lampard’s managerial ability but in the overall context at Chelsea. They are a club bridging the impossible extremes of title-winning expectations and the ambitions of a global brand. Managers don’t stay long at Chelsea; Roman Abramovich has seen through 16 different coaches since taking over the club. It’s not a manner of if, but when, all by design.
Lampard was supposed to change that narrative due to his club stature. If the Chelsea board would have more patience for anyone, surely it would be Lampard. You could even say that Lampard exceeded expectations in remaining at the job for over a year and finishing in the Champions League despite a transfer ban. But this Twitter thread shows the deficiencies after stripping away the narratives: his Chelsea side conceded 1.35 goals per match, the second most during their time in the Premier League. He finished with the third lowest win rate at the club since 2002. The friendliest interpretation is that Lampard can still eventually become a good manager with patience.
The transfer ban is instructive in understanding Lampard’s time as manager. It was a buffer year, shifting the narrative from building a dominant team to getting the most out of a side’s limited resources. Any failures last season could be blamed on the ban. Plus, the perception of overachieving can take a lot of forms as opposed to the binary of winning a title. Those expectations changed with last summer’s spending spree of over $270 million, during a pandemic, on six players challenging for first team positions. No longer did the squad have their backs against the wall; there was no such thing as a fuzzy overachieving team now.
Again, we all predicted that Chelsea’s spending would eventually be the end of Lampard. He was still learning on the job while managing arguably the deepest squad in the league. Lampard also needed to show an immediate return for Timo Werner and Kai Havertz considering their combined transfer fee of over $145 million (the two currently have five league goals between them). And while we can judge Lampard’s deficiencies in terms of tactical analysis, managing world-class egos in the locker room is still a black box.
What does a Lampard team look like? We saw glimpses of sturdiness post-lockdown, with Chelsea winning six out of nine matches. It looked something of a 4-3-3 counter attacking style, relying on the individual brilliance of dribblers like Christian Pulisic to create chances on their own. But without an overarching philosophy or idea of play, all young attacking players look like a hammer regardless of fit. Every response to problem-solving is to keep buying the highest-rated players on the market. Adding the structure and automated rotations to fully unlock those players, and to reinvigorate the less fancied names, takes the experienced touch.
To go further, what was Lampard’s most impressive result at Chelsea? His side’s 2-1 win over Manchester City last summer was his only win against a top four side. He was more famous for his sideline feuds with Jurgen Klopp and Jose Mourinho. We focus on the importance of player development, but that gap also shows how managers also have their own growth curve. Klopp, Mourinho, Pep Guardiola, Brendan Rodgers, and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer each spent years working with a youth team or lower division side, learning how to balance the boardroom egos, develop tactically, and manage the dressing room through dips in form. His replacement Thomas Tuchel had eight years of experience before taking on the Dortmund job in 2015. On experience alone, how did we think that Lampard would succeed?
Lampard still has time to become a good manager. And you can point to the unfairness in the amount of patience shown to his peers like Mikel Arteta and Solskjaer, who were given space to fail on the job. But there are clear tactical explanations for Lampard’s dismissal that go beyond the metagames. He implored his players to show more character and be louder in their communication. He then complained how his squad couldn’t do the basics of “sprinting, pressing, running” following a 3-1 loss to Arsenal, weeks before his eventual sacking. Maybe the decision to drop Lampard was much simpler than the underlying web of club politics.
Lampard’s failure could also be Tuchel’s biggest strength. There were rumors that Chelsea wanted a German manager to get the best out of their Bundesliga transfers in Havertz and Werner (and Pulisic). But what does the perfect Chelsea manager look like? Somewhere between Jose Mourinho’s ability to message to the masses, with Carlo Ancelotti’s laissez-faire approach, and Antonio Conte’s clear structure? Yet even if Chelsea were to find perfection, it would only be for a couple seasons anyway.
Immediately, Tuchel is on the clock. He is used to that short term cycle of managing stars and global ambitions considering his recent time at PSG. He said he longed for the “simple” life of just managing without the off-field distractions, but the allure of Chelsea and the Premier League has its own gravity. His 18-month contract is born out of realism. There is no point in fantasizing about longevity. Chelsea have an immediate problem, Tuchel presents the immediate solution. Then both can move on without fuss.
Perhaps running out of ideas, Lampard began lashing out in his final months. He blamed television broadcasters for giving his side just two days of rest between matches against Arsenal and Aston Villa over the holiday period. Rodgers tried to swoop in with tangential support, saying that British managers don’t receive the same level of respect as their foreign peers (there are currently nine English managers in the Premier League after Lampard’s dismissal).
“As British managers we are always judged in the most difficult league in the world,” said Rodgers of being thrown in a short-term, results driven environment with billions at stake.
Though Lampard also said that he’s “not crying” about the short-termism of the Premier League. And his next move is as existential as it is professional. Where do you go after you fail at your dream job? In a perfect world, Lampard would have had a Sir Alex Ferguson-esque impact, winning domestic and continental trophies over two decades while becoming synonymous with the club. He is still just 42 years old, with time to redefine his career. And instead of aspirations of becoming a club legend, he can rejoin his previous attainable path of just developing into a good manager. Management is its own journey, separate from playing status. You cannot fast track the years of experience for the dream of a homecoming, no matter how perfect the story.