Chelsea announced the sacking of manager Frank Lampard on Monday morning after just 18 months in charge.
The former midfielder became the latest managerial casualty of the 2020-21 Premier League season, with Chelsea ninth in the table having won just one of their previous five league matches.
A club legend, the 42-year-old sealed his return to Stamford Bridge in July 2019 as a replacement for the outgoing Maurizio Sarri and steered the club to a fourth-place finish during his first season in charge. That was despite the heavy restraints imposed upon the club’s season by their transfer embargo, and punishment which has since been lifted.
Lampard’s debut season also welcomed an FA Cup Final appearance, though a 2-1 defeat to rivals Arsenal means the departing manager leaves without any silverware – a necessity for billionaire owner Roman Abramovich.
The decision to part ways with their manager at this point in the season appears a rather desperate bid to rekindle any hopes of domestic silverware. Chelsea enjoyed a brief stint at the top of the table following a 3-1 win over Leeds in December, but their recent form has sent them plummeting down into mid-table obscurity, and a damning 11 points adrift of leaders Manchester United.
Since a 1-0 defeat to Everton on December 12, the Blues have suffered defeats against Wolves, Arsenal, Manchester City, and Leicester; whilst they have also been held to a 1-1 draw by Aston Villa.
That said, Lampard safely negotiated the club’s Champions League group, topping Group E with an impressive unbeaten record. They face Spanish giants Atletico Madrid in the knockout round next month.
For Chelsea and Lampard, it’s back to the drawing board. Many candidates will already have been drawn up, including Thomas Tuchel, who was recently made available following his dismissal from Paris Saint-Germain.
As for Lampard, a new managerial challenge beckons; though his remarkable record as a Chelsea player and icon in a career spanning 648 appearances, remains intact.
But where exactly did it all go wrong?
His initial appointment was always a gamble. He understands the club and its history, but his managerial experience was minimal. His first posting was at Championship outfit Derby, where they lost to Aston Villa in the Play-Off Final.
He had just one season with the Rams before Abramovich picked up the phone, so Chelsea’s own risk-taking strategy should have been taken into account. But as I’ve previously said, it’s a winning business and the Chelsea hierarchy want to ensure they remain in the hunt across all competitions.
It’s also harsh to consider that Lampard only had 18 months out of a three-year term to set about his work, especially given he spent the first portion of that unable to source reinforcements. Once the transfer ban was lifted, the club spent more than £200 million on seven major signings, including £45m on Leicester’s Ben Chilwell, and £71m on midfielder Kai Havertz.
It is the most that Chelsea have spent in a single summer, surpassing the £186m they spent at the start of the 2017-18 season under Antonio Conte.
But to say any of Lampard’s new recruits have been an outright success would be a stretch. Havertz has struggled, while £50m goalscorer Timo Werner has netted just four times in 19 league appearances.
Goalkeeper Edouard Mendy appeared the most consistent of their summer imports, though a recent lack of clean sheets has seen his own form stutter. Chelsea needed to reinforce the squad in the summer in order to throw their hat into the ring for a title challenge, however, you can’t expect all of Lampard’s new signings to gel instantly.
Lampard’s biggest problem was in not knowing his best team, and when you spend that much money, you simply have to perform. Would Olivier Giroud have been a better choice to lead the line instead of a faltering Werner, for example?
His faith in the club’s youngsters swiftly went out the window once he was able to look elsewhere. Fikayo Tomori, Reece James, Tammy Abraham and Mason Mount were all imperative for Lampard in his first season.
Tomori, for example, has just joined AC Milan on loan until the end of the season, having featured just four times this term. He made 22 appearances last term and earned a senior England cap.
Even against Luton in the FA Cup on Sunday, Lampard was still tinkering and experimenting with tactics and systems. He can be excused for learning on the job because of his lack of experience, but he spent too long searching for the perfect mentality.
Someone like Tuchel or Conte, on the other hand, has a distinct style of play; it’s their way or no way. Having spent so many years there as a player, Lampard should have known better but to believe he’d always have more time to stop the rot.
But ultimately, Lampard only ‘failed‘ for six weeks. His first season was a triumph, silverware or not. Meanwhile, seven games ago they were top of the table, and things were looking good.
That is the harsh reality of a managerial position in football’s toughest league. Bigger, more experienced names have tried and failed to meet Chelsea’s title-orientated blueprint. Lampard was thrown in at the deep end and was expected to swim.
Maybe he would have had more time if it were elsewhere.