The thing about getting a dream job is that most likely it’ll turn into just another job, i.e. it won’t feel like a dream after some time, and you’ll probably get fired. The latter is even more likely in sports, even more so in soccer, and yet even more so at Chelsea. They cycle through managers like Spinal Tap drummers. And so the axe came down for Lampard today at Chelsea, with Thomas Tuchel reportedly waiting in the wings to take over.
Lampard’s stint as Chelsea manager was strange in that it was two very distinct jobs. And the first one kind of landed on him. When Chelsea hired Lampard in the summer of 2019, they were under a transfer ban that at the time was supposed to last two seasons. No new players for any manager to shape the roster as he liked. They would have to take what was lying around. Given the pressure a manager is under during normal circumstances at Stamford Bridge, it’s little wonder that most candidates treated the job like a nuclear waste site. Lampard was ready to answer when Chelsea were in a rare hour of need.
And that job, which it isn’t now, was suited for Lampard. It was rallying a bunch of young players who normally would never get a chance to play regularly with no expectations. Yes, Chelsea benefitted from Leicester’s choke job, and Spurs’ and Arsenal’s season-long nitrous balloon party to finish in the top four. But that’s underselling Lampard’s work. He was able to bring Mason Mount from a star in the Championship to a star in the Premier League and an England-regular. Christian Pulisic was able to adapt almost immediately to the league, even through regular injury problems. Ask Timo Werner or Kai Havertz how easy of a process that can be. Tammy Abraham may not be a star, but did move into a Premier League contributor. Lampard had to navigate being saddled with a sign-spinner in goal in Kepa Arrizabalaga and the jitters he created in defense to land Chelsea in the top four and the Champions League. Lampard was able to shift Chelsea from a four-man defense to a three-man and back again when called for.
And sure, there was comfort for some of the players in that thanks to the transfer ban they didn’t have to worry about losing their place. The squad wasn’t big enough. But that can lead to complacency, and that never slipped into Chelsea last season.
But once the transfer ban was lifted, and Chelsea could be Chel$ea again, it was a different job. And it’s a hard job. One that far more experienced managers than Lampard haven’t been able to navigate either.
Lampard was hamstrung in that Chelsea’s summer spending spree wasn’t particularly well thought out. Hakim Ziyech, Werner, Havertz are all forwards. There’s only three spots, and Pulisic is still there, and none of them really are a center forward. A shortened preseason meant that Lampard had no time to try things and get players used to each other. Pulisic’s and Ziyech’s injury issues only lessened the amount of time to find any chemistry. Lampard reportedly pushed for Declan Rice as well, the midfield anchor that Chelsea haven’t really had since N’Golo Kante started to slip. But the Chelsea board wanted the shiny things.
The money was spent. Players suddenly had competition for places. There were expectations. It was no longer comfortable. The midfield was still off-balance, the defense still had issues, and now there was a game every three days - pretty much eliminating any time on the training field to make it all gel.
That’s not to absolve Lampard. It was never clear what exactly was Chelsea’s style of play, whether they were all-guns-blazing yahoo attacking force or a counter-attacking side that struck quickly on the break, or anything in between. With Pulisic’s and Ziyech’s limited availability, Werner was shifted to the left, which hasn’t worked at all. He looks like a shell of himself. Havertz dealt with COVID before the season, and can’t find a home in the lineup. Their last few games they’ve looked completely disinterested.
But most of all, Lampard has fallen victim to what the three previous managers have at the club. There is no on-field leader. There’s no “manager on the pitch.” When things are going wrong, there’s no one to grab the game and team by the throat, and either calm them down or fire them up. Thiago Silva was brought in partially to fix that, but he doesn’t speak English. And he’s 36, so his struggles in defense lately undercut whatever authority his reputation earns him with his teammates. That’s a lot to juggle for any manager.
Tuchel is a better fit. He’s more experienced, and is used to juggling boardroom and transfer silliness from his time at PSG and Dortmund. The hope is that being German will help him find Werner from the jungle of despair he’s been in since September, as well as Havertz. Tuchel will still have to sort out a leaky defense and a mismatched midfield, as well as sort out playing time amongst all his forwards.
Still, there’s something internal at Chelsea. Lampard is the third straight manager where it’s all gone pear-shaped in his second season, and fourth-straight where it’s gone off in the first three. Before it was player insubordination, and maybe this is too, but something is rotten in the foundation at Chelsea. Jose Mourinho and Antonio Conte could at least boast winning titles before being chucked out with the trash. Maurizio Sarri and Lampard don’t. Until Chelsea figure out what is under the floorboards, this just might be what they are.