Chelsea’s sacking of coach Frank Lampard shows that owner Roman Abramovich is as ruthless as ever in his pursuit of success and that patience is still not one of the Russian oligarch’s football virtues.
If anyone was immune to the revolving door management culture at Chelsea, it was surely Frank Lampard. As the club’s top goalscorer and serial winner as a Chelsea player, ‘Super Frank’ is a true, blue-blooded club legend.
Past successes weren’t enough, however, to buy Lampard time as a manager as he fought desperately to prevent the team’s alarming slump this season. After Lampard topped the Premier League table in early December, Chelsea were eliminated in ninth place – 11 points ahead of the top and five points ahead of the Champions League places.
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When Lampard was fired, Abramovich made the rare effort to add a personal message to the club’s statement, speaking of the couple’s “excellent personal relationship” and the “utmost respect” he has for his 42-year-old former manager.
Lampard’s status, he added, remains “undiminished” at the club, despite having been sent to pack with the worst profit share of any manager in the Abramovich era.
Kind words but Stamford Bridge is clearly still no place for emotion when you are the man in charge of the shelter.
Many had argued that Lampard deserved time and that his relationships with Abramovich and Marina Granovskaia – the trusted lieutenant of the Russian owner at Stamford Bridge – could give him more leeway than his predecessors.
Lampard had spoken ardently about his relationship with Granovskaia after his appointment in the summer of 2019, but in the end the couple is said to have increasingly argued over transfers and the fate of goalkeeping flop Kepa Arrizabalaga. A vote of no confidence by Granovskaia was likely to have been decisive in forcing Abramovich’s hand.
Abramovich was, of course, an absent owner physically as the 54-year-old oligarch has not been to a home game at Stamford Bridge since his visa problems due to the Skripal espionage poisoning scandal between Britain and Russia than it did two years ago.
Abramovich remains committed to the club, according to Bruce Buck, chairman of the club, despite ongoing rumors that the Russian would be ready to sell if the price is right (allegedly around the £ 3 billion mark).
Abramovich’s gigantic £ 230million spending on new players in the summer was seen as a sign of that commitment, but could also be seen as mere compensation for lost time after the Chelsea transfer ban – imposed due to irregularities in signing young players – was lifted FIFA in January 2020 or even a hint that Abramovich polished his fortune to make it more attractive for a possible sale.
But with Abramovich on site or not, Lampard is no fool and clearly knew his position was precarious.
Lampard had only a year manager experience at Championship Club Derby before joining Chelsea, and got the job because of the privileges he had earned as a player in the Blues. He had no illusions, however, that these privileges would one day keep him under control. Things began to go south.
Lampard was widely considered to be outdone in his first season in charge. He struggled with that transfer ban, bleeding young talent in the first team who still managed to secure fourth place and a place in the Champions League.
This season, however, expectations were higher after this summer break. Lampard led Chelsea through the Champions League knockout stage, but any hint that they would miss a return to competition next season – and the associated revenue – would always sound alarm bells. Chelsea are in that position now and Lampard is gone.
Perhaps more alarming than Chelsea’s league position, Lampard didn’t look like he had the answers to the current problems. Chelsea won the FA Cup clash against Morecambe and Luton and prevailed against 10-man Fulham in the Premier League this month, but those results were only written across the cracks.
The main reasons for Lampard’s death were the defeat by Arsenal on Boxing Day and the sad performances in the 3-1 home defeat by Manchester City on January 3rd and the 2-0 defeat by Leicester City last week.
During the Chelsea break-in, Lampard’s selection seemed scattered, as if looking for solutions. He may have chosen 4-3-3 as his preferred formation, but within that there was little continuity in defensive, midfield or attacking partnerships. Rotation will be key in this busy season, but Lampard’s hacking and staffing shift pointed more to the desperation his players are failing than to any method.
Chelsea were brutally exposed by Manchester City at Stamford Bridge, which, according to The Athletic, made Abramovich “angry”. Worse was following against Leicester – a match that exposed Lampard and Chelsea’s mistakes against a well-trained team under Brendan Rodgers that represented everything the Blues aren’t.
This match is said to have been the turning point for the Chelsea hierarchy, even if significant noise was made about Lampard’s departure much earlier.
The decisive factor was that Lampard did not get the best out of the club’s expensive summer signings – especially the German duo Kai Havertz and Timo Werner. The couple arrived at the club at a combined price that could go as high as £ 130 million, but both had trouble getting to bed. The 21-year-old playmaker Havertz was the jewel in the crown of Chelsea’s summer tour but has escaped in an out of games, scored only once in 16 Premier League games and registered only three assists.
The young German’s supporters can point out that Havertz was “hit hard” by Covid-19 at the beginning of this season, but compatriot Werner has no such excuses for the barren run in which he played eleven league games without a goal.
It is telling that Chelsea will name Thomas Tuchel as a replacement for Lampard. The 47-year-old German is in the market after being sacked by Paris Saint-Germain in December. Just as important, however, is his ability to speak the same language as Havertz and Werner, as Chelsea tries to get the best out of the couple in ways that Lampard clearly couldn’t.
If confirmed as expected, Tuchel will become the 13th other Abramovich-era manager at Chelsea. That’s quite a churn, but the Russian will point out that as part of the Roman Empire, Chelsea have had the greatest time in their history, winning five Premier League titles, five FA Cups, three League Cups, the Champions League and two Europa League title.
Whether this success was achieved due to or despite the trap door under the Stamford Bridge shelter is controversial.
Be that as it may, Lampard has now disappeared after just 18 months as the person in charge and is joining prestigious companies such as Jose Mourinho, Felipe Scolari, Antonio Conte and Maurizio Sarri, which are said to have received their marching orders from Chelsea’s Russian benefactor.
The first conversation under Lampard was about a new breed of Chelsea project, under a young manager and with an exciting group of young players. This time things could just be different, was the refrain.
But, as Lampard found out, some things don’t change about Stamford Bridge – and patience still isn’t one of Roman Abramovich’s virtues when he thinks his football club is in trouble.