Another Chelsea Head Coach Bites the Dust
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After a dominant 3-1 win over Leeds United on December 5, 2020, Chelsea FC seized the first place spot in the English Premier League. They were ninth in the league by January 20, having suffered five losses in eight games. Most of the blame was placed on Frank Lampard, their inexperienced head coach, who found his beginnings on the very same team. As a player, Lampard was a goal-scoring machine and now holds the record for most goals scored in Chelsea. However, it was officially announced by January 26 that Chelsea had fired Lampard after just 18 months of leadership. Was the Chelsea board of directors right to be so trigger-happy with this decision, or did Lampard deserve more time?
Statistically, compared to other head coaches’ tenures, Lampard’s was quite underwhelming. Ever since owner Roman Abramovich bought the club in 2003, Chelsea has been known for firing coaches quickly once they fall out with the players or board or once they experience a poor run of form. In fact, of the 12 head coaches to have held the job for more than one game during Abramovich’s reign, Lampard ranks fourth for duration, as only José Mourinho (five years, nine months over two spells), Antonio Conte (two years), and Carlo Ancelotti (one year, 11 months) lasted longer. All three of them won the Premier League at least once (Mourinho did so three times) and amassed a total nine trophies during their time at Chelsea. Contrastingly, Lampard won no trophies and had the worst points-per-game ratio of all 12 head coaches. He was fired after 84 games with just a 52 percent win ratio. Meanwhile, Ole Gunnar Solskjær, the coach of Chelsea rival Manchester United FC, had a 51 percent win ratio after the same number of games, but his club stayed patient with him, and they are now second in the league. However, the tendency to “hire and fire” frequently is part of Chelsea’s identity, and Lampard would have known this characteristic walking into the job. In fact, based on the statistics alone, he received more time than what is normally given to Chelsea managers and was extremely fortunate to last as long as he did.
Yet, Lampard’s record was not always disappointing, and in fact, he overachieved in his first season considering the low expectations the media placed on him as a head coach due to the circumstances he had to deal with. When he acquired the job during the summer of 2019, he had only had one year of managerial experience, which was coaching Derby County in the second tier of English soccer, the Championship. Moreover, Chelsea had just sold Eden Hazard, who had been the club’s best player for the better part of a decade. The club was also facing a transfer ban that blocked the signing of any new players, because they had breached regulations involving the international transfers of players under the age of 18. With a hoard of players passing their primes and many either being sold or shunned from the starting 11, Lampard turned to the products of Chelsea’s famed youth academy. Chelsea’s academy team won the FA Youth Cup for five consecutive years between 2013 and 2018, while also winning the UEFA Youth League, the most prestigious academy competition in Europe, twice. However, ever since John Terry had broken into the team in 1998, no academy product has been able to hold down a spot as one of the team’s top performers. Lampard immediately gave academy players more trust than any previous head coach, handing out a record eight academy player debuts. He made young players like midfielder Mason Mount, forward Tammy Abraham, defender Reece James, and defender Fikayo Tomori integral parts of the team and gave opportunities to teenagers Callum Hudson-Odoi and Billy Gilmour. With this youthful team, Chelsea was not expected to make the next year’s UEFA Champions League by finishing in the top four in the Premier League, but they secured the fourth place spot. The media and fans viewed this as a momentous achievement and commended Lampard for beating the odds.
Lampard seemed poised for good things at the start of the summer of 2020. After a summer transfer ban had prohibited Chelsea from spending any money the previous year, Abramovich sanctioned a spending spree that saw the club expend more than any other team in Europe. Most clubs had a modest transfer window because of the economic problems inflicted by COVID-19, but Chelsea still spent over $270 million. German midfielder Kai Havertz cost $89 million (a club record fee), while his German teammate Timo Werner ($58 million), English left-back Ben Chilwell ($55 million), Moroccan attacking midfielder Hakim Ziyech ($44 million), and Senegalese goalkeeper Édouard Mendy ($26 million) were all also signed for hefty sums. Thiago Silva, the defender and ex-captain of Paris Saint-Germain, joined on a free transfer. All six of these major signings were meant to play a vital role as Chelsea was supposed to be challenging for the Premier League title. At the very least, Lampard was expected to lead his fresh team to the top four with more points than they had the previous season.
Until December, everything seemed rosy. Werner was Chelsea’s top scorer and assister, and Chilwell, Silva, and Mendy had revitalized a leaky defense so that Chelsea had more clean sheets (games without letting the opposition score) than any other team in the league. Ziyech was also creating ample chances and racking up assists every time he was able to play. Havertz was the only signing who was not firing on all cylinders, but many people attributed this performance to his young age, difficulty adapting to life in England, and possible effects from his contraction and heavy symptoms of COVID-19.
Unfortunately, the new signings soon started to falter. A turning point in their season came on December 12, when Chelsea lost 1-0 to Everton, with Mendy making a mistake and giving the opposition a penalty that produced the only goal of the game. After keeping nine clean sheets in their previous 13 appearances in all competitions, Chelsea’s defense, led by Silva, Mendy, and Chilwell, went on to only keep two clean sheets in the last eight Premier League games of Lampard’s tenure. Werner did not score in the last 11 games, Ziyech missed December due to an injury, and Havertz continued to perform underwhelmingly. The Chelsea Board was the most furious with Lampard’s inability to capitalize on German duo Havertz and Werner.
With poor results and a lack of experience, trophies, and success from his new signings, Lampard’s temper and attitude deteriorated his relationships with the team executives. According to a report from Sports Illustrated, Lampard’s stubborn tendencies harmed his relationship with Marina Granovskaia, an influential Chelsea director. Lampard’s personality also hurt his relationships with the players. Many fringe players complained about not being spoken to for months, and others felt Lampard lacked empathy, epitomised by his overly harsh criticism.
Eventually, these factors led to Lampard’s tarnished reputation and firing. Based on the rapid removal of his predecessors, it seems he deserved it. A day after Lampard was sacked, December 26, it was announced German head coach Thomas Tuchel would take over. The general consensus is that Tuchel is experienced, having won trophies at both Borussia Dortmund and Paris Saint-Germain, and his German heritage will help him get the best out of Havertz and Werner, making him a step up from Lampard. Even though it seems Lampard got more time than he deserved, some Chelsea fans are still pained to see their legend fail and believe the club should have shown more loyalty to a man who had been a faithful player for them for 13 years. There is still some hope that he will return at a later point once he has gained more experience and is ready to take on the unique challenge of being the head coach of Chelsea.
For now, Lampard’s immediate future is unclear. It is unlikely he will get a job at another top club because of how his time at Chelsea ended, but he still did well in his first season and could be offered the head coaching role for a team lower down in the Premier League or in the United States’s Major League Soccer, where he spent a year as a player for New York City FC. He may also choose to take some time off, given that his wife Christine is expecting her second child—his fourth including children from a previous marriage—with him around April. Once he is more experienced, Lampard could well return to Chelsea as the head coach to redefine his legacy after his player years, but only time will tell whether he will be afforded the opportunity a second time and can lead the team to glory before biting the dust again.