The trouble with hiring a novice is becoming impossible for Chelsea to ignore. Half a season has drifted by and a side assembled at great expense shows no sign of developing an identity. Although Frank Lampard was handed more than £200m to spend last summer, the job is starting to look too big for him. Craftier managers are exposing flaws too easily. Brendan Rodgers was the latest to teach Lampard a painful lesson in strategy on Tuesday and 19 games into a fraught campaign Chelsea are entitled to expect more than a series of tactically incoherent displays.
Patience is wearing thin within the corridors of power. The sense is of the walls closing in on Lampard after his team’s defeat by Leicester, whose discipline, precise movements and rapier counterattacks highlighted the benefits of having an experienced manager. While Rodgers had Leicester playing with nous and purpose, Chelsea were devoid of a plan from front to back. The blame for that lies with one person.
Admittedly Lampard was not wrong to offer some realism after the game, arguing that Chelsea are not ready to compete at the highest level yet. Whether that remark will sit well with Roman Abramovich is debatable, but it is not without merit. After all Lampard inherited a transfer ban upon his appointment in 2019, leaving him unable to replace Eden Hazard, and a cramped schedule has made it difficult for last summer’s arrivals to settle in their new surroundings. As with any manager, it is not unreasonable for Lampard to ask for time to get Timo Werner, Kai Havertz and Hakim Ziyech fizzing in attack.
The issue, however, is that there has been no evidence of tangible progress this season. Lampard did well last year, overcoming the transfer embargo to finish fourth and qualify for the Champions League. There were some notable wins, including a precious double over José Mourinho’s Tottenham. But there were also obvious flaws along the way. Chelsea often defended shambolically, conceding too often from set pieces and in transition, and lacked ideas in attack at times. Those issues were on full display against Leicester, who scored two soft goals before holding out with relative ease.
It was another disappointing effort against tough opponents from Chelsea, who languish in eighth place with 29 points from 19 games. Their record against teams in the top 11 is poor: one win, four draws and five defeats, with nine goals scored and 15 conceded. It speaks volumes that the goal difference is bolstered by late consolations in the chaotic 3-1 defeats by Arsenal and Manchester City. Even positives feel deceptive: the win over seventh-placed West Ham was hardly commanding.
The impression is of a team without a style; a team of muddled strangers rather than a relentless collective; a team whose players are struggling to grasp their manager’s ideas. Lampard’s selections have been questionable – Antonio Rüdiger, fifth-choice centre-back at the start of the season and awful against Leicester, has suddenly replaced Kurt Zouma as Thiago Silva’s partner – and his substitutions unconvincing. He has chopped and changed searching for the right blend but the football is bland. The win over Fulham last Saturday was a case in point. Despite playing the entire second half against 10 men, Chelsea lacked creativity, crossing aimlessly until Mason Mount grabbed a late winner.
Two days later Lampard put forward his side’s inexperience as a reason for their inconsistency in the final third. Yet the players might retort that their manager landed the job after a season with Derby in the Championship. Werner, goalless in 11 league games and a late substitute against Leicester, scored 34 goals for RB Leipzig last season. The 27-year-old Ziyech was a Champions League semi-finalist with Ajax two years ago. Havertz and Christian Pulisic are two of the best young attackers around.
Where does the issue lie? Some feel that Lampard returned to Stamford Bridge too soon, reasoning that he has not built up a body of work to fall back on in hard times. He is learning on the job, supported by an equally raw backroom team. The 42-year-old is a legend at Chelsea but his coaching CV is limited. Under pressure, it is not a surprise if his decision-making is iffy.
Rodgers had coached in Chelsea’s academy and managed Swansea, Reading and Watford by the time he arrived at Liverpool in 2012. The Leicester manager has spent years improving, whereas Lampard has been fast-tracked. Damningly, one manager who faced Chelsea this season would later speak in private of Lampard’s tactical naivety.
Eventually, for all that Lampard spoke about players not “doing the basics” after losing to Leicester, the evidence piles up. It was not simply down to individuals when Chelsea allowed Wolves to score a last-minute breakaway winner last month, or N’Golo Kanté was left in forlorn pursuit of Raheem Sterling for City’s third goal this month. The lack of organisation when Leicester scored from a short corner had a cause. It is generous in the extreme to assume, as certain television pundits do, that errors are unrelated to structural issues.
In the end it comes back to Lampard. It was a populist appointment but Chelsea have started to draw up alternative names. Lampard has to learn from his humbling by Rodgers. He still has time but Chelsea’s patience has limits. No manager is safe when Abramovich sees Champions League qualification slipping away.