As introductions to Premier League life go, few can match Frank Lampard’s trial by fire as Chelsea manager.
It is sometimes easy to forget that the 2019/20 Premier League campaign was only his second full domestic season as a senior-level manager, such is the way he has handled one of the most coveted jobs in Europe. Though the campaign just gone yielded the same blank of trophies that has seen several of his predecessors terminated, there appears to be little doubt that the Stamford Bridge legend is here to stay.
Ugly moments prove character-building
Lampard’s maiden season at Chelsea is unique, in that he was denied an immediate opportunity to rebuild the squad due to UEFA sanctions, following the departure of Eden Hazard – Chelsea’s best player of the last decade by a considerable distance. Having been left with no alternative, a focus on youth development has been Lampard’s main mission so far, and it is a task he has accomplished admirably well.
Even so, there are moments that justify the doubters as well as the believers, and act as reality checks in what remains a relatively new regime. So too does Chelsea’s standing as relatively distant third-favourites to win the title in 2021, as can be monitored on the latest set of sporting index fixed odds.
It looked as though Lampard’s job was in danger even before the end of August. Following a 4-0 opening day defeat at Old Trafford, both home games in that month (vs Leicester and Sheffield United) saw Chelsea start well, only to fade away and concede equalisers. The latter occasion, which saw Chelsea throw away a two-goal lead against newly-promoted opposition, was in some ways more painful than the opening weekend’s baptism of fire.
A further drab spell came in the late autumn / pre-Christmas period, during which Chelsea lost three straight home games to-nil against teams that would end the campaign in the bottom half of the table, including relegated Bournemouth.
It is also hard to ignore the way in which Chelsea capitulated to Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s double in the FA Cup final. Better game management from the players must be in evidence next season, and with the average age of the squad only set to dip, there is still a lingering fear that the improved star quality will remain offset by a lack of composure.
Saved by Pulisic and Abraham
Lampard may already have gone the way of fellow Chelsea idol Roberto Di Matteo, and lost his job after mere weeks, had Chelsea not enjoyed a tremendous early autumn winning streak. Between 28 September and 9 November, Chelsea recorded six straight wins, with an average of 2.33 goals per game in that run.
Christian Pulisic in particular went into overdrive, netting five goals across the last three of those wins, proving that he is more than worthy to replace either of Willian and Pedro long-term. Tammy Abraham also answered those who so shamefully threatened him on social media, after missing a decisive penalty in the UEFA Super Cup.
Between game weeks 3 and 5, he averaged 2.33 goals, with a hat-trick against Wolves on 14 September confirming his credentials as a genuine threat.
Credit must also be given where due for the resilience shown by Chelsea after losing their first Champions League group game – a drab 1-0 home defeat to Valencia. Each of their three group-stage victories came by a nail-biting one-goal margin, but if anything summarised the best and worst of Chelsea under Lampard, it was the unforgettable 4-4 draw at home to Ajax on 5 November.
There were no fireworks needed on that occasion, with Chelsea hitting the hour mark 4-1 down, only to ignite an eight-minute bonfire that clawed back a point on a night of utter madness. A further highlight is Chelsea’s elimination of three top-five teams from the FA Cup, in successive rounds en-route to the final.
Lampard – Inexperienced but ‘relevant’
Natural reservations about a lack of experience aside, there was not one Chelsea fan who didn’t welcome Lampard’s appointment last summer.
Such was the thinking of many Blues fans, here was a progressive English manager – the first such permanent appointment since Glenn Hoddle in 1993 – who would re-energise the squad with a formation that was designed for maximum relevance to Premier League demands.
Primarily, those ‘demands’ are: a high press, the ability to counter swiftly, wide players acting as secondary strikers, and the presence of a midfield anchor acting simultaneously as playmaker and the first line of defence.
In Jorginho, Kovacic and Kante, Lampard was already well-stocked in the latter area. As now-aging figures, the likes of Pedro and Willian – both of whom had proven so vital towards Chelsea’s effortless 2016/17 title win – were also in need of competition after the departure of Hazard.
From first-hand experience, Lampard knows better than anyone how vital the relationship is between an attack-minded central midfielder and his colleagues in the wide areas. Thus, it was on Lampard to ensure that the induction of Mason Mount and Christian Pulisic into the regular first team was a smooth one.
That particular mission has since proven to be a success, with Pulisic in particular netting some fantastic goals. The American has perhaps thrived more than any other player under Lampard’s regime, and represents a huge vindication for the Chelsea’s board’s decision in appointing him.
On current evidence, Lampard passes with ‘steady’ colours – as opposed to flying colours. With the additions of Hakim Ziyech and Timo Werner already in the bag, the coming months will provide a much more accurate test of Lampard’s potential to put Chelsea back on top of the pile.