After the first game of the Premier League season, had Chelsea fans decided to club together and buy new manager Frank Lampard a copy of ‘Management for Dummies’, they’d have been forgiven. Considered entirely reasonable, even.
The loss to Manchester United was a bad start and, in hindsight, Chelsea must be kicking themselves after being beaten 4-0 by a side who have since won only once in the Premier League. The way Lampard set his side up that day made him look as green as the color of the Old Trafford grass. The attacking ethos and high tempo football was lauded, but the way their midfield was cut through resembled a hot knife slicing through butter.
The midfield had, of course, been the major bone of contention under Maurizio Sarri, and the role of N’Golo Kante became the talking point.
Playing Kante out of position, picking Jorginho as the defensive lynchpin, using a Matteo Kovacic who Real Madrid didn’t want… it just didn’t work, and that’s before you even take a look at the way Sarri treated the Chelsea youth players – specifically Callum Hudson-Odoi, who, had it not been for Lampard coming in and a dreadful injury which ended Bayern Munich’s advances, they could well have lost this summer.
The crowd hated it, the board were clearly unhappy and there were issues on and off the field, most notably when goalkeeper Kepa Arizabalaga’s refused to be substituted in the Carabao Cup final. The Italian was a dead man walking, and the sales of tobacco in west London must have been through the roof.
You get the feeling the club and fanbase never really gelled with Sarri, let alone the players, and ‘SarriBall’ became the Stamford Bridge equivalent of a swear word – in fact, it was often chanted in conjunction with one, as ‘f*ck SarriBall’ was heard more than occasionally. Things were not good, and even now the mention of SarriBall gives some Chelsea fans PTSD.
On paper, a third-place finish behind two outstanding teams, a Europa League win and a cup final looks a decent season, but in reality Sarri’s position was untenable and the fans would have taken sixth place with Frank Lampard and no trophies over another season of that.
In came Lampard, arguably their greatest-ever player, and reactions ranged from jubilation to concern Lampard was too young and inexperienced.
However, Chelsea were under a transfer ban, the board had run out of managers to turn to and the fans wanted a legacy, a new manager, a new style of play. Right from the off against United, that was evident, and while the result was lacking the youth on the field certainly wasn’t.
Lampard learnt from that game, and the midfield became more compact. He also learnt from seeing his team repeatedly falter in second halves. He learnt from seeing other managers outfox him in terms of substitutions. He learnt from his team conceding late goals. He learnt quickly in the Champions League to produce the masterclass Chelsea displayed at Ajax to get the win after a potentially devastating loss to Valencia. But perhaps the most important lesson Lampard learnt came before he even thought of being a manager – from Jose Mourinho.
Upon arriving at Chelsea, Mourinho told Lampard he believed in him, he could be the very best in his position, and in Jose’s eyes he really was. It’s that bond Mourinho had with his players that Sarri could never harness which Lampard has formed so well, not only with the youth players but also with those who were devoid of confidence and love from the fans.
Jorginho and Kovacic look like different players this season, the latter of whom would now walk into Real Madrid’s side – and how apt that the maestro of Chelsea’s midfield for so many years has got them singing from a beautiful songbook once again. He also managed to navigate what could have been tricky waters with the likes of Willan and Cesar Azpilicueta.
Lampard has the backing of the board, the love of the fans and the respect of the players. The pieces may have fallen into place for Lampard to get this chance, but there’s no mistaking the fact he has made the most of it.
Chelsea might hire and fire with more ruthlessness than Alan Sugar, but in Frank Lampard, they might just have a candidate who can beat the board room and stay hired.