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WHAT’S NEXT, MR FRANK LAMPARD?
At about 8 am on January 25th, 2021 Frank Lampard received the phone call he had increasingly feared was going to come. The 42-year-old was asked to attend a meeting at Stamford Bridge. If he didn’t know his time as Chelsea manager was coming to an end before, he did now. This was very much out of the ordinary. It could mean only one thing. There to deliver the bad news that he had lost his dream job as head coach was Chelsea director Marina Granovskaia and the club chairman Bruce Buck. The conversation went as you might expect. Granovskaia and Buck delivered the bad news and spoke about the reasons why. Lampard gave his own opinion on the matter and left. The meeting was concluded long before the first reports indicating he was in line for the sack emerged.
Lampard’s long-time friend Petr Cech, who in his role as technical and performance advisor had held informal discussions with agents of key players about Chelsea’s slump in form, spoke briefly to the squad before training began. Lampard was offered the chance to say goodbye to his players at the training ground but opted not to. Granovskaia then addressed the squad after training in a meeting room at Cobham to explain the situation. It is also believed that Thomas Tuchel’s appointment as Lampard’s replacement was discussed.
There will be those who shake their heads and tell Frank Lampard he should have known better. He knows better than anyone that Chelsea is a club where managers don’t get time. Eighteen months later he knows there can be no exception — and certainly not for a young coach making his way, learning on the job. There are many who could only ever see Lampard’s as a silver-spoon appointment for a member of English football’s so-called golden generation — rather than reflective of a wider trend at the top end of the European game, with one leading club after another turning, with varying degrees of success, to a novice coach who happened to be a legendary former player.
Barely had the club announced Lampard’s dismissal on Monday afternoon when an old quote of his resurfaced on social media. It is related to Andre Villas-Boas, who took the Chelsea job a decade ago, aged 33, and lasted just seven months before Roman Abramovich sent him packing. “AVB had played his cards and it hadn’t worked,” Lampard said a couple of years later. “I don’t know if he was too young or whether it had come too early for him.”Cue bucketloads of schadenfreude at Lampard’s expense, but he was right about Villas-Boas — just as the man himself, now in charge of Marseille after spells at Tottenham Hotspur, Zenit Saint Petersburg, and Shanghai SIPG, has admitted subsequently. “Chelsea was too much too soon,” Villas-Boas said years later. “I wasn’t flexible as a manager at that time. I was communicative, but I wasn’t flexible in my approach.”
The reason for Chelsea’s delay in firing Lampard was not because of any desire to give him a chance to turn things around. It was simply because confirming a successor was taking time. The victory over Luton was immaterial so once Tuchel, the German coach, agreed to take over the process of dismissing Lampard was put into motion. Tuchel was slightly hesitant to take over mid-season but did not want to run the risk of missing out on the position to someone else. But after much persuasion, Tuchel finally agreed to take as manager under 18 months contract subjected to extension based on performances, ruling out other contenders such as Ralf Ragnick, Massimilano Allegri, and Julian Nagelsmann.
In time, Lampard might reflect that the Chelsea opportunity came too soon for him too. He will hope the experiences of the past 18 months will make him a better, more streetwise manager, but this was the job he set his heart on as he approached the end of his playing career. At one point he said Chelsea was “the only club I’d want to manage”. At the age of 42, less than four years after retiring as a player, just two and a half years after taking his first steps in management with Derby County, his dream job has been and gone.
In another course of action, he could have stayed at Derby, building on an encouraging first year in which he took them to the Championship play-off final. Hypothetically, he might have gone one step further the following season, winning promotion, in which case he would probably have been learning something about life at the bottom end of the Premier League right now. He seemed more adept at handling both the on-pitch and off-pitch demands at an ambitious Championship club than his successor Phillip Cocu, a three-time Eredivisie title winner with PSV Eindhoven, but then again Cocu, who was recently replaced by Wayne Rooney, deserves sympathy over the financial challenges and ownership issues at Pride Park. It was not and is not an easy gig, which is why the job Lampard did there deserved plenty of plaudits (even if, yes you’re right, taking Derby to the play-off final would not typically get you the Chelsea job if your name isn’t Frank Lampard).
Chelsea owner Roman Abramovic has issued a statement regarding the managerial change which says - “This was a very difficult decision for the club, not least because I have an excellent personal relationship with Frank and I have the utmost respect for him,” the owner said. “He is a man of great integrity and has the highest of work ethics. However, under current circumstances, we believe it is best to change managers. On behalf of everyone at the club, the board, and personally, I would like to thank Frank for his work as head coach and wish him every success in the future. He is an important icon of this great club and his status here remains undiminished. He will always be warmly welcomed back at Stamford Bridge.” But, honestly speaking, Abramovich picks his coaches from the Champions League carousel. If you are not on that carousel, with no clear route to it, and Chelsea is your dream job, then, of course, you go for it. Whereas Xavi Hernandez could afford to reject Barcelona’s advances and stay at Al-Sadd in the Qatar Stars League last January, aged 40, in the firm expectation that the job will come around again, Chelsea does not have that same dedication to preserving their lineage. In the summer of 2019, confronted with a FIFA transfer ban, Abramovich was persuaded to make an appointment based on the idea of restoring Chelsea values and integrating homegrown talent into the first team.
Barcelona appointed Pep Guardiola at 37 after a year coaching their B team. Real Madrid elevated Zinedine Zidane at 43, in a similar arrangement. Their successes have led to a number of copycat maneuvers, with several clubs turning to club legends in the hope of producing their own Guardiola: Chelsea appointing Lampard at 41 after his year at Derby; Arsenal hiring Mikel Arteta at 37 (not quite a club legend but still an FA Cup-winning captain) after three years assisting Guardiola at Manchester City; Juventus putting their faith in Andrea Pirlo at 41 last summer just nine days after putting him in charge of their under-23 team. Gennaro Gattuso, Niko Kovac and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had more coaching experience when they were appointed by AC Milan, Bayern Munich, and Manchester United respectively, but all three hires were based on the same thought processes that have been seen elsewhere.
That trend might well prove to be short-lived — it flies against the long-accepted wisdom that great players rarely make great managers — but for now, the idea of fast-tracking an elite player into an elite coaching job seems firmly established. It is hardly surprising that Pirlo, Lampard, Steven Gerrard, Thierry Henry, and others have been so enthused by the new world of opportunity that has opened up in front of them. Nor is it surprising that they have all found the transition at times, even if Gerrard, in his third season at Rangers, has proved worth persevering with. It has created the idea of a different type of coaching career, where a player hanging up his boots after a top-class career could hope to be fast-tracked towards one of the elite jobs sooner rather than later.
Gerrard’s commitment to Rangers is abundantly clear, but so is his desire to manage Liverpool one day. Zidane was fixated on Real Madrid, Pirlo on Juventus. Lampard was no different. “As a Chelsea man or not, the job is one of the pinnacles of football,” he said while at New York City as he approached the end of his playing career. “They are one of the top clubs in the world now — and I’m a Chelsea man. It might be a different route for me and it might take a while, but the dream would be to manage Chelsea one day — if I was good enough, if they wanted me and it was the right time.”
Some have wondered whether, after the dream job ended in disappointment, Lampard will return to punditry. He enjoyed his time with BT Sport before taking the Derby job, but he enjoys management more. Media work is something he would hope to be able to fall back on — whether in the short term, while waiting for his next opportunity, or when his time in management is over — but one source close to him suggested yesterday that, even if his departure from Chelsea was a “bitter pill”, his appetite for management had been fuelled rather than sated. The Chelsea experience has left him hungry for more, rather than craving the comfort of the television studio.
Lampard is self-aware enough to know there are areas where, despite their best efforts, he and his staff fell short. Equally, though, he is entitled to feel his sacking was harsh. Operating under last season’s transfer ban, having lost Eden Hazard to Real Madrid, they finished fourth in the Premier League, reaching the FA Cup final and the Champions League knock-out stage. As recently as December 5 they were top of the Premier League, with no hint of the collapse in form and mood that was to follow. A run of five defeats in eight Premier League questions raised serious questions, but a more patient, stable club would have given him the opportunity to ride out a tough patch, as Manchester United and Arsenal have done with Solskjaer and Arteta respectively. Lampard’s most impressive accomplishment at Chelsea was the way he developed and nurtured young players such as Reece James, Tammy Abraham, and in particular Mason Mount. He admits this was partly influenced by the transfer ban, but it also reflected the youth-oriented approach he and his staff favoured at Derby (where they took FikayoTomori and Mount on loan and also helped to fast-track Jayden Bogle, who is now at Sheffield United) and his long-held belief that Chelsea, as a club, needed to break the cycle of boom and bust and clear the congested, cluttered pathway from the academy to the first team. There are players and staff at Cobham who are deeply grateful to him for doing that. They will desperately hope that Thomas Tuchel, unlike so many previous Chelsea managers, can match Lampard’s commitment to the players from the academy.
Before he took the Derby and Chelsea jobs, Lampard was regarded in FA circles as a potential England manager of the future. Unlike in previous times, this is not about thinking someone might project the right image while wearing a blazer. The former FA technical director Dan Ashworth, now at Brighton & Hove Albion, is a particular admirer, having spent hours discussing tactics and coaching methods with him at St George’s Park. It would be reasonable to assume that this admiration has been enhanced, rather than diminished, by what Lampard has done at Derby and Chelsea. Even though the influx of expensive talent at Chelsea this summer muddied the waters somewhat, his belief in a progressive, high-energy, possession-based playing style, built around young talent, is far clearer now than it was when the conversations he had with Ashworth were purely theoretical.