It wasn’t about tactics, but something more inherent lacking in Chelsea’s character that led to their 1-1 draw against Leicester City, according to Frank Lampard. Lampard, in his second domestic match in charge of Chelsea, criticized his team for not understanding how to play through the “personality moments in the game” while adding that they must be tougher in pushing through the difficult stretches of a match when they don’t have the ball or momentum. That observation was familiar for Chelsea. While Lampard’s analysis may appear like a type of vague coaching speak and lack of tactical nuance that we stereotype of former players, Maurizio Sarri also complained about Chelsea’s personality and their inability to react to problems even midway through last season.
Jose Mourinho also agreed that the current Chelsea side lack character, doing so in a way that only he can following their 4-0 opening weekend loss to Manchester United. Nevermind that United would be a tricky match for any manager, and even more so as Lampard’s managerial debut in the Premier League. Lampard entrusted the 21-year-old Tammy Abraham and 20-year-old Mason Mount in the starting lineup in lieu of the veteran experience of N’Golo Kante and Olivier Giroud. Mourinho criticized Lampard’s approach in not picking a side with more “know how” in big matches, but those words were on the conservative end. According to one analyst, Lampard’s starting 11 in the opener “wasn’t a team sheet, it was a manifesto.”
Lampard has been adamant since taking over Chelsea of his pragmatic approach to the game in contrast to Sarri’s possession-based philosophy. He dismissed playing attacking football every week with a back-handed “good luck with that.” He spoke of his team focusing on playing without the ball before working in possession. Those 30-pass sequences leading to tap-ins are the stuff of fairy tales, he seemed to be implying. His Chelsea would grind out ugly matches with realism and pride.
Lampard responded to Mourinho by saying that he doesn’t care about pundits, but the criticism was still surprising considering Lampard seemed to be a model Mourinho midfielder (though Lampard did admit to not asking Mourinho for any managerial advice after taking over at Chelsea). The unveiling of the starting lineup against United came on top of selling David Luiz to Arsenal days earlier. One could point out the seeming incongruence between wanting a side that knows how to overcome difficult moments of a match and promoting young players experiencing the Premier League for the first time. At least Lampard restored Kante and Olivier Giroud against Leicester, regardless of any persistent problems of mentality.
That public desire to break from last season’s Sarri side may be misguided as Lampard employed a possession-oriented 4-3-3 formation last season in taking Derby one match from promotion. He appears to have more in common with Sarri than his desired contrast in narrative suggests. But that discussion of pragmatism stems from Lampard’s playing experience. A pertinent Premier League story is of the innovative manager succeeding in a foreign league with unorthodox tactics only for them to either bend towards normalcy or fail completely upon entering England’s top flight. From that perspective, the 1-1 draw against Leicester was a win for Lampard in his ability to keep up with the much more experienced Brendan Rodgers. Rodgers, meanwhile, called Lampard’s ability to work with youth the perfect fit for this current Chelsea side.
The kind words from Rodgers was a relief. After all, Lampard’s most defining-moment in his managerial career came as antagonists and whistleblowers in Marcelo Bielsa’s “Spygate” controversy last season. Bielsa took the initiative in controlling the narrative during a press conference turned lecture that shaped public perception from a cheating scandal to a story about the Argentine manager’s obsessive nature. The unspoken point was how Biesla had earned the right to cheat through his dedication to the craft, whereas Lampard was unable to match his counterpart’s ingenuity, integrity, or work ethic. As with Mourinho, Lampard didn’t directly attack the protagonist. Instead, he went for dryness in reminding the world that “we do analysis too, by the way - as does every manager.”
Leeds won the initial match in question last January, but Lampard eventually embodied the saying about revenge and time. Derby knocked out Leeds over two-legs of the Championship semifinals, earning themselves a chance for promotion. Lampard dismissed the impact of Spygate after the match, but then compared the win to anything that he had achieved in his playing career.
Having watched Frank Lampard play during his career, what kind of manager would you have expected him to be?
It is an impossible question to answer of course, though one that continues to be relevant as those players who defined the mid-2000s Premier League era transition into management. Thierry Henry and Patrick Vieira each struggled in their initial leadership roles. Steven Gerrard finished in second place with Rangers last season, with Liverpool teammate Xabi Alonso inevitably destined to manage Real Sociedad. Mikel Arteta as Pep Guardiola’s top assistant is no surprise considering descriptions of his cerebral approach as a player. Even Lampard’s midfield partner Claude Makelele returned to Chelsea as a youth coach after stints in France and Belgium. John Terry is currently the lead assistant with Aston Villa. But how did Lampard, defined more by his consistency and goalscoring from midfield than any fiery speeches of leadership, become the first of this group to be a Premier League position?
Circumstance and context figured greatly, as at the very least, Lampard’s return provides a distraction for Chelsea fans in the middle of their transfer ban. It is a no-lose hire for Chelsea with all of the attention on their manager. Mourinho notes that Lampard has time and equity built-in amongst supporters, but one wonders how the next couple seasons will play out considering the current quality of the team, the ban, and the spending of rival clubs in the transfer market. Maybe supporters are able to separate the player from the manager while acknowledging the difficulty in navigating the club at this current moment, and he keeps his reputation pristine amongst supporters. Regardless, Lampard says he’s taken the job with his eyes fully open, adding “I’m not stupid.”
But Lampard may have a point in his reliance upon youth, using that reckless vigor of inexperience during a rebuilding time as positive energy. Abraham was undeterred by missing the decisive penalty against Liverpool in the UEFA Super Cup Final, saying that Chelsea can still fight for the title this season. Even without challenging for a title, Lampard could do everything right - he could be a good manager with an ability to develop young players - and still fail to get results due to the circumstances he inherited. Maybe the final piece of becoming a good manager is understanding how disorder off the field seeps into a side’s play, and being able to recognize promising situations while avoiding limited opportunities regardless of nostalgia.