Frank Lampard knows the end game. He has seen it from close range. He was part of the dressing room that was blamed for the departures of some of the nine managers Chelsea sacked during his playing days at Stamford Bridge.
They included their most successful manager ever, in Jose Mourinho, a Champions League winner a few months earlier, in Roberto Di Matteo, and the Double winner Carlo Ancelotti. He was appointed by the man, Roman Abramovich, who dismissed them, and a host of other coaches who have a superior CV to him. He is aware that while his return was cloaked in sentimentality, Abramovich can be famously unsentimental.
A manager who was irritated when Jurgen Klopp labelled Chelsea favourites to win the Premier League now tops a different table. Lampard leads the sack race. That it is only a month ago that Klopp made what looks a particularly poor prediction illustrates how swift Chelsea’s decline is. That it followed a 17-game unbeaten run indicates how recently Lampard seemed to be prospering.
Yet while there is merit to his argument not to get too carried away by the highs and lows of results, there is a counter-argument: this is Chelsea. One poor run can bring the end, even for managers who – unlike Lampard – have a track record of success at elite level. Luiz Felipe Scolari, Andre Villas-Boas and Di Matteo were all condemned by a first troubled spell. Even those who limp on recognise their time is limited: Claudio Ranieri branded himself a “dead man walking.”
There are other worrying precedents. Chelsea managers have a decidedly mixed record with marquee signings. Abramovich’s largesse can create complications. Andriy Shevchenko made Mourinho’s first side worse and the Portuguese’s inability to get the best from Abramovich’s friend marked the beginning of the end. Fernando Torres, the £50 million ($68.3m) gift Ancelotti never really seemed to want, only scored one goal for the Italian.
Now Kai Havertz, struggling with the after effects of Covid-19, is on the bench and Timo Werner’s goal drought has spanned 12 games. Lampard’s use of each can be queried: Havertz is the No 10 who has been parachuted into a team who do not use a No 10. Werner has often been deployed on the left and, if many of his goals for RB Leipzig came from the inside-left channel, it was with very different tactics.
If expenditure raises expectations and Chelsea’s acquisition of perhaps the two most coveted talents sold this summer suggested they could capitalise on others’ financial problems to leapfrog back to the summit, they have actually regressed. Their return of 26 points from 17 matches only puts them on course to get 58 points and would probably look worse if the Manchester clubs, Aston Villa and Tottenham had played their games in hand.
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Lampard can say his side are a work in progress and, in mitigation, he has only been able to start Hakim Ziyech and Christian Pulisic together once, but the numbers suggest they are regressing.
It is another indictment that Chelsea have a solitary win against current top-half sides: West Ham, in 10th. In a year where it appears almost anyone can beat anyone, Chelsea can’t beat the better sides. The manner of defeats is doubly damning: Manchester City were sumptuous on Sunday but Chelsea’s first-half displays against them and Arsenal were hapless.
The loss of a second-half lead to a goal-shy Wolves side was, Lampard thought, a failure of mentality, but that reflects on him. The annual defeat at Goodison Park felt familiar in its mediocrity.
What followed, however, had other parallels with the past. As Lampard can testify, there are often symbolic defeats in Chelsea managers’ reigns, points of no return. Sometimes managers limp on, as Antonio Conte did after a 6-0 thrashing by City and Maurizio Sarri, who escaped without technically being sacked, after a 4-0 walloping by Bournemouth, but their fate is sealed.
Perhaps only Abramovich knows if Lampard is in the same position, if he has gone from favourite son to sacrificial lamb. Lampard is realistic enough to know that legendary status serves as no protection. A man appointed in part because he knows the club is all too aware of how precarious the manager’s position tends to be.