The first and only time Frank Lampard managed at Old Trafford, he was left “shell-shocked”. His Derby County team went a goal down inside three minutes and eliminated his mentor Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United from the League Cup.
Lampard’s faith in youth was justified when Harry Wilson scored a spectacular free kick, his substitutions justified when Jack Marriott scored after six minutes on the pitch.
If the events of September 25, 2018 are a reason why Lampard will occupy the away dugout at Old Trafford on Sunday, they contributed to the opening that allowed Ole Gunnar Solskjaer to return to his former club.
United against Chelsea doubles up as an experiment if former players with heroic status, equipped with supporters’ fervent backing, the understanding of the clubs and progressive philosophies, can compensate for comparatively slender managerial CVs after being parachuted into top jobs.
But the first indication Lampard might be a high-class manager came against United nine months ago. The former Derby midfielder Bradley Johnson, who played the full 120 minutes and converted his penalty in the shootout that followed a 2-2 draw, said: “We had no fear going into games.”
Far from being intimidated when they faced supposed superiors, Derby eliminated Southampton from the FA Cup, also away from home, on penalties and after a 2-2 draw, and only lost 3-2 to Chelsea.
“I think you can see the performances we had against Manchester United last year and Chelsea and Southampton, we had no fear,” Johnson explained. “We felt we could beat anyone on any day and that was down to him. His winning mentality spread through to us on the pitch and [with] his tactical nous as well. He has been in the game a long time.”
Lampard’s experience encompassed 648 games for Chelsea and more than 1,000 for his various clubs and his country. As a manager, it only amounts to 57 matches, however. Yet it does raise the question if his attitude represents a transferable skill.
“Frank was good,” Johnson added. “He had that winning mentality. You just look at what he has done in his footballing career and he is a winner. He brought that through to us in our team.”
Some of the principles Lampard paraded at Derby have been taken to Stamford Bridge. That willingness to trust young players will be seen if Tammy Abraham gets a first Chelsea start or Mason Mount a Premier League debut.
Predictions for the 2019/20 Premier League opening weekend
Lampard inherited a Derby side who were shedding senior players. At Chelsea, David Luiz’s surprise departure brings echoes of his first job, though the theme of the exits now is not quantity but quality: life after Eden Hazard begins in earnest on Sunday.
That fearlessness may be an asset now. Chelsea were forced to take on the role of spectators during the end-of-window spending spree. It is undeniable they enter the new season weakened, lacking the finest player to represent them since Lampard himself left.
Yet his Derby showed few signs of an inferiority complex last season, scoring seven goals in four away games at Premier League clubs. Lampard may sense a soulmate in Solskjaer, another with an upbeat attitude and a belief in his club’s innate exceptionalism that was forged in glory days.
In each case, however, the question is if his judgement is acute enough at such an embryonic stage in his time at elite level. Lampard arguably picked the wrong team in his biggest game to date, Derby’s play-off final defeat to Aston Villa; Marriott, who made an impact as a substitute again, surely should have started.
Solskjaer lost eight of his final 12 games last season. They are relative rookies as managers with enviable records as players, and a 38-game examination of their credentials begins now.