The first time Frank Lampard left Chelsea, it felt an ending marred by ingratitude. News emerged, not in a glowing tribute to their record scorer and Champions League-winning captain, but in the form of the list of released players submitted to the Premier League.
That was in 2014. Jose Mourinho, the manager who had elevated Lampard to the rank of the second-best player in the world, ended up dropping him, discarding him and lining up his successor, Cesc Fabregas. Now Roman Abramovich, the owner who once lent Lampard his yacht, has sacked him. Even with a rare statement from the Russian, containing plenty of praise, it ranks as another undignified departure.
Brutal place, Stamford Bridge. The cast of characters coming and going, often in bloody fashion, lend it the feel of a soap opera. Lampard has gone from favourite son to casualty in the space of seven weeks. He may have overdone the references to Chelsea’s 17-game unbeaten run of late, but it meant they topped the table in early December.
Yet they will be 10th when they kick off against Wolves on Wednesday. Lampard’s past means he, more than anyone else, knows the fundamental rules of Chelsea. Failing to qualify for the Champions League is a sackable offence. The prospect of it tends to prompt a pre-emptive strike.
Lampard’s legendary status, his past as Chelsea’s greatest player, afforded no protection, but neither did the track record of success some of his predecessors boasted. Even Roberto Di Matteo and Avram Grant had more on their managerial CVs than Lampard when appointed; and, indeed, when dismissed.
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But the lack of sentimentality and the swiftness of Lampard’s demise do not render this a surprise sacking. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Mikel Arteta have survived worse slumps, but at different clubs.
It is not merely that Chelsea have lost five times in eight league games. It is the manner of the setbacks. Chelsea have had sorry starts, losing the first halves to Arsenal, Manchester City and Leicester by an aggregate score of 8-0. They have looked unprepared and unmotivated.
It is hard to escape the sense that some of the players, with the honourable exception of his protege Mason Mount, gave up on Lampard or that some of his rhetoric consisted of blaming them. He strayed further from his strongest team, with recent odd selections betraying more desperation than inspiration.
He has been tactically outwitted by Pep Guardiola and Brendan Rodgers, two far more experienced managers. But perhaps that always threatened to be the case: Chelsea knew they were appointing a rookie.
Some failings of Lampard’s side – a weakness in transition and a susceptibility to the counter-attack – were recurring themes. Others were addressed: his team became far better at set-pieces this season.
Yet they regressed in defining games as expenditure raised expectations. They have only beaten one top-half team this season, in West Ham, while Abramovich’s nearly £300 million ($409m) outlay in a depressed market was designed to catapult Chelsea back to the summit.
Kai Havertz and Timo Werner became the flagship failures of Lampard’s Chelsea, two budding Galacticos who scarcely ranked in his best side. That, Chelsea seemingly concluded, was more his fault than theirs.
Perhaps he was a better manager with fewer elite players. Last season’s mitigating circumstances – the loss of Eden Hazard and Chelsea’s transfer ban, lumbered with Kepa Arrizabalaga, bequeathed the perpetual problem of Jorginho by Maurizio Sarri – forged a unique campaign in which, despite a poor defensive record, Lampard got more right than wrong.
The underachievement has come this year. But Chelsea’s plight may call for a proven manager. Lampard is not that, but then he never has been. He was an uncharacteristic appointment by Chelsea, but he has suffered a familiar fate.