Chelsea are in the midst of an identity crisis. The sheer scale and speed of change in the 11 months since Todd Boehly and Clearlake Capital completed their takeover of the club has created a constant state of flux.
First, there were new owners. Then there were new players. Then there was a new head coach. Then a new infrastructure with co-sporting directors, a technical director and recruitment chiefs appointed. Then more new players in January, taking the total spend toward £600 million in two transfer windows. And now, with Graham Potter sacked and the club scrambling to identify the best way forward, they turned back the clock to appoint Frank Lampard as caretaker manager on Thursday.
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The circumstances that led to this point are lamentable to say the least but Lampard’s return, while a surprise even to the 44-year-old himself, is not without merit.
The point of hiring Lampard is that he should be a caretaker who already knows which keys unlock which doors. After all, Stamford Bridge is a second home to him after 13 years as a player — making 649 appearances and scoring a club-record 211 goals — and 18 months as head coach that started in July 2019, just a year into his managerial career after initial success with Derby County.
Lampard’s playing record is unimpeachable; his time in the dugout less so, even allowing for the restrictions imposed by a FIFA transfer ban which initially restricted signings. Alongside an FA Cup final appearance (losing to Arsenal), he secured a fourth-placed finish in 2020 but did so with a team that conceded 54 Premier League goals, the highest figure in the top half of the table that season. It was a deficiency that eventually cost him his job and he was replaced by Thomas Tuchel in January 2021.
To underline the gulf in managerial pedigree, Tuchel took that same group of players and won the Champions League four months later. But Lampard now has the chance to do the same with next week’s quarterfinal first leg against Real Madrid to come and it is difficult to escape the heart-warming narrative around his comeback.
Lampard has since spoken about his mixed feelings of watching from afar as the team he guided to the knockout stages went on to lift the trophy two years ago and there is a wonderful symmetry on a personal level that he now inherits a team just five games from glory. Equally, Lampard won the Champions League as a player under an interim manager, Roberto Di Matteo, in 2012 and few would begrudge him a shot at further success with the club he holds dearest.
But that is not to lose sight of the wider malaise. Chelsea are in this mess because the pace of change has not been aligned to a clear vision.
The club privately insist data is driving their decision making and, broadly speaking, signings have been young players on long-term contracts aimed at creating a new, lasting core. Yet no competent statistical model would leave them £600m out of pocket with no centre-forward and an urgent need to address the goalkeeping position.
Similarly, handing Potter a five-year contract and preaching long-term planning only to sack him after less than seven months without a top-class candidate ready to come in smacks of owners chasing popularity. Chelsea had slipped into the bottom half of the table and it reflected badly on Potter that the issues with performance were cyclical: a failure to convert chances, defensive errors and too much sterile possession. The club’s hierarchy sincerely wanted Potter to be a success but, sensitive as they are to staying popular in the supporters’ minds, he was sacked as soon as fans began to voice their discontent on a significant scale when results faltered further.
Moving for Lampard, whose attendance at Tuesday’s 0-0 draw against Liverpool was a coincidence given it was planned at least a fortnight in advance, is another quick fix that will galvanise Stamford Bridge behind a man whose legendary status is almost entirely undiminished by the acrimonious end to his previous spell as manager.
It will deflect attention from suspect decision making at the top, not least creating a chain of events that led to Bruno Saltor taking temporary charge against Liverpool. A valued member of Potter’s backroom staff at Brighton and Chelsea, he had never picked a senior team before this week and was so obviously a placeholder that the idea of him going up against four-time European Cup winner Carlo Ancelotti at the Bernabeu next week was nothing short of comical.
Someone, anyone, with more experience was urgently needed. Lampard is surely no long-term fix. The calibre of manager under consideration — as many as seven with Julian Nagelsmann, Luis Enrique, Mauricio Pochettino and Ancelotti among them — would suggest he has no realistic shot, although winning the Champions League would catapult him into the conversation.
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Interestingly, sources have told ESPN that Enrique was prepared to take over now, which means appointing a caretaker was a choice and that the club either haven’t made a final decision or others are ahead of him in their thinking. But for now, Lampard can impart upon a new group of players what it means to play for Chelsea. Few individuals are better placed. He can help give a disparate group lacking the leadership of Lampard’s generation a connection with the club and a sense of belonging amid the turmoil of the past year.
There will be winners and losers. Mason Mount, sidelined of late, is a Lampard favourite likely to return to the team. By contrast, Lampard dropped goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga in favour of Edouard Mendy but the latter has not played since November. Only 13 of the current squad played under Lampard so the rest start with a clean slate.
Qualification for any sort of European competition would be an achievement from this position, while the Champions League quarterfinals are a free hit in the circumstances with expectations very low (although they were similarly modest in 2012 and 2021.) But perhaps the biggest benefit Lampard can have is to show the permanent head coaches under consideration that this incarnation of Chelsea is manageable. That this club — his club — can soon be a serious contender for major honours and not the butt of a joke for scattergun spending.
Finishing this season positively with, say, Europa League football and a triumph over Champions League holders Real Madrid would provide a notable uptick for a club craving a stable footing. Lampard says Chelsea will always be his club, but his mission now is to showcase the best of it and set things up for someone else.