by Tanner Pruitt
One of the most beautiful aspects of Football is it’s natural story-telling. Fans, players, coaches, journalists and yes, owners too, regularly experience a multitude of emotions during a season. One moment you could be on cloud 9 and the next you are grasping for silver-linings in the face of defeat. Glory, validation, anxiety, relief, romance, loss, betrayal, revenge, and triumph are all on full display at any given point during a season.
A recurring story arc in recent times is that of the return of the Prodigal Son: a former star player who has spent time away learning the craft of coaching and managing, typically in a lower league or another country entirely, returns to coach the club where they achieved immortality as a player in an effort to bring good times back. Barcelona had Pep Guardiola, who turned out to be one of the most tactically innovative managers the sport has ever seen. Jurgen Klopp managed Mainz in Germany after his playing career, developing the ruthless gegenpressing that would later become the hallmark of his successful teams at Borussia Dortmund and Liverpool. Ole Gunnar Solskjær came back to Manchester United after two separate spells in Norway and despite a locker room full of huge egos and big paychecks, as well as constant media criticism from Monday-morning quarterbacks, he has led the team to a brilliant string of results that have put the Red Devils is touching-distance of their first Premier League title since Sir Alex Ferguson. Elsewhere, Liverpool fans have a keen eye on former captain Steven Gerrard and everything he has accomplished this season with Rangers in Scotland.
And then, there’s Frank Lampard.
Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with Frank Lampard. In fact, his return to Chelsea in his first season could be argued as inspirational. Lampard took over from Maurizio Sarri for the 2019-2020 Premier League season, becoming the club’s first English manager in over 20 years. Sarri’s stay was viewed with mixed results as he was largely unable to replicate the same swagger that his Napoli team did in Serie A, but also because he only stayed for one season before moving back to Italy, not nearly enough time to establish a proper understanding of the virtues and philosophies Sarri attempted to pass on to the team. To make matters worse Chelsea had been hit with a transfer ban for two transfer windows due to violating transfer regulations of players under the age of 18, which would mean that the club would be unable to bring players in to supply depth and options for the club and its new manager Lampard.
However, Lampard took what was a sad song and made it better. He would lead his team to an FA Cup Final as well as a Fourth-place finish in the Premier League, meaning Chelsea would automatically qualify for the 2020-2021 Champion’s League season which would bring Chelsea substantial revenue.
How did Lampard achieve this? Well, let’s quote the man himself: “I want my team to play good football, but on the other side of that, I want them to be really aggressive and win the ball back. So I don’t like to try and put myself into one style of play. I think it is important to be adaptable in terms of systems”. To put it simply, Lampard was largely able to field teams that would be very aggressive and direct while in attack. Also, due to the lack of transfer activity, Lampard began to field players from Chelsea’s largely impressive (yet seldom used) youth academy such as Reece James, Fikayo Tomori, Mason Mount, and Tammy Abraham. These players would give Chelsea a different edge due to the lack of predictability compared to some of the club’s more senior and established players.
Tactically, Frank Lampard was not out to re-invent the wheel, nor was he married to any particular system or formation. He mostly stuck to fielding a 4-3-3 formation as a default, but when he saw the need to make changes, he could flex the system in something more resembling a 4-2-3-1, a 3-4-3 or even a 4-4-2 if there was a need. These traits of both pragmatism but also tactical flexibility were largely drawn from his predecessors and the managers he had as a player: Jose Mourinho, Carlo Ancelloti, Antonio Conte and even his direct predecessor Sarri were major influences on how Frank Lampard coached and put together his teams.
So where did it all go wrong?
Something needs to be immediately understood about Chelsea Football Club. Owner Roman Abramovich is a very wealthy man who loves the club he owns and often holds very little regard or reservation for spending larges sums of money to make his team as successful as possible. With that comes a major responsibility and massive pressure on the manager to produce results. When those results don’t come, Abramovich has no issue chopping-and-changing the manager to turn the tide even if it means he changes managers mid-season, with little warning, or with little time on the job
In the Summer of 2020, Abramovich and Chelsea clearly felt the need to reload their squad with top talent after being unable to bring in players the previous year. Chelsea would bring in seven players for Lampard, all with various degrees of Lampard’s desire to have the player: Thiago Silva and Malang Sarr would be brought it for free, whereas Timo Werner, Kai Havertz, Ben Chilwell, Hakim Ziyech, and Edouard Mendy would all be brought in to the club paying transfer fees. The cost? Nearly $305 million.
While this is clearly a massive sum of money, one rarely seen spent in one transfer window, there were major doubts about if Frank Lampard wanted some of these players at the club. But even if you take Lampard’s desire to have a player at the club or not out of the equation, the 2020-2021 English Premier League season would put on display what could be argued was Lampard’s biggest flaw as a manager: tactical naivety.
Let’s take Kai Havertz for example. The season before he was brought in to Chelsea, he was heralded as a talent who could be on of the best in the world once he reaches his peak. At his former club, he was often deployed in a specialized position, usually as a right-sided Center Forward or a traditional “Number 10”, an advanced midfielder who could link play from midfield to attack purposed with creating chances and scoring opportunities. Once he became a Chelsea player, something changed. Either Lampard was unsure of who the player was or what he specialized in, was simply trying to be tactically flexible, or did not have a desire to have the player at the club. Lampard’s actions spoke loudly, not playing the player for large stretches, or when he did, Lampard would often play Havertz in positions not suitable to his skills, often deeper in to the midfield or further out in wider positions.
This, along with frequent formation changes, misreading or not preparing his team correctly, indecisiveness when it came to attacking and defensive selections, Lampard often struggled with affirming an identity within the squad and in the club. The writing was certainly on the walls. After a string of poor form, mixed results all season, and Chelsea’s chances of making top-four slipping away, Chelsea chose to sack Lampard on January 25, 2021.
Enter Thomas Tuchel.
On paper, the marriage between Chelsea and Tuchel seems to be one that is made out of sheer convenience as well as one that won’t last too long. Tuchel’s contract with the London-club is only 18 months long, but his stay could certainly be extended if the right results come along. What makes that difficult to predict is a number of different factors.
On the positive, Tuchel is an incredibly brilliant manager. He’s taken teams like Borussia Dortmund and PSG who needed major tune-ups when he took over. He is a disciple of Ralph Rangnick’s philosophy that holds hard work, compact defending and quick transitions as key. Tuchel is also a very well-read, tactically flexible manager who does thorough research on his own team and on the opposition and encourages his own team to do the same. Like Lampard, Tuchel has never been married to one system but instead uses a variety of formations as well as places belief in his players as individuals to solve the problems that they face on the pitch as they evolve. Tuchel often seems content with taking the bones of the system already in place and slowly makes progressive changes in an effort to improve the team in his own vision. The tactical versatility that Lampard instilled in his squad last season plays in to this perfectly. Tuchel also has a major advantage in that he is very familiar with his German compatriots Timo Werner and Kai Havertz and should be able to reverse their poor fortunes as of now.
If you are looking for where the other shoe may drop for Tuchel, look no further than his clashes with his employers. Tuchel’s drive for football perfection led to numerous confrontations with those in ownership and or upper-management. As grateful as Chelsea is to have a manager of Tuchel’s stature at the club, there is no doubt that they wouldn’t flinch at the prospect of severing ties if the relationship goes sour.
Thomas Tuchel inherited a very talented Chelsea squad from Frank Lampard. With a bit of luck and a lot of hard work, Blues fans could very well see the return to the football summit they’ve been waiting for.