Talk of dismissal now encircles Frank Lampard, whose Chelsea side sit eighth in the English Premier League, at time of writing, 9 points behind the league leaders and in a poor run of form.
After Chelsea’s 2-0 defeat to Leicester City this week, their fifth loss in eight league matches, he said after the game: “The very clear message to the players is when you’re playing well, if you relax a little bit, then this game kicks you right up the backside.”
But, as he has done throughout his season-and-a-half tenure as Chelsea head coach, he intoned that the players “are the only ones who can deal with that. How you handle setbacks is what defines you.” And when asked about why he has constantly changed his starting eleven this season, he replied: “You can’t just conjure up the best team. Players have to make a spot their own.”
This is classic Lampard: The manager and the tactics and the formations are unimportant. It’s not about structure; it’s only about individual ability and attitude. The individual sinks or swims by his own gumption; “get on your bike and find a goal,” and don’t complain about the system when you’re struggling. And if you’re struggling, there’s no charity to be found in starting the next game.
Can’t score a goal? Then it’s all about confidence and work rate. Concede too many goals? The defense is feckless. A new signing is struggling to adapt? Have patience and then his individual talent will eventually shine through. Is the team demoralized? Then sign “leaders” on the pitch.
The least obvious solution to Chelsea’s current woes, masked by the free-hit of the season they had last year with a young coach and a transfer ban, Lampard seems to intone, would be any change to the formation or tactics.
After all, this would be a market distortion, a needless disruption of the natural hierarchy of those players who graft and those who don’t. There’s no such thing as tactics: only individuals who deal with the pressure and those that don’t.
Maybe this has something to do with Lampard himself. Not blessed with pace as a player, he compensated for this by becoming the fittest of his teammates. He reportedly trained harder than any other player and he certainly was the hardest worker on the pitch, almost defining the up-and-back midfielder.
But the reverse of his technocratic ethic was the obvious patronage. His father and uncle were West Ham United grandees as he progressed quickly through the team’s youth-structure – and then further.
As a manager, he was handed the Chelsea job almost entirely because of his club connections. A club legend who played 429 games for Chelsea, for sure, but he had less than a year of managerial experience, at Champion side Derby, before arriving at Stamford Bridge to take charge in 2019.
The Guardian columnist Jonathan Liew this month described these two sides of Lampard as “the rags-to-riches ornamentation, the trope of the humble Essex boy done good: albeit one with a famous footballing father, private schooling and an elite academy background.”
Perhaps like anyone who knows they’ve made their way thanks to a good helping of patronage and favoritism, Lampard exaggerates the importance of individual graft and determination. So everything becomes about the individual. And so systems, not just in tactics but also the wider structure of club hierarchies and networks, has little bearing on success or failure.
It would be a cliché to say that Lampard doesn’t improve players. After a season and a half at Chelsea, the only one who has obviously progressed is Mason Mount, his trusted playmaker and also uncoincidentally the only player who has started the majority of games.
But look around and all you see is regression. Tammy Abraham scored 18 goals last season and, most important, was pivotal in building the side’s attacks. Today, he has a mere eight goals (just six in the Premier League) and is playing like a timid and humiliated child bossed by grown-up defenders, perpetually with his hands thrown upwards in complaint about one decision or another.
Callum Hudson-Odoi runs on the wings like a bag of nerves. Reece James made it into the England national team’s starting eleven last summer but has since looked back, quite literally, seemingly always playing the safe pass sideways or back to his defenders.
The most egregious case is Kepa Arrizabalaga, a decent and developing goalkeeper when he signed for Chelsea in 2018, as the world’s most costly keeper. But his confidence has been drained so low under Lampard that it’s now a charitable act to now leave him on the bench.
Is it that Timo Werner, the recent US$59 million signing who cannot buy a goal, and $95 million Kai Havertz have failed to adapt to the English game this season (the common cliché for any failing foreign signing), or is it that Lampard is playing them out of position and failing to coach them in what he now wants them to do, things they weren’t expected to do before signing for Chelsea?
In response, Lampard pleads for patience. After all, if everything is about the individual then all we have to do is wait until the likes of Werner or Havertz find the confidence and gumption to succeed. And patience, after all, means it’s not the manager’s role to change the system to suit the player but their work ethic to adapt to the team.
But how can a player improve when, first, the starting eleven is chopped and changed each game and, second, when there appears no end-goal for them to progress toward?
Under José Mourinho, everyone knew that Chelsea sat deep and played on the counter, with a strong center-forward and pacey wingers. Under Carlo Ancelotti, it was all about playing through well-planned motions honed on the training ground. Under Maurizio Sarri, Chelsea built through the deep-lying defensive midfielder and then onto wingers who cut inside.
Not all of these were successful, but at least players had an obvious terrain for progression, an idea of in which direction they should be improving.
But what is Lampardball to Sarriball? Wide wingers? On occasions? A high-pressing frontline? Sometimes. Play through or bypass the midfield? That changes by the game. Are Chelsea an attacking team or a defensive side? Is the target possession or repossession? Is it about winning or playing well?
It’s a little of everything, a pick-and-mix of different styles and structures, a medley of tunes played by talented musicians who, by themselves are among the world’s best (or at least the world’s most expensive), but who are left to their own devices to try finding harmony without knowing what the final song should sound like.
But why expect a coherent plan when, after all, it’s all about the individual?
David Hutt is a political journalist based between the Czech Republic and Britain. Between 2014 and 2019, he was based in Cambodia, covering Southeast Asian affairs. He is Southeast Asia columnist for The Diplomat and a regular contributor to Asia Times, including the columns Free Flowing and Free Thoughts. He reports on European political affairs and Europe-Asian relations. Follow him on Twitter @davidhuttjourno.