The biggest surprise to the news of Frank Lampard’s sacking as Chelsea manager was the number of people in the game who genuinely seemed to be surprised by it.
That’s not to suggest that I agreed with the decision, but instead was based on the ruthless manner in which the London club has been run by its owner, Roman Abramovich.
The spring of this year will mark 18 years since the Russian billionaire bought the club from Ken Bates, and Thomas Tuchel, Lampard’s successor, will be the 13th different manager during that time – with Jose Mourinho and Guus Hiddink each returning for a second spell in charge.
For most club owners, such hire-and-fire approach would be detrimental to achieving success and would cause significant instability. That hasn’t been the case at Chelsea though, and while there have certainly been some turbulent moments over the past two decades, they have won more trophies than any other club since the arrival of Abramovich, and only rarely looked like a team out of contention for adding to their collection of silverware.
Of the 11 men appointed by Abramovich, only four have failed to win a trophy, and although Lampard is the only member of that group to have been in charge for at least a full season, it occurred while Chelsea were disadvantaged due to a transfer ban which also coincided with the departure of Eden Hazard, who had been the team’s standout player.
In finishing 4th in the Premier League and reaching the FA Cup final last season, Lampard’s first 12 months represented a respectable start to his top flight managerial career considering the circumstances faced.
But despite a high placing in the league, the gap between Chelsea and the top two was still very significant, and the task of qualifying for the Champions League was helped in no small part by the inconsistency of teams such as Spurs and Arsenal, as well as the dramatic change in Leicester City’s results over the second half of the campaign.
Chelsea’s points tally and goal difference last season was the lowest of any top four finisher since Everton in 2004/05. The 12 defeats was the joint-highest suffered by Chelsea in a league season since 1997/98. And the 54 goals conceded was the club’s worst defensive performance over a season since 1996/97.
But whereas Chelsea had to begin last season with a weaker squad than was in place before Lampard took over, with a greater dependence on young players than was the case at rival clubs, this season began with Chelsea splashing out huge sums on a host of players. The signings of Timo Werner and Kai Havertz were particularly exciting with both players having attracted interest by Europe’s biggest clubs.
With high quality additions to the squad, the pressure was always going to be on Lampard to ensure that Chelsea were more competitive this season, particularly in the league.
But although Chelsea remain involved in the Champions League and the FA Cup, league results have been disappointing – especially during a six week period in which the Blues have taken just 7 points from 8 matches. At the current rate of points accumulation, Chelsea would need a big improvement just to match last year’s total, and when the current league leaders are barely averaging 2 points per game, it’s understandable that the top management at Chelsea consider it unacceptable for the team to be 11 points adrift.
The decision itself may seem harsh, and there’ll be many, myself included, who would have wanted to see Lampard given until the end of the season. The main problem is that Abramovich isn’t known for displaying patience towards managers when results start to suffer – even if a dip in form has only occurred over short period of time – and for that reason, there cannot be too much shock that Lampard has been dealt a similar fate to so many who have occupied the Stamford Bridge dugout before him.
The experience is unlikely to affect Lampard’s future job prospects and if it’s any consolation, he did at least survive in the job for longer than all but three of Abramovich’s other managerial appointments, with only Jose Mourinho, Carlo Ancelotti and Antonio Conte managing more than Lampard’s 84 matches. All three became Premier League champions in their first season.
If that’s the bar that Thomas Tuchel must reach to remain employed beyond his initial 18 month contract, then it’s fair to say that the incoming German coach has quite a job on his hands.