Having just celebrated one year in charge at Chelsea, Frank Lampard and his players are within touching distance of Champions League qualification for next season. We take a look at the ups and downs of life under Lampard in its early stages, the memorable moments and the learning curves which the supporters will hope are shaping Chelsea into a force to be reckoned with.
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It’s been just over a year since Frank Lampard was appointed head coach of Chelsea. After 13 glittering years playing in blue, the club’s record goalscorer returned to take the top job on 4th July 2019. His appointment was met with a mixture of excitement and cautious optimism. After leading Derby County to the play-off final in his first season as a manager, some argued that the Chelsea job had arrived too early in his coaching career, but for Lampard the opportunity was too good to turn down. It was champagne casting, but the romanticism was short-lived as the new boss looked to get down to business and begin to tackle the challenges that lay on the table in front of him. Status, expectation and the transfer ban that would prevent Chelsea from entering the market for two windows to name a few.
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Lampard was aware of the fate which other managers in the Roman Abramovich era have succumbed to and was quick to state that he did not want any special dispensation. However, this relationship is not like the others. Abramovich was willing to give Lampard the golden ticket of time which some had gone without, with early signs suggesting this is the dawn of a new era at Stamford Bridge. The rule book has been ripped up and the philosophy re-written - a long overdue revolution catalysed by the transfer ban that can arguably be described as a blessing in disguise. Chelsea have enjoyed much success down the years but neglect of the next generation was a dark cloud that persistently lingered over them. Knowing what we know now, it seems the answers they were looking for had been staring them in the face all along. Mason Mount and Fikayo Tomori shone under Lampard at Derby and returned to Chelsea alongside him which was a sign of things to come. This new-look squad had a blend of youth and experience that gave them the aura of a somewhat unknown quantity.
Baptism of Fire
There was a sense of anticipation amongst the supporters as Chelsea embarked on their first pre-season with Lampard at the helm. The schedule took them around the UK, Ireland and Europe either side of a whistle-stop tour of Japan. The Blues took four wins, two draws and a loss from their excursions where Lampard used every available opportunity to assess and experiment with the options at his disposal. The gaping hole left by the vacant Eden Hazard was somewhat filled by the arrival of Christian Pulisic – a deal secured prior to the transfer ban. With pre-season complete, Chelsea were handed a tough trip to Manchester United on the opening day of the new season. They too were a team in transition and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was beginning his first full season in charge at Old Trafford.
Lampard and Chelsea’s first audition proved a baptism of fire as the Blues succumbed to a 4-0 defeat that was perhaps harsh on their performance however, the magnitude of the task Lampard was facing quickly became apparent. Rome wasn’t built in a day and Lampard was very aware of the gap that existed between them - a team trying to find their identity - compared with the well-oiled machines of Liverpool and Manchester City but the long-term ambition has always been to close that gap. It would have been easy to read too much into the result but with a more optimistic eye, Chelsea had shown glimpses of their potential having played relatively well for at least an hour. It was a learning curve and one that would benefit Lampard and his players. Patience would be required, Lampard was quick to state the road ahead was going to have its ups and downs, urging the supporters to ride the wave and keep the faith as he looked to mould a team that reflected his vision for success.
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Having won the Europa League under Maurizio Sarri, Chelsea were gifted their first shot at silverware in the UEFA Super Cup where their opponents were Champions League winners, Liverpool. Chelsea went toe-to-toe with Jurgen Klopp’s men for 120 minutes but despite eventually losing out on penalties, the performance gave Blues fans reasons to be confident. Despite being in the early stages under Lampard, Chelsea’s players had shown they could match up to one of the best teams in world football. There was clearly disappointment at the result, but this was swiftly shaken off as Lampard secured his first Premier League victory against Norwich City at Carrow Road in late August. A poor 2-2 draw at home to Sheffield United preceded a thumping 5-2 victory at Wolves, before consecutive home defeats against Valencia and Liverpool across Champions League and Premier League competition.
As runners-up last year, Chelsea entered the Carabao Cup with frustration to burn. They began their campaign with a resounding 7-1 victory over League Two outfit Grimsby Town. Chelsea fans were treated to first team run outs for young talents Billy Gilmour, Tino Anjorin and Ian Maatsen which was further evidence of Lampard’s investment in youth. This seemed to be the catalyst which propelled Chelsea forward. They recorded six straight Premier League wins from September into November, placing them firmly in the top four where they had resided since October. However, the Christmas period would prove a stumbling block for the Blues as they battled inconsistency – a thorn in the side of several Chelsea teams over the years. Home form became a cause for concern as defeats to West Ham, Bournemouth and Southampton at the Bridge raised eyebrows. As is the case with inconsistency, there is no rhyme or reason to results. Chelsea orchestrated impressive victories at rivals Tottenham and Arsenal, salvaging their grip on the top four before the arrival of a New Year which would present new challenges.
From the outside looking in, it can be argued that Chelsea had exceeded expectations by the start of 2020. Although, Lampard had set the bar high from the off and insisted that he and his players would strive forward with high ambitions. One aspect of their game that proved troublesome was an inability to kill games off which was evident in their opening game of the New Year. A trip to Brighton saw them take the lead, dominate the ball but fail to finish the game off when they were in control of proceedings. A late Brighton equaliser meant the Blues had to settle for a point. The same pattern continued with a 2-2 draw at home to Arsenal and a 1-0 defeat away at Newcastle. A lack of clinical edge in front of goal was costing them. The FA Cup provided an outlet and the Blues affinity with the competition was made more poignant by the fact that Lampard had lifted the trophy with Chelsea as a player on four occasions. They saw off Championship opposition in Nottingham Forest and Hull City, which gave them a much-needed confidence boost but were swiftly brought back down to Earth when Bayern Munich visited the Bridge in the Champions League knockout stages. A 3-0 victory for the now German champions showed the gulf in quality between the two sides.
Joshua Kimmich and Jorginho
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Lampard’s men dusted themselves down for a crucial top-four clash with Tottenham and a reunion with former Blues boss Jose Mourinho at the end of February. The master versus the apprentice as it has been called; the latter coming out on top as Chelsea recorded a 2-1 victory to tighten their grip on fourth spot. Inconsistency reared its head once more with a 2-2 draw away at Bournemouth ahead of progression to the FA Cup quarter-finals with victory at home to Liverpool – a match in which young Billy Gilmour was the talk of south-west London. A few days later Chelsea returned to league action with a thumping 4-0 win over Everton and ex-Blues boss Carlo Ancelotti. This was arguably one of Chelsea’s best performances of the season in terms of being clinical and the overall quality of their display. They were gathering momentum with six goals in two games and consecutive clean sheets before society and football came grinding to a halt amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Lampard and Chelsea used the lockdown to reflect on what had been and to prepare for what lay ahead. The Blues looked in good shape ahead of the restart and lay in fourth position. Despite missing Callum Hudson-Odoi and Fikayo Tomori, they were boosted by the availability of N’Golo Kante who was initially granted compassionate leave due to health concerns. Chelsea hit the ground running with victories over Aston Villa and Manchester City before progressing to the FA Cup semi-finals with a win at Leicester. They looked to have discovered their pre-lockdown mojo and continued to be in control of their own destiny in the race for a Champions League spot, until familiar frailties resurfaced. A convincing 3-0 victory at home to Watford was overshadowed by back-to-back away defeats at West Ham and Sheffield United. Quite rightly, questions were asked about the character and mentality of the squad who had seriously underperformed at a time when there is little margin for error. Leicester and Manchester United also dropped points and somehow, the Blues remained in third position.
Lampard’s frustration was crystal clear and he demanded a response from his players against Norwich City on Tuesday evening. The performance was below par but Olivier Giroud’s header in first half stoppage time sealed three massive points for the Blues who hold on to third place. They will turn their attention to a mouth-watering FA Cup semi-final with Manchester United this Sunday, before taking on Liverpool and Wolves ahead of the return leg against Bayern Munich in the Champions League in August. Undoubtedly, this is a crucial phase for Chelsea. By securing Champions League football in Lampard’s first season in charge, it would speak volumes of their achievements considering the challenges which have fallen before them. Playing on Europe’s biggest stage might also help to attract further signings who would go some way to helping Chelsea try to match their nearest rivals.
Chelsea have laid down a significant marker yet understandably there are some creases which need to be ironed out. They have made huge statements of intent with the attacking additions of Hakim Ziyech and Timo Werner, but it’s clear they must address their defensive and goalkeeping uncertainties if they are to compete with the very best. The transition from unknown quantity to dark horse has taken shape far quicker than some may have thought. The squad which Lampard inherited has carried the baton valiantly thus far, but the shackles of a transfer ban have been removed. They mean business in the market and with competition heating up, places that were once guaranteed will find themselves under threat. We have seen the start of something promising at Chelsea but now it’s time to take it up a gear. Who will make the cut and be part of the next chapter of the Lampard era?