Pep Guardiola feels bad for Frank Lampard.
They are ostensibly rival managers. Or were, at any rate. But on Monday morning, Chelsea sacked Lampard after only 18 months in charge, during which its former star midfielder won nearly twice as many games as he lost.
In his first season, Lampard had deftly guided a rebuilding team, made up largely of players old and young, to fourth place in the Premier League and a Champions League berth, surprising many and outperforming reasonable expectations. This season, with a slew of new attacking players who didn’t immediately gel, a run of just two wins from eight Premier League matches and the attendant tumble from fourth place to ninth did him in. Six bad weeks was all it took.
Never mind that Chelsea had lost just once in its 11 league matches before that. Or that it had sailed through the Champions League group stage. Or that it was still alive in both domestic cup tournaments. Or indeed that it had won its last match, an FA Cup bout with Luton Town.
Lampard had run out of time.
“People talk about projects and ideas,” said Guardiola, the Manchester City manager, per the BBC. “They don’t exist. You have to win or you will be replaced. I hope to see Frank soon and go to a restaurant with him when lockdown finished.”
A meal to commiserate, no doubt. A meal to ponder the realities of elite soccer.
A meal, too, to contemplate the unfairness of Lampard’s predicament. When he replaced Maurizio Sarri ahead of the 2019-20 season, he inherited a team caught between cycles that had just sold the club’s best-ever player, Eden Hazard, to Real Madrid. What’s more, a transfer ban meant that he would have to plug academy kids and survivors of the club’s long-term loan-mill into the squad’s many holes. It was a rebuilding year. That much was understood by everyone.
And so it was alright that Lampard would be in charge of it. Because he himself was a prospect, a young manager with only a season of experience under his belt, guiding Derby County to the playoff in the Championship. He would learn on the job, as so many of his players would. The club legend would be allowed time to grow into his obvious managerial potential.
Chelsea, for the first time since Roman Abramovich bought the club in 2003, would take a step back and start over. It would do things the right way, or at least in the traditional way. For once, it wouldn’t chop and change and patch things on the fly.
Last season changed the paradigm. Lampard’s unexpected success evidently convinced the club brass that the rebuild was just about wrapped up and Chelsea could begin to compete again. In that sense, Lampard may have been a victim of his own good work.
In the club’s statement announcing Lampard’s dismissal, it said that “recent results and performances have not met the club’s expectations, leaving the club mid-table without any clear path to sustained improvement.”
Certainly, Chelsea didn’t look great of late. And perhaps it even gave the appearance of being hopeless. But the clear path to sustained improvement was obvious, manifesting in the form of all those young attacking players who haven’t yet reached their prime. In Mason Mount, Tammy Abraham, Callum Hudson-Odoi and Christian Pulisic. In all those summer acquisitions Timo Werner, Kai Havertz, Hakim Ziyech, Ben Chilwell and Edouard Mendy, most of whom hadn’t settled in yet.
Deciding that Lampard had hit a wall was a choice, a perspective taken that he could no longer turn it around. Never mind that Manchester United’s Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Arsenal’s Mikel Arteta have demonstrated in those same six weeks that induced Lampard’s professional demise that, given time, a manager absolutely can fix seemingly unfixable problems. They too had walked close to the cliff’s edge, only to solve their issues and go on long unbeaten streaks.
For a good while, hiring former star players as managers of big-time teams, no matter their inexperience at that level, was a fad. Like Solskjaer and Arteta, Lampard benefited from it. But if the club changed its profile of managerial hires, deviating from laureled veterans, it forgot to adjust its expectations accordingly. Whereas the Blues’ rivals gave those club men the chance to mature into their new positions, Chelsea treated Lampard as they would any other manager. A bad month. Time for somebody else. In comes Thomas Tuchel, who guided Paris Saint-Germain to the Champions League final last season.
Chelsea will not hold itself accountable. It will not cede to the argument that with any young team, with any side that has gone through wholesale changes, a fallow period will follow, even if the initial results were promising. That, if it was going to appoint a manager-in-training, he should be allowed mistakes and difficulties and failures.
So now it starts over. Again. And woe unto the next man, the 16th appointment of the Abramovich era, if it takes him more than a year to start winning things. No matter the circumstances. Only the manager will be to blame.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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