Frank Lampard is, at last, the new manager of Chelsea, the 12th man to be appointed to the post on a permanent or semi-permanent basis since Roman Abramovich bought the club in 2003 after having his long-awaited hire confirmed on Thursday. This raises two immediate questions: firstly, is he the right man for the job? And, secondly, even if he is the right one, will he be given time to prove it?
The turnover of Chelsea managers under Abramovich has been remarkable. It shouldn’t work, the turmoil going against all understanding of best practice, and yet the chaos has brought 16 trophies in 16 years–although perhaps at rather higher financial cost than was necessary. The club is aware of the issue and has repeatedly made assurances that it wants to change its ways, particularly since Abramovich’s interest began to wane, only for circumstances to overtake them.
This last season feels inexplicable. Appointing a manager as idiosyncratic as Maurizio Sarri made sense only if he was going to be given time–and yet by the time Antonio Conte was finally ushered out he didn’t even have a full preseason. He wasn’t supported in the transfer market, and although the season yielded a Europa League success, a League Cup final and a third-place finish, Sarri never found favor with fans frustrated by the ponderous nature of much of Chelsea’s football–that odd quality of succeeding despite themselves, or perhaps more accurately in this instance being frustrated despite success, shining through again.
In that regard, the offer from Juventus that allowed Sarri to return to Italy perhaps spared Chelsea an awkward decision, although the impression was that the decision would have been taken to dismiss him. That readiness to pull the trigger makes the Chelsea job one of dubious attraction. There are worse things, of course, that doing a well-remunerated job for a year and then getting a payoff but, still, the very brightest managers would surely prefer a measure of stability.
That is where Lampard comes in. He spent 13 years at the club, winning a Champions League and three Premier League titles. Although he came through at West Ham, Chelsea feels like his natural home. He would have needed less persuading than most to come to Stamford Bridge. The fans will want him to succeed; they’re unlikely to turn on him as they did on Sarri, or if they do it would take sustained disappointment on the pitch.
But the bigger question is whether the club will have patience with him. This season, more than ever before, the manager will need patience. Eden Hazard has gone to Real Madrid and, while Christian Pulisic is a notional replacement, he isn’t yet anywhere near the Belgian’s class. The deal for the U.S. winger was agreed to in January, which is just as well given Chelsea is under a transfer embargo for the next two windows after FIFA found it guilty of irregularities over the registration of minors.
That means Chelsea will have to turn to its army of players who have spent the last few seasons out on loan – which may be no bad thing if it means more pitch time for the likes of Tammy Abraham, Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Callum Hudson-Odoi. The problem is the latter two won't be available for some time after tearing their Achilles late in the season. Lampard had two players on loan from Chelsea in his Derby squad last season: Mason Mount and Fikayo Tomori. And that in turn means Chelsea relying on players with very little, if any, Premier League experience.
Nor will there be much Premier League experience on the bench. Lampard has one season as a manager. Taking Derby to the promotion playoff final was an achievement, but the wider sense was that his start had been decent but not spectacular. The new director of football, Petr Cech, only retired last year. There is talk of a host of former stars returning in coaching roles: Jody Morris, who worked with Lampard at Derby and has previous experience in Chelsea’s academy, would seem a logical appointment, while there may also be roles for Claude Makelele and Didier Drogba.
In one sense, the potential return of four of the main players in Jose Mourinho’s double-title winning side is very exciting, a reminder of happier times and expression of the club’s sense of identity. But the lack of experience must be a concern, particularly if Chelsea is as unprepared to let its coaching staff learn on the job as has been the case under Abramovich.
Lampard is a gamble. The example of Pep Guardiola at Barcelona may be the one that everybody wants to invoke, but very few people manage to be legends at a club both as a player and as a coach. In these difficult circumstances, though, appointing somebody who will be afforded time by the fans may be as a good a decision as any.