This piece originally appeared on www.sabotagetimes.com.
Let the record show that Chelsea have made a mistake in handing Frank Lampard a new contract. There are several reasons to be galled by the fact that Roman Abramovich has chosen to reward one of his biggest and most persistent troublemakers with another year’s football and a few million quid, but I will stick to the two most important.
Firstly, Chelsea need a different sort of midfielder if the undoubted ability of their current squad is to be maximised; secondly, Lampard’s list of transgressions, while not nearly as long and as disgraceful as those of his best pals at Stamford Bridge, is more than offensive enough to mean that he doesn’t deserve to be kept on.
With their now all-time top scorer’s deal set to expire in the summer, the Blues had a chance to definitively break with the professionally troublesome and tactically reactive Old Guard, ushering in a new era in which the club’s youth system produced relatively cheap, humble footballers good enough to play the tiki-taka that Roman Abramovich has craved since buying the club in 2003
As it is, Chelsea will continue to be a team in Lampard’s image: a stoic, spirited outfit “that always finds a way”, rather than a side that blazes a beautiful trail, grabbing the world’s attention. Tactically, their troubles this season have been similar in manifestation and in origin to those of the Premier League’s other major Sugar Daddy-bankrolled side, Manchester City.
Having a blank chequebook to play with every summer has led to rampant short-termism in West London. Chelsea have an incoherent buying policy, relatively high turnover of personnel – particularly of those in the dugout – and a squad that contains world-class options in every position but one with no tactical identity, no collective vision of a Plan A.
For example, if the manager chooses to play the club’s most experienced defenders, Branislav Ivanović and John Terry, at centre-back then he can’t in good conscience play the aggressive, pressing 4-2-3-1 that suits Juan Mata, Eden Hazard and Oscar. The defenders’ lack of pace leaves Chelsea exposed to simple counter-attacks and Lampard isn’t deft or authoritative enough to play in the second band in a proactive system.
Conversely, if the manager chooses to play Ivanović and Terry and go with their preferred system, a deeper, counter-attacking 4-2-3-1 or, even better, a 4-3-3, then he gets the best out of his defenders and Lampard but stifles the younger trio, forcing them into primarily defensive roles on the wings. Additionally, he runs the risk of boring his trigger-happy paymaster into action and finding himself sacked (isn’t that right, José?).
The obvious solution from a footballing perspective is to select David Luiz and/or Gary Cahill at the back, replace Lampard with a dominating powerhouse and play the proactive 4-2-3-1. Mata, Hazard and Oscar are the club’s present and future, after all. However, by doing so the manager alienates one or more of his senior players as well as their mates in the dressing room. They then go off and whinge to their mates in the media, who are all too happy to get their hands on a good, juicy story.
This is where Lampard’s professional conduct becomes a case in point. When André Villas-Boas arrived at Stamford Bridge for the second time, he recognised that Lampard’s career at the very top level was winding down and that Chelsea needed to move on and evolve. What AVB didn’t count on was the England midfielder being too proud a man to simply go gentle into that good night.
Lampard was suddenly being interviewed on almost every edition of Match of the Day, explicitly expressing his desire to play more minutes and implying that he, a loyal servant of Chelsea Football Club, was the innocent victim of some sort of ruthlessly harsh corporate reshuffle. Every day a new tabloid exclusive shouted that “senior players” were unhappy with AVB’s training methods/use of technical jargon/squad rotation policy/choice of overcoat/manly ginger beard.
In football as in life, it matters not what is said but rather by whom it is said. If a newly-arrived foreigner had gone to the papers and cried wolf about Sir Alex Ferguson being an insensitive manager then he would have been portrayed as an unprofessional crybaby who should roll his socks up and work a bit harder.
As it was, the foreign upstart was the guy in the dugout and the man with cultural capital to spare was the player doing the moaning. Public opinion inevitably ended up on Lampard’s side and AVB was fired after one too many shows of disrespect to the Old Guard.
Abramovich’s judgment had positive consequences. In the short-term, it was undeniably a good call. There is no way that Chelsea would have won last season’s Champions League with the Portuguese in charge. In the long-term, however, it was an abysmal managerial decision, only serving to reinforce the idea that the club’s managers are accountable to an exclusive dressing room cabal, when at any healthy, organic institution power would be in the hands of the so-called ‘boss’.
Going forward, Chelsea will continue to win honours with Lampard in the side. The level of investment in their first team makes success fairly hard to avoid and with José Mourinho returning, a title challenge beckons. Nonetheless, the Blues will continue to lurch from one crisis to another as the Terry and Lampard era ends with their power unchallenged.
The legacy of dressing room deference and professionalism that Sir Alex Ferguson and Pep Guardiola left at Manchester United and Barcelona respectively will forever be absent at Chelsea. The culture at Stamford Bridge will instead be one of obeying the gaffer until he decides you’re on the bench, at which point you call a sympathetic journalist who will then imply on national radio that the man in the hotseat is secretly autistic and struggles with all forms of human interaction.
The depressing reality is that this was always going to happen. Abramovich was always going to cave into public pressure and keep Lampard on. The knowedge that José Mourinho is a paid-up member of the Frank Lampard Fan Club only emphasised the inevitability of it all. This was Abramovich’s big chance to give Chelsea style and class as well as glory – and he bottled it.