During the final days of the transfer window, as one source at Chelsea describes, Frank Lampard was “livid”. After the often blunt, public nature of his calls for new signings went unanswered, privately he began to air his frustrations over the club’s lack of intent to spend in January. But it was news of the sale of 18-year-old Tariq Lamptey – an academy graduate endeared to both his assistants, Jody Morris and Joe Edwards – that had ground salt into the wound.
It was the first time Lampard’s velvet revolution had become fractious. In his seven months since taking charge at Chelsea, there have been setbacks and recently stagnation, but rarely discord. The overcast glare he wore at a press conference on deadline day snapping a smile that’s dominated much of this season.
He above all else will see the irony in Chelsea going to such great lengths to lift their transfer ban, only to make the world-class signing he craved two weeks too late. Hakim Ziyech’s signing from Ajax next summer, confirmed yesterday for an initial £33.8m fee, was a testament to patience rather than impulse. Yet, the promise of his arrival can only bring so much solace to a manager fixated on the present.
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Lampard’s tenure has, up until now, been something of a test drive; hurtling forwards without inhibition but every so often careering out of control. His youthful squad are joyously naive and naively joyous and, despite winning just four of their last 13 league games, they still find themselves in pole position to finish in the top four.
But while supporters remain besotted and the board gambles on making do without reinforcement, Lampard is all too aware of how vital it is to secure Chelsea’s Champions League status for next season. Not so much for the sake of morale or self-satisfaction, but because of how crucial it is in order to attract the players he’s already singled out to improve his squad.
The club’s approach for Edinson Cavani, a quick fix to bide time for a longer-term solution, was evidence of that. That the striker so readily stated his preference for a move to Atletico Madrid compounded why it’s so important. Fail to secure a top-four finish and Chelsea’s free-spirited nature will be shackled by a sharper reality when it comes to chasing the likes of Jadon Sancho, Ben Chilwell and Timo Werner next summer.
So Manchester United’s visit on Monday evening represents the start of a second chapter for Lampard’s Chelsea. After all, it was at Old Trafford last August that his reign began with a shuddering 4-0 defeat. “This is a work in progress,” he warned afterwards. “We will have to learn harsh lessons.”
They’ve come thick and fast ever since. Defeats against West Ham, Bournemouth, Southampton and Newcastle have highlighted a lack of imagination in attack and exposed their angst in defence. Tammy Abraham and Mason Mount have struggled to shed the hangovers of their flying start to the season, while it’s taken Callum Hudson-Odoi longer than expected to recapture his grace after the airs over his Achilles injury and contract saga.
Those were areas, though, that Lampard had already identified as vulnerable.
He couldn’t have expected to have to drop Kepa Arrizabalaga, the world’s most expensive goalkeeper, for 38-year-old Willy Caballero or contend with losing trust in both his left-backs; Emerson and Marcos Alonso. Even the usually impregnable N’golo Kante has been guilty of two costly errors leading to goals – no midfielder has made more this season. At times, Chelsea have ridden their luck – their position in the table now as much a result of their rivals’ shortcomings – but they’ve battled in the face of plenty of misfortune, too.
It’s the calm, unflustered manner in which Lampard has wrestled with those situations which has been most impressive. He’s a clear authority figure, strict and demanding, but not too detached to relate to the emotions of his players. He too is being forced to learn fast lessons while finding the right balance. It may not yet have amounted to anything close to consistency, but they are enjoying the process. And even after his irritation at the false carrot dangled during the transfer window, by the end of Chelsea’s draw against Leicester, Lampard’s smile had already returned.
The winter break will have allowed both he and his players time to rest and reflect on what they’ve achieved so far. And as Lampard alluded to, now the “hard work” truly begins.