Chelsea were undoubtedly second best in Saturday’s FA Cup final defeat to Arsenal. Some questionable refereeing decisions didn’t help, but the Gunners well and truly deserved to lift the trophy at the end of the day.
The defeat means Frank Lampard will end his first season at Chelsea without a trophy. Well, assuming he can’t mastermind the comeback of the century against Bayern Munich in the Champions League which, let’s be honest, is not going to happen.
The cup final failure has left many rival fans (and even some Chelsea supporters) criticising Lampard for his shortcomings and even stating that the boss’ season has been an unmitigated disaster, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.
If we look back to the departure of talisman Eden Hazard last summer, even the most optimistic of Chelsea fan admitted that the Blues could be in for a rough ride. Chelsea had been unhealthily dependent on the Belgian for a few years at that point, and it was abundantly clear that the team wasn’t actually that good without him.
Lampard was made to cope without Hazard and was banned from replacing him, although the arrival of Christian Pulisic from Borussia Dortmund definitely helped in that regard.
The boss recognised that Chelsea needed rejuvenating, but with his hands tied, he decided that the best (or perhaps only) way to do that was by turning to the academy.
Sure, Chelsea’s academy has been the most successful in England for some time now, but that means nothing at senior level. Last summer, after returning from their loan spells, Mason Mount, Tammy Abraham, Reece James and Fikayo Tomori were all billed as ‘Championship quality’ by most.
The only top-level experience Lampard was able to ‘add’ to the squad came through the returning Kurt Zouma and Michy Batshuayi – the latter of whom has offered next to nothing this season.
The squad he was left with was bad. His only additions were a bunch of kids. He had no money to spend. He had just one year of experience as a manager. Chelsea were destined to be a disaster.
The general consensus around Stamford Bridge was that Lampard’s only task was to keep Chelsea afloat this season. The top four was out of reach, but just try not to finish in the bottom half and then get the rebuild going next summer.
Not only has Lampard achieved that goal, but he has far exceeded expectations. He kept Chelsea competitive (albeit in an underwhelming Premier League season) and led the Blues back to the Champions League by playing an entertaining brand of football. You can compare him to previous managers all you want, but a Chelsea side led by Mount was never meant to be anywhere close to the same level as the side led by Hazard.
Now, that’s not to say that Lampard’s season has been perfect. He has mismanaged situations, made tactical mistakes and failed to adapt to in-game events as fast as most top-flight managers would.
Defensively, his team has been a shambles. It’s not outlandish to suggest that his naivety has left Chelsea exposed at the back, but it’s also fair to say that some abysmal individual performances from his players have thrown him to the wolves at times.
However, that’s all to be expected at this point in his career. It’s similar to how we describe most 18-year-old prospects – all encouraging signs, but some flaws which need improving.
Perhaps a lot of the scepticism towards Lampard’s debut season comes from Chelsea’s infamous revolving door policy. Plenty of bosses before Lampard were only permitted one or two mistakes before being sent packing, so surely the Englishman should have been given the boot by now?
Is Chelsea’s decision to change their ways a bad thing? Of course not.
Lampard’s arrival signalled the transition to a new era. Roman Abramovich’s preferred ‘win now’ approach was simply not possible, so things changed and Chelsea decided to build for the future.
Chelsea saw Jürgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola struggle in their debut seasons in England, but look how they have developed. They now lead the two best teams in the land, and that’s all because of patience. Chelsea’s approach of ‘win the title, have a player rebellion, finish sixth and go again’ is not how the best teams do things.
On the pitch, the young players will have time to improve. In the dugout, Lampard and Jody Morris will be given the chance to figure things out. At board level, Petr Čech has the opportunity to grow as a director. The outlook on football has changed.
Those who have called for Lampard’s head to roll are still looking at the old Chelsea – the Chelsea who sack managers for breathing in the wrong direction. We’re in a new era now, and Lampard is the perfect man for the job.
Stage one: complete.