Frank Lampard pulled no punches on his Chelsea players after their Boxing Day loss to Arsenal, describing their first-half display as “lazy” and saying “all the basics were wrong” in the way they approached the game.
The comments were intended to provoke a reaction from his squad but not this one. Sunday’s performance at Stamford Bridge, where Manchester City ran out 3-1 winners, was even worse. “When you start questioning work-rate and desire, no matter how good a team you are, you are going to slip up,” said Sky Sports pundit Roy Keane.
Throw in their 1-1 draw with Aston Villa last time out and Chelsea are without a win in their last three games. Go back further than that and it is one in six. Lampard’s side topped the Premier League after their 3-1 win over Leeds in early December. Now they sit eighth.
It has been an alarming slide and while Lampard has questioned the contributions of his players, the spotlight is now falling on him.
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For all the investment in the summer, his Chelsea side are three points and four places worse off than at the same stage of last season. “Last year he had a free pass,” added Keane, “but they’ve spent money and it brings added pressures.”
Lampard is certainly feeling those pressures now. He can complain about the application of his players but what hope is there when they are set up as poorly as they were against City?
In the build-up to the third goal, just 34 minutes in, Raheem Sterling found himself through on goal in the middle of his own half. It was a bizarre sight but it was not the first time Lampard’s Chelsea have been exposed in this way on their own turf. Think Gabriel Martinelli in the 2-2 draw with Arsenal last season.
The first two goals were similarly ugly, with Chelsea giving City as much time and space to progress the ball up the flanks as they did Arsenal on Boxing Day. Again, lessons went unlearnt. “Try tackling him,” added a dumbfounded Keane. “No one from Chelsea tackled today. Nobody got close to anybody.”
Lampard called on his players to redouble their efforts after the Arsenal game but City outran them by four kilometres at Stamford Bridge, according to Premier League tracking data, and the manager’s half-time team talk seemed to make little difference.
City continued to slice them open. Callum Hudson-Odoi’s late consolation goal came from only their second shot on target.
It was not supposed to be this way. City came into the game without a host of senior players following a COVID-19 outbreak in their camp. It felt like an opportunity for Chelsea to take advantage. But instead they fell well short of expectations and it wasn’t the first time.
In fact, Lampard’s side have failed to win any of their six games against the Premier League’s current top seven this season.
Liverpool, Everton and Manchester City have all beaten them while Manchester United, Tottenham and Aston Villa have held them to draws. It is a record that reflects poorly on the man in the dugout.
There are problems to address all over the pitch.
At one end, they have shipped more goals than relegation-threatened Burnley and only two fewer than Fulham. At the other, new additions are struggling to make an impact. Lampard favoured Timo Werner over Olivier Giroud or Tammy Abraham against City but the German is now without a goal in his last 12 Chelsea appearances.
Is Lampard the man to solve those problems?
“I expected difficulties and I know becoming title contenders doesn’t come easy,” he said in his post-match press conference.
“One month ago, people were asking me if I was signing a new contract, but now we’ve lost four games. The pressure is always there. I was aware of that when I took the job. But we have to keep going.”
The 42-year-old will hope he still has enough credit in the bank to see this period out having steered the club to a Champions League finish in difficult circumstances last season.
But he knows as well as anyone that Roman Abramovich has sacked Chelsea managers for less.
To sit eighth nearly halfway into the season is not, you suspect, what Abramovich had in mind when he sanctioned £226m in spending during the summer.
And while Lampard is right when he says new players need time to adapt, it is far easier to ask for patience when you are relying on academy graduates rather than expensively-acquired recruits.
There have been mitigating circumstances over the course of his 18 months in charge but his overall record does not look good in the context of what came before it. In fact, his average of 1.67 points per game across his 55 Premier League games in charge is the lowest of any manager in the Abramovich era.
It’s little wonder he’s feeling the heat.
“I’ll always feel heat,” he added. “I felt the heat when we were on our good run as I knew that around the corner there could have been the negative. We’re striving to get to the level of the teams that won things here during the Roman Abramovich era but we’re not at that stage yet.
“I can’t speak for those on the board. I can’t answer what they’re thinking about the difficult run of results like I couldn’t answer for them when there was talk about a new contract a month ago.
“But there was never going to be an absolute trajectory that was going to be up and up and up. I saw flaws in my team even during the 16-game [unbeaten] run.”
Lampard still hopes to fix those flaws but whether he gets the time he needs to do it remains to be seen. The criticism of his own players on Boxing Day felt dangerous at the time. Two games and no wins later, we are closer to finding out if there is any way back.
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