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When Frank Lampard sealed a romantic return to Chelsea in July 2019, not only was football's worst kept secret at the time finally confirmed, but Stamford Bridge readied itself for an ambitious and somewhat foreign long-term strategy designed to bring a newfound stability to the club.
Stability almost served as an antonym for the name Roman Abramovich before the Russian handed Lampard the keys to his sporting palace. In 16 years as Blues owner he had been through 11 managers, sacking seven of them, and in Jose Mourinho's case even handing one his P45 on two separate occasions.
Yet, Lampard's appointment was intended to mark a new chapter of the Abramovich story at Chelsea, one unheard of and almost belittled since he first rocked up on the Fulham Road as Ken Bates' wealthy successor.
With just one satisfying year in charge of second-tier Derby County under his belt, which included a narrow 2-1 defeat by Aston Villa in the Championship playoff final, it goes without saying that Lampard was not hired on the back of an illustrious managerial CV or track record for sweeping up the game's top prizes.
Chelsea have been there, done that, got the t-shirt when it comes to courting the crème de la crème of coaches. Mourinho arrived for his first stint at the club as a reigning European champion. Luiz Felipe Scolari was a World Cup winning manager when he took on what has since become a poisoned chalice. Carlo Ancelotti a two-time Champions League victor.
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None of them survived longer than Mourinho's 21-month spell (he would later return for an even shorter two-and-a-half year reign in 2013). Scolari lasted a mere seven months. Ancelotti was sacked in the tunnel after a defeat Everton, just 12 months on from a famous Premier League and FA Cup double in his first season, having finished second in the top flight.
Though whilst ticking off a seemingly endless supply of managers Abramovich has also ticked every box when it comes to major honours. Five Premier League titles, as many FA Cups, three League Cups, one Europa League and one holy-grail of a Champions League is a remarkable return which has propelled Chelsea to the summit of European football.
The last remaining challenge for him in west London is to enjoy prolonged, steady success with one coach in the hot-seat over an extended period of time. And Lampard, the club's all-time record goalscorer who achieved the entirety of that feat during Abramovich's ownership, was deemed the ideal candidate to spearhead that project in spite of his novice resumé.
His mutual devotion for Chelsea coupled with an encouraging managerial debut at Derby made him the perfect man for the job, especially amidst a two-window transfer embargo which coincided with Eden Hazard leaving for Real Madrid.
Lampard's predecessor Maurizio Sarri just about squeezed the Blues into a Champions League qualifying place with Hazard's genius at his service. One could argue he wouldn't have come close to doing so without it. Thus, being prevented from reinvesting after losing a player of the Belgian's ilk ensured Chelsea's next manager would be taking the job in unprecedentedly testing circumstances.
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However, the ban also presented Abramovich with a golden opportunity to kickstart his quest for longevity.
By hiring a man heralded as the club's greatest ever player, and whom he enjoys a great rapport with personally, the typically ruthless Chelsea tycoon would not have to worry about supporters turning on their manager in the same way they recently had with Sarri, nor dealing with the kind of unbearable boardroom-level friction generated by Mourinho and Antonio Conte.
Lampard's appointment handed both the incoming head coach and club officials somewhat of a free pass. No major signings + low expectations = little pressure.
The kindest of pre-season predictions had Chelsea somehow sneaking their way into the top four, which involved a fair amount of wishful thinking given the only addition to their underperforming, Hazard-less squad was unproven USA winger Christian Pulisic – who finalised a £58million move from Borussia Dortmund before the transfer embargo kicked in.
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In the end, Lampard met that lofty target and more whilst also integrating the highest amount of academy graduates in an Abramovich season, despite virtually every ex-player and journalist foreboding a painful plummet below the top six. His side secured an unlikely fourth-place finish in the Premier League and reached the FA Cup final, where they were beaten 2-1 by Arsenal after seeing Pulisic and captain Cesar Azpilicueta hobble off injured and Mateo Kovacic sent off.
Mason Mount, Tammy Abraham, Reece James, Billy Gilmour and Fikayo Tomori, who either returned from loan moves or emerged from the youth ranks to become key members of his senior squad, almost felt like new signings in their own right, while Pulisic proved a revelation and ended the season as Chelsea's most influential attacker.
Lampard deserves immense credit for maintaining the club's Champions League status and reaching a cup final in such challenging conditions. Abramovich and right-hand woman Marina Granovskaia would likely have been bracing themselves for a brief period of mediocrity either in the Europa League or simply without European football altogether.
Nevertheless, a spending spree which exceeded £200million in the subsequent transfer window soon rendered his free pass invalid. Timo Werner, Hakim Ziyech, Kai Havertz, Ben Chilwell, Edouard Mendy and Thiago Silva arrived and suddenly Lampard's plucky Blues were pinned up as 2020/21 title challengers, whether he liked it or not.
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Injury and fitness problems meant the majority of those blockbuster recruits could not be called upon until the end of October. Before that, a 2-0 defeat at home to Liverpool, in which both goals came after Andreas Christensen’s first-half red card, and pulsating 3-3 draws with West Brom and Southampton had threatened to derail their season.
Then came an important stalemate away at Manchester United when the spotlight was well and truly on Lampard. Sky Sports pundit Patrice Evra condemned both teams for their negative approach to a mind-numbingly uneventful affair, but in truth it provided Chelsea with the platform to avoid defeat in their next five outings, win four of them, and catapult themselves into the title picture.
With the Blues and Jose Mourinho's Tottenham hot on Liverpool's heels, a poetic Master vs Apprentice title joust between Lampard and his former gaffer was even mooted at the time.
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Fast forward merely one month and the tables have turned in quite disastrous fashion for Frank. Instead of a potential bid to become Premier League champions, his side are languishing down in ninth place, six points adrift of the top four.
Four defeats in six matches have knocked Chelsea off their perch and plunged Lampard's future into doubt. He is currently second-favourite with the bookies to become the Premier League's next managerial casualty.
Having racked up an eye-watering summer transfer bill, Lampard can no longer fall back on a free pass when results take a turn for the worse. His coaching abilities are now under the microscope like never before.
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Chelsea's trip to Fulham on Saturday evening, rearranged due to the hosts' altered midweek fixture schedule, is being billed as a make-or-break moment in his tenure. Suffer another setback and many believe Abramovich's notorious trigger finger will become fatally itchy once more.
Though if Lampard is relieved of his duties at the first sign of a major crisis, why bother hiring him in the first place?
Regardless of the summer outlay, which has become a stick for people to beat Chelsea with despite the fact it was drastically inflated due to their lack of spend in 2019/20, Abramovich could not have seriously expected him to click his fingers, seamlessly integrate a host of new signings and break Liverpool and City’s dominance in one season.
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He, Granovskaia and their trusted advisers knew full well what they were signing up for when they appointed a rookie 41-year-old head coach. It was clear they would need to be more patient than ever before.
So hitting the panic button 18 months into project Lampard, when current leaders Man Utd are still just 10 points away, would render his original appointment completely and utterly pointless.
That's not to say Lampard should be immune to criticism in the hot-seat, nor is it inconceivable that he could eventually prove the wrong man for the job later down the line.
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And their current crisis descending into the doomsday (and highly unlikely) scenario of a relegation battle would of course justify an early dismissal.
But after giving the initial thumbs up to this unfamiliar quest for managerial peace in SW6, Abramovich would look foolish by going back to square one.
- Frank Lampard
- Chelsea FC
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