Frank Lampard cannot afford to sail through Chelsea peaks and troughs | Jonathan Liew
Frank Lampard’s autobiography is called Totally Frank. It was written in 2006 when the then Chelsea midfielder was 28, rendering it – at best – Partially Frank, Prematurely Frank, Avariciously Hasty Frank.
Anyway, there is a passage in the book from the summer of 2005, when Lampard gets wind of a rumour that the winner of the club’s player of the year award gets invited on to Roman Abramovich’s yacht. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, Lampard tells himself. And so at one home game he musters the courage to ask the Chelsea owner if the rumour is true. Abramovich laughs hard. Lampard gulps. But eventually, his brazenness is rewarded.
A few days later, the director Eugene Tenenbaum approaches Lampard at training and asks how many days he wants. “A week,” Lampard blurts out. Then he thinks: “‘Fuck it, I’ve got this far.’ … ‘I’ll have two weeks.’” Arrangements are made. Dates are fixed. Flights are booked.
Lampard’s fortnight on the Abramovich yacht is recounted in lascivious, longing detail. (By contrast, the Champions League semi-final defeat against Liverpool a few weeks earlier is dispensed with in a few sentences.) He marvels at the luxurious trappings, the spacious bedrooms, the courteous staff who bring him unbidden platters of fruit. One evening the Formula One tycoon Eddie Jordan pulls up in his boat and casually invites Lampard and his girlfriend for dinner with Bono. “I’m not a huge music fan,” Lampard admits, which may explain why the pair get on so well.
“It all seemed too good to be true,” Lampard writes. “Me? The lad who struggled to get into the West Ham team, now about to holiday on Sussurro, one of the most expensive private boats at sea? Are you sure? Not bad for a boy from Romford!”
There are two quietly revealing aspects to how Lampard recounts the yacht story and how he rationalises much of his career to date. The first is the rags-to-riches ornamentation, the trope of the humble Essex boy done good: albeit one with a famous footballing father, private schooling and an elite academy background.
The second is a steadfast belief in the ultimate economy of the universe, that what you put in equals what you get out (“nothing ventured, nothing gained”). Luck is something you make for yourself. Put the hours in, approach life with the right attitude and over time the arc of history will always bend towards justice, order and an all-expenses-paid holiday on a billionaire’s yacht.
Paradoxically, this is a trait you glimpse most strongly in times of adversity. As Lampard’s Chelsea currently endure a mid-season slump, with four defeats in their past six games, it is worth examining the steps that brought them to this point. Early in the season Chelsea were a freewheeling, free-scoring attacking circus. Then in October Lampard moved to tighten up the defence, conceding two goals in nine games.
Now, although results have taken a downturn, Lampard remains supremely calm. “I’m relaxed about peaks and troughs of form,” he said after Chelsea’s 3-1 home defeat against Manchester City on Sunday. Based on the underlying numbers, he has a point. Since the start of December, Chelsea’s expected goal difference is second only to City’s, though they have taken seven points from seven games. A tweak or two, a few days’ rest and before long the inherent rightness of the universe will reassert itself.
The issue is that when you actually watch Chelsea, you realise they need more than a tweak. There was one attacking move in the second half on Sunday that epitomised this. Mason Mount darted into the left channel and rolled an inviting cross along the six-yard line. But Timo Werner had come short anticipating the cutback, Hakim Ziyech was lurking in his usual position near the corner of the box and so the cross proved harmless.
Three individual players, all doing what came most naturally to them. The result: a shambles. And the logical culmination of a model in which Chelsea have assembled some of the world’s greatest attacking talents without much of a clue of how they might fit together. They make nice runs. They do clever things. Often, it all clicks and everyone looks like a genius. But it does not feel like a sustainable formula and you wonder if a more restless and curious coach than Lampard would be more worried about it.
Instead, his public-facing strategy seems to have been one of displacement, such as when he turned on his own players after losing against Arsenal. This, perhaps, is only to be expected. For much of his career Lampard played in strong, title-challenging teams where most weeks you do your jobs, and you win. If you don’t win, by extension, then someone didn’t do their job.
Were he the sort of manager prone to introspection or self-analysis, this might be an appropriate moment for Lampard to reflect that the qualities that earned him the Chelsea job may not necessarily be those best suited to keeping it. After all, this is not a club, and Abramovich not an owner, that cares to endure peaks and troughs for very long.
And yet, the overarching logic of Lampard’s life to date suggests the best course of action is simply to work hard, brazen things out and hope for the best. After all, it all seems too good to be true. Me? A rookie manager who struggled in vain to get Derby promoted, now managing one of the biggest clubs in the world, with some of the world’s most expensive attacking players? Not bad for a boy from Romford!