The biggest news in the soccer world on Monday involved the manager change at Chelsea, as club legend Frank Lampard was sacked and former Paris Saint-Germain coach Thomas Tuchel (who also coached Christian Pulisic at Borussia Dortmund) brought in to revamp the struggling Blues, who are ninth in the Premier League at the halfway point of their 2020-21 campaign.
With a lot to unpack around the seismic switch at Stamford Bridge, ESPN’s reporters James Olley, Mark Ogden, Julien Laurens, Gab Marcotti and Tom Hamilton break down the story.
Why Chelsea made a change
The prevailing view at Chelsea of Frank Lampard was that he had been the right manager to nurture the club’s younger players, but the wrong one to maximise performances from last summer’s six new signings that cost £220 million combined. In the end, the 42-year-old’s return to Stamford Bridge only lasted 19 months and his tenure can still be split into two distinct periods: before and after the club’s lavish spending spree.
Lampard inherited a difficult situation in July 2019, with star attacker Eden Hazard departing for Real Madrid and the club unable to sign players due to a FIFA transfer ban relating to rule-breaches regarding the transfers involving youngsters under the age of 18. It should be pointed out he also inherited a team that won the Europa League and finished third in the Premier League, but Hazard’s influence was such that repeating a top-four finish felt like a tall order for Lampard in his first season. Yet he achieved it on the final day of the 2019-20 league campaign, during which Lampard became the first Chelsea head coach to tap into the club’s academy, promoting graduates Reece James, Fikayo Tomori, Tammy Abraham and Mason Mount to the first team.
His hand was forced to some extent by the transfer ban, but not as much as some have suggested: Mount started 32 league games, Abraham 25, James 16 and Tomori 15 often because they were simply favoured over more experienced options such as Ross Barkley and Olivier Giroud, which strikes at the heart of the problem.
Lampard’s legendary status helped inspire the players who’d been at Chelsea when he was a player. He deserves credit for giving them both the confidence and freedom to develop, particularly at a club notorious for overlooking its own talent production line. But it quickly became clear he struggled to inspire the same buy-in from more senior players, along with those acquired at great expense.
ESPN reported last week that several players had become frustrated with the latter-day chopping and changing of team selection, while others complained about a lack of communication when left out of the team for long periods. The club’s new signings, particularly Timo Werner and Kai Havertz, were used to more detailed tactical plans from their coaches, and a consensus grew with the squad that Lampard was passing too much responsibility to players when it came to their individual form.
Sources tell ESPN that Lampard struggled to consistently motivate Chelsea’s veteran players, something that disappointed senior figures at the club. The hierarchy also grew frustrated at a lack of clear identity on the pitch and the failure of their big-money stars to hit the ground running, even if mitigation for Lampard should come in the condensed schedule and constrained environment resulting from COVID-19. In any case, the intensity of Lampard’s training sessions led to complaints in some quarters that the players were unnecessarily fatigued.
Ultimately, the £220m transfer outlay heightened the pressure on Lampard. Chelsea wanted their former player to succeed; owner Roman Abramovich has never before been directly quoted in a statement regarding a sacked manager, but he was in Lampard’s case, a sign of how uncomfortable they were with the situation.
The greatest discomfort was Chelsea’s distance to the top. After a year regathering themselves following Hazard’s exit and FIFA’s punishment, the Blues remembered who they really are: a ruthless club that prioritises winning above any individual.
Julien Laurens examines how Thomas Tuchel’s expected arrival at Chelsea would impact Christian Pulisic.
The timing of Lampard’s departure is down to achieving clarity over his successor. Sources say that the club began looking at options after Christmas for a summer replacement. As ESPN reported last week, the club was ultimately unsure of who to turn to next, a point underlined by a rebuffed approach for Ralf Rangnick on an interim basis (he wasn’t interested in a short-term project) and Julian Nagelsmann as a permanent appointment (the RB Leipzig boss had reservations over the role and was also unwilling to change teams in midseason).
Though a group of Abramovich’s advisors wanted Lampard to remain through the end of the 2020-21 season, the final green light to move on was given on Sunday afternoon following the Blues’ 3-1 FA Cup fourth-round win over Luton Town. Over the weekend, Tuchel changed his original stance that he wasn’t interested until the summer, and Chelsea chose to act. Sources indicate that Abramovich is lukewarm about Tuchel as manager, but did note that his biggest selling point is an ability to work with the existing squad. — James Olley
What can Chelsea expect from Tuchel?
First and foremost with Tuchel, Chelsea are getting a Champions League runner-up, a French champion and domestic treble winner and, broadly speaking, one of the brightest minds in football. The German, 47, was always touted as the next big thing in management, dating back to his five seasons (2009-14) in charge of Mainz, and his career trajectory (Borussia Dortmund, PSG, Chelsea) has mirrored that hype.
In theory, Tuchel comes with his own ideas, philosophies and tactical knowledge. He’s capable of versatility when building his teams, often keeping multiple tactical plans for various opponents. He also has a reputation for being innovative, bold and intense, though sometimes it can be too much. In fact, sometimes his tactics are counter-productive: Before Tuchel was sacked by PSG earlier this season, he ended up losing some credibility among the players by playing defender Marquinhos and midfielder Danilo Pereira out of position, in midfield and at center-back respectively.
The biggest issue for Tuchel in France was his failure to build a real identity. He adapted to the environment that he found there. He wanted to be loved so much by his players and his dressing room that he disowned his own principles. To put it simply, he took the path of least resistance whenever PSG struggled: give the ball to Neymar and Kylian Mbappe. There were no patterns of play, and no real structure to speak of. His excuse (or defense) is that he never really felt that he could be himself in Paris because the club and the dressing room were too political, though many around didn’t buy that line of reasoning.
That, in a nutshell, is the main criticism you can aim at Tuchel: in practise he just wants to be a football coach, but top clubs around Europe demand a lot more.
Tuchel fell out with French media during his time in Paris because he said they were too critical. He fell out with Leonardo, the sporting director, because he didn’t agree with his opinions, a feud that eventually cost him his job. He fell out with some of his players who struggled at times to understand his decisions, too, all of which is similar to what we heard out of Dortmund after he left that club in 2017. (Tuchel joked with friends that his time at PSG won’t prepare him for Chelsea despite the size and stress levels at both clubs.)
If he’s learned from what went right (and wrong) in Paris, there’s no reason why he can’t succeed in Chelsea. But it’s a big if. — Julien Laurens
Where Lampard went wrong
Lampard was heading for trouble at Chelsea before Monday’s dismissal; it was just a matter of time as to when his players needed more than his status as a club legend to make a difference on results. Once the initial feel-good factor evaporated, Lampard had to prove his credentials on the training pitch, and that’s when the clock started ticking on his reign as manager.
Football dressing rooms can be an unforgiving place at every level of the game, and players quickly switch off if they believe their coach is incapable of making them better, either individually or as a team. That is the fate that befell Lampard. Among the players, sources have said, there was a view that Lampard lacked the elite ability of a top coach to identify and solve the problem and that his inexperienced coaching team — former Chelsea teammate Jody Morris and ex-Chelsea development coach Joe Edwards — proved similarly out of their depth when working with top players who expect their coaches to make them better.
“Frank did well in his first few months as manager,” a source close to the Chelsea squad told ESPN. “He put his trust in young players like Mount, Abraham and Tomori, and they responded, because he is Frank Lampard and they idolised him as kids. Smart managers tap into that kind of thing and Frank benefited from his status as a former player, no question about that. But if you look back, the problems started midway through last season. The young players lost form, results suffered and the more experienced players wanted more direction and expertise from Frank and his coaching staff.
“It didn’t come. Frank has never been a tactical coach, somebody with a clear philosophy, but big players want the details and the tactical brilliance that you get from a Pep Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp or Jose Mourinho. That’s where Frank fell short.”
Behind the scenes at Stamford Bridge, sources have told ESPN that concerns over Lampard’s handling of key summer signings Kai Havertz and Timo Werner, combined with recent results, ultimately led to the change being made. Both players arrived from Germany (Havertz from Bayer Leverkusen and Werner from RB Leipzig) with reputations as two of the brightest attacking talents in Europe, but both have so far dismally under-performed, with Werner scoring just once in his last 16 games — against League Two Morecambe in the FA Cup.
Lampard has been unable to devise a tactical plan to get the best out of either player, using them both in a variety of positions with little success.
There were also disagreements between Lampard and those in charge. Sources have told ESPN that Lampard’s determination to sign England midfielder Declan Rice from West Ham — a target not universally agreed upon within the club’s power structure — was regarded as a negative by senior players, who saw the interest as evidence of the manager relying on his status as a former player to motivate a young Englishman, rather than attempting to identify a more technical player from overseas. — Mark Ogden
Julien Laurens feels Frank Lampard was too inexperienced to handle the overhaul of Chelsea’s squad in the summer.
Biggest issues for Tuchel to address
Top of Tuchel’s to-do list will be to work out why Havertz and Werner are misfiring. Neither have brought their impressive Bundesliga form to the Premier League or lived up to their chunky transfer fees (£72m for Havertz, £47m for Werner).
Havertz has looked a shadow of the player we saw at Bayer Leverkusen last season. There, he was most useful either in the creative No.10 role, behind the main striker, or on the right of the attack in a “No.8” position. He hasn’t settled into either role at Stamford Bridge, with Lampard playing him deeper in midfield instead. Whenever Havertz ventured forward, usually at the same time as Mason Mount, it left the side open at the back.
Last season, Havertz’s xA (expected Assists, or the likelihood of a key pass becoming one that leads to a goal) was 5.26 in the Bundesliga while his xG (expected Goals, which measures the quality of a shot to determine how many goals a team or player should be scoring) was 10.01; this season, his xA is at 0.83 and xG is at 1.35. Lampard said in December that Havertz took time to recover from having the coronavirus, but Tuchel will be greeted by a fully-fit 21-year-old who will be excited to learn from his fellow countryman.
The same goes for Werner, who has scored just four in 19 league games this season. He was used more as a winger by Lampard, whereas at RB Leipzig he was deadly from the inside-left forward slot, playing through the half-spaces off the back of a main center-forward and timing his runs into the box with perfection. He did work well against Luton alongside Tammy Abraham, only to miss a late penalty.
It’s no coincidence Chelsea opted for a German manager who learnt his trade in the Bundesliga. They will hope he can bring out the best in both Havertz and Werner, while the appointment is also good news for Pulisic. Tuchel knows Christian Pulisic well from his days in charge of Borussia Dortmund and Pulisic will look forward to linking up with his old mentor.
Tuchel must also crack what Lampard never quite mastered this term: figure out the Blues’ best XI. Key to this will be finding the answer to their problem position: the defensive midfielder who can be the catalyst for their transitional play. West Ham’s Rice has long been linked with a move across London to fill this spot, but Tuchel will probably have to find an option within the club for the rest of the season. Billy Gilmour offers an attractive prospect, but would need to be paired with someone more physical, while Jorginho remains an underwhelming fix.
Chelsea and Tuchel will also need to continue shifting some of the peripheral players out of a bloated squad. Marcos Alonso has barely featured this season, while Kepa Arrizabalaga could benefit from a fresh start judging by the goal he conceded against Luton on Sunday.
With five defeats in their last eight league games, Tuchel must hit the ground running. Chelsea are a club with no room for sentiment, and results are king. Ninth in the league, Tuchel must find a winning formula quickly to steer them back into the top four, and he likely won’t be given much of a honeymoon period in which to do it. — Tom Hamilton