When it’s not your day, it really isn’t your day, so Chelsea manager Frank Lampard was entitled to a rueful shake of the head when misfiring striker Timo Werner made such a mess of taking an 88th-minute corner against Manchester City that he kicked the flag instead of the ball.
Werner, the £47 million forward, has now gone 12 games without a goal for his new club after this 3-1 defeat at Stamford Bridge and his ordeal has started to personify Lampard’s difficulties in the Chelsea hot seat.
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Werner just can’t catch a break and neither can Lampard. Faced with a City team that was missing five first-team players because of positive COVID-19 tests in recent days, this was Chelsea’s chance to end a run of just one win in six and claim a first win against a fellow Big Six side this season.
But Pep Guardiola’s weakened City, with United States No. 1 Zack Steffen making his Premier League debut in goal in place of the unavailable Ederson, ripped Chelsea apart in a devastating display of slick, attacking first-half football. At the same time, they underlined their status as the biggest threat to Liverpool in the title race and left Lampard in the uncomfortable position of being the favourite to become the next top-flight manager to lose his job.
It may be harsh to think that Lampard is fighting to avoid the sack as manager after just 18 months in charge, but owner Roman Abramovich has always been swift to act when results fail to live up to expectations. Even with Lampard’s status as a club legend, he won’t be immune to the Russian’s impatience.
“I played here, I understand how everyone looks and asks questions when you lose a few games,” Lampard said. “I have to be a realist. This club has to take some pain before we get to where we want to be, that’s how you build.
“This is a difficult period. But we have to keep fighting and I’m the first one to keep fighting.”
Defeats and performances like this certainly won’t help Lampard, though; especially when proven managers such as Massimiliano Allegri and Thomas Tuchel are out of work and ready to tell any interested club owner of the trophies they have won with some of Europe’s biggest clubs. The pedigree of Allegri and Tuchel is at the heart of the problem that Lampard must overcome, and it was emphasised by Guardiola’s impact on this game.
Allegri and Tuchel have been there and done it when it comes to motivating and organising top players, but Lampard hasn’t. Prior to arriving at Chelsea in the summer of 2019, he had amassed one year of managerial experience with Derby County in the EFL Championship.
Abramovich has traditionally appointed managers of the highest calibre since buying Chelsea in 2003. Jose Mourinho, Carlo Ancelotti, Antonio Conte, and Rafael Benitez had all won the biggest prizes before taking charge at Stamford Bridge.
Guardiola was the one that got away for Abramovich, with the Spaniard twice resisting Chelsea interest prior to taking charge at Bayern Munich in 2013, but this was a game which showed just why the City manager is among the best in the world.
With a depleted squad, Guardiola still managed to find a way to beat a full-strength Chelsea side, with Kevin De Bruyne impressing in the unusual role as a false nine. But City didn’t just win, they won with style and assurance.
Manchester United may have climbed into second spot in the table, but City are the team that Liverpool will fear most this season. Only two teams have the ability to go on a run of 10-12 consecutive victories and they are City and Liverpool, so don’t even think about writing Guardiola and Co. off.
“Same manager, same backroom staff, the players are the same and the ideas are completely the same,” Guardiola said after the game. “The way we won leagues and titles and other things is the way we played today. The tempo we have missed in the past, today we recovered it.”
City’s first-half goals, from Ilkay Gundogan, Phil Foden, and De Bruyne were all rooted in bad Chelsea defending, but City’s ruthlessness saw them capitalise on the chances. At the same time, Lampard watched from the touchline, despairing at his team’s woeful defending and toothless attacking. But he is the man tasked with getting the best from his group of players and there is no question that they are under-performing.
So can Lampard make a difference on the training ground and turn his team around? Does he have the coaching ability of a Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp, or Jose Mourinho to arrest Chelsea’s slump?
The reality is that he is yet to show that the answer to either question is ‘yes.’ This season, Chelsea have scored just twice in five games against Big Six rivals and won none of them. Each time, Lampard has been unable to devise a plan to win. And even against a City team weakened by COVID-19, he still ended up on the wrong side of a heavy defeat.
“At the minute we’re in a little period, five or six games that we’ve struggled,” Lampard said. “If you go back to City and Liverpool in their transition periods, there were periods of pain and you have to get through that.
“I’ve sat there and had these days and then lifted a trophy at the end of the year. We bounced back then because we had a spirit in the dressing room and any player in football will have periods like that.
“Some other defeats for other teams have been painful. We have to take it on the chin. This is football.”