HOW do you sack managers like Pep Guardiola, or replace parts of the furniture like Frank Lampard? There’s an assumption that clubs will not fire people who are football luminaries or club “legends”. But it would be wrong to believe Lampard and Guardiola are untouchable, at best they will be left in a room and given the tools to “make the right decision”. This is not to suggest that either manager is at that stage of their career, but the expectation at both Chelsea and Manchester City is so high that it only needs a few bad results and doubt will set in among the movers and shakers.
No manager should be unsackable, they are the employee, the club the employer. Sometimes, as we saw with Arséne Wenger at Arsenal, the long-serving coach owns the position, making it nigh on impossible to make a tough decision. Indeed, this can also result in the act of criticism of the manager being treated as treason by some fans. It’s the same at all levels of the game, especially when you have a coach who is also integral to the running of his “employer” after a one-club playing career. In their mind, they ARE the club, let alone bigger than the club. Brian Clough, as great as he was in his prime, also went on too long, eventually bowing out with tears and relegation.
Guardiola and Lampard are neither owners of their jobs or bigger than their clubs, but if either get to the stage where they need removing (and let’s face it, it happens at every club to almost every manager), it is going to be a very awkward situation.
Football is a fickle industry, though, and yesterday’s hero is tomorrow’s zero. Every top manager has his time, his moment when his method seems to be working. Guardiola has had a fantastic run, winning titles with Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Manchester City. In 2019-20, City ran out of surprises and were pushed into second place by the high energy machine that is Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool. It has become Klopp’s time, but that too will come to an end as opponents start to work out how to restrict the system’s success. Guardiola’s methods worked spectacularly but we are all familiar with them now, and you have to ask if the club has failed to build a balanced squad. There’s no excuse for City not to have key men in key positions, but their defence is not of a team aspiring to be European champions.
Something is clearly not right, from the clumsy error-prone defenders to the way they allowed their back line to be so exposed. Admittedly, they have injuries, but this is a club with vast resources, one that has had, arguably, far less worries than its rivals during the pandemic.
Guardiola is not used to losing so early in the campaign. At City, his first defeat has come in games seven, 23, 16 and five before the current season. At Bayern, his team was unbeaten until game 29, 18 and 24, while at Barcelona, it was one, 22, two and 14.
It was a manner of the defeat against Leicester that will worry Pep and his employers. To lose 5-2 at home is never going to look good, even if it is against the early season pacesetters. Also, given such a setback comes at a time when City are trying to revive their title hopes after losing nine times in 2019-20, it is understandable that some people will ask questions about the Guardiola way.
Frank Lampard is still trying to establish his “way” at Chelsea and given his enormous popularity as a player, he will be given the benefit of the doubt by supporters. But Roman Abramovich has never been known to be sentimental – you can win the Champions League at Chelsea and still be shown the door a few months later.
Chelsea have enough quality in their squad to avoid any major problems, but on the evidence of their first three games, they are some way behind Liverpool (as are Manchester City and United, Tottenham and Arsenal). The issue is, Chelsea have spent heavily, paying out £ 223 million on some exciting new players. At the same time, they have recouped £ 67 million in sales. Such a spending spree means Lampard will be expected to deliver this season, there is generally no allowance for bedding-in a squad at Chelsea. You could argue José Mourinho set the benchmark by winning the title in his debut season after a summer that saw Chelsea spend £ 94 million in 2004.
It’s a zero tolerance regime at Stamford Bridge, the cycle demands success from the off – a manager has to win prizes in year one or he is deemed a failure. Mourinho, Ancelotti, Conte, Benitez, Di Matteo and Sarri were all successful, the out-and-out “failures” were Scolari and André Villas-Boas. Mourinho didn’t win anything in the first season of his second spell, but followed-up with two prizes in 2014-15.
Would a lack lustre autumn jeapordise Lampard’s position? Most likely, although it would be a controversial decision and may split the club’s support. Abramovich has shown he will appoint who he wants – witness Avram Grant, Guus Hiddink and the unjustifiably unpopular Rafa Benitez. If Chelsea look as though they could be trophy-less in 2020-21, Lampard will probably be replaced.
In an ideal world, Chelsea’s team of all-stars will have a good year, but Lampard has to discover his best line-up and the best way to leverage their talent. The 2019-20 and 2020-21 seasons have, effectively, seamlessly flowed into one, so managers have had to change the engine on their flying machine while in flight. You would hope that Lampard’s paymasters will take that into consideration.
As for Guardiola, should he and City reach the end of their project, it will be his decision to go. And City are ruthless and professional enough to make sure that the relationship concludes in the right way, in other words, it will suit both parties. They are not at that point by any means, but even the top bosses have their shortcomings. Even in this age of the cult manager, they are not infallible, and in the case of Guardiola, he’s his own man and has never tasted failure. It would come as a big shock if a dose of mediocrity came his way.