Chelsea’s Tuchel and the obstacle of being different

A LOT of Chelsea fans were upset about the sacking of Frank Lampard, somehow assuming his status in the  history books would make him immune to usual practice at one of the most ruthless clubs in Europe. 

Those that consider the appointment of Thomas Tuchel a foolhardy step that lacks ambition are allowing their heart to rule their head. In hindsight, Lampard will be seen as a “holding position” hiring, he was effectively given a similar status as Avram Grant, Guus Hiddink and Rafa Benitez. He was slotted in when the club faced a transfer ban, which made Chelsea a [temporarily] unattractive proposition. When the clouds dispersed and money was spent, the egg-timer was flipped over. Tough? Yes, but look at recent history. 

In Tuchel’s first two games, Chelsea have secured four points, kept two clean sheets and enjoyed an average of over 75% possession, hinting at the shape of passing games to come. He may find it easier to implement a new ethos while the stadiums remain empty. If the fans are unconvinced by the arrival of Tuchel, the club has fed the doubters by giving him an 18-month contract. It could be that Chelsea know that their coaches do not go the distance and that even success doesn’t make the seat any more stable. A shorter contract means less compensation when patience wears out and the man in the ivory tower decides he wants a new toy soldier. 

As the Sunday Times pointed out, Chelsea’s penchant for paying-off “failed” managers has cost them dear, from the £ 31 million José Mourinho has received over two stints to the £ 6 million paid to Claudio Rainieri, the first victim of fantasy football at the Bridge. 

For all Lampard’s “Chelseaness”, a term coined by the Guardian’s Jonathan Wilson, he was a rookie manager with no track record. As Bobby Charlton, Geoff Hurst and Bobby Moore found out, being a great player doesn’t mean you will become a top manager. Lampard is not an old-school manager in the mould of his uncle Harry or big Sam, but he doesn’t seem a laptop manager like Tuchel and some of his contemporaries. He might fall into either of those categories in due course, but one season at Derby County does not equip an aspiring coach with the credentials to take over an elite club. The mistake was all Chelsea’s. He may have seemed like the right man, but it was absolutely the wrong time. His moment will come.

Tuchel appears to know what he’s signed up for and you sense from his comments the 18-month deal may work both ways. “Honeymoons don’t last long at Chelsea,” said the Independent. “Tuchel cannot rely on a linear chain of command. There are back channels to Abramovich and the board for dissatisfied players and it is not considered unusual or unacceptable to go above the manager’s head.” If that’s the case, it could only be a matter of time before Tuchel hits a brick wall.

There is not universal approval of Tuchel’s hiring. Former players like Micah Richards, Paul Merson have criticised the move (pointing to Pochettino as a better fit, even though he’s just joined PSG) while Jürgen Klopp has expressed his surprise that Lampard was sacked: “I think it’s really harsh to make the decision that early. Mr Abramovich gives you some chances, money, players, whatever… but he is not the most patient person in the world.” Tony Evans, journalist and staunch Liverpool fan, in the Independent, added: “Managers don’t change Chelsea, the club changes them. Regularly and brutally.”

Some observers could not resist the German reference, noting that Tuchel was joining big money signings Timo Werner and Kai Havertz at a time when Germany had the audacity to criticise Britain’s covid-19 vaccines. A case of vaccine nationalism if ever there was one!

Meanwhile, Tuchel’s first few days have brought out the familiar claim that fans can look forward to a “fresh Chelsea style” – a cliché employed whenever the dugout gets a spring clean. Tuchel has said “I am the guy for the dressing room and the tactics.” He’s also a fellow who is different from the stereotypical football coach. He’s an “ascetic, vegan intellectual” said the Guardian’s Wilson. That may lack “Chelseaness” in the footballing sense, but it is certainly very Chelsea.

Sources: The Sunday Times, Guardian, Independent, The Times, Marca, BBC.

Lampard, the predictable end of experiment Frank

THERE WILL be no shortage of sympathy for Frank Lampard as he goes the same way as a dozen or so other Chelsea managers. Eighteen months might not seem like a long time, even by Chelsea’s standards, but this was an appointment that went into the same category as AVB and RDM. In other words, the hiring of a relatively inexperienced manager that represented a little symbolic bravery on the part of the club. Deep down, Chelsea knew that they would, sooner rather than later, revert to type and acquire a big name from the elite band of managerial hired guns. 

The script could have been written on the very day that Frank Lampard was appointed. The club had been hit with a transfer ban, Lampard came in with the convenient dedication to youth and the fans loved it. Certainly, the die-hards who fell in love with Chelsea before trophies started pouring applauded it, a blues legend in charge and home grown talent filling the team. They would exercise far more patience than fans who have known nothing else but success at the club.

But when Chelsea’s transfer ban was shortened, Lampard’s departure was already inevitable. They could go out a bring in who they wanted and money would be made available to strengthen the squad. The Chelsea purse strings were loosened and over £ 200 million was spent on players – for an inexperienced manager to toy with. These two pressure points meant that Lampard and Chelsea would have to produce something special to keep the C-suite happy. As the season unfolded, every setback was another piece torn off Lampard’s contract and the signal for another phone call to see who might be available to replace him.

Lampard went from easy-going, pragmatic Frank to grimacing, poker-face Frank and even sniped at journalists in a press conference. The pressure was starting to show as much as the under-performance of some of the highly-priced talent brought in to Stamford Bridge in the summer.

Of course, Lampard knew the score when he was appointed: Chelsea have no margin for error in their modern culture. He was given a year’s grace because he is Frank Lampard, but that only meant that year two would carry a monumental burden – it would have to be Premier or Champions League. The consolation prize of FA Cup would not be enough.

When Thomas Tuchel became available, another pressure point started to build. Would Chelsea risk missing out on one of Europe’s top young managers? And what about the mysterious Max Allegri, when was he going to resurface?

Tuchel, if he is the man, will test Chelsea. He may be a decent coach, he may have some good ideas, but he is a strong-willed, highly technical individual who appears to be abrasive in his relationship with his employers. He did well at Paris Saint-Germain, winning trophies and taking them closer to European success than ever before, but he often fell out with the club’s top brass. Such a relationship has invariably been the beginning of the end for managers at Chelsea, so how he will work within the Abramovich regime remains to be seen.

Furthermore, Tuchel’s interaction with some players has been described as “complex”, which may also wave a red flag at Chelsea. When past issues have emerged in the dressing room, the players clearly have the upper hand. There may be success, but like most of Chelsea’s appointments since 2003, Tuchel will be a temporary employee.

It will, of course, be fine while it’s fine, but then when it goes wrong, more cash will be paid to a manager dismissed mid-contract. As football finance expert Kieran Maguire noted, Chelsea have paid out £ 110 million in manager compensation in the Abramovich era. That’s an expensive way to run a club, but the bulging trophy cabinet suggests it is a successful model, even if it is built around short-termism. Lampard may be smarting now, but he’s an intelligent and popular man who will be back.

Photo: PA Images
Infographic: PA Graphic