“I feel my work was betrayed.” A Chelsea manager had lost at Leicester, reached the point of no return and decided to go down all guns blazing. In 2015, Jose Mourinho aped Tony Montana at the top of the staircase, trying to take everyone else out with him. Five seasons on, Frank Lampard did not copy the mentor he has become estranged from. He was too diplomatic, too reasonable.
Perhaps his plight, despite a fifth defeat in eight, despite the evidence that Leicester are the more credible challengers, is not as serious. And yet this is Chelsea’s second worst first half to a campaign in the Roman Abramovich era, and the first cost Mourinho his job. Every setback, let alone one as damning as this 2-0 defeat, makes it harder to imagine Lampard will survive. Long before Mourinho, it was very possible to sustain mortal wounds in this part of the world. Richard III is proof sons of famous dynasties can meet unfortunate ends in fields in Leicestershire.
Chelsea’s crown prince now depends on the whims of Abramovich. “It is not my decision,” Lampard conceded. “Some things are always beyond your control. That I can’t answer.” Eighth place was historically unacceptable for Abramovich, even without a £220 million outlay in an otherwise depressed market.
A goalscoring midfielder of a younger generation, James Maddison, had smiled that he wanted people talking about him. Lampard has resigned himself to the reality of them discussing his position. “It intensified for me a while ago,” he said. “Expectations at this club are high. When we perform like that it is normal people will ask questions.”
So far, his answers are unsatisfactory. Mentions of Chelsea failing to do “the basics” are becoming wearily familiar. He stopped short of Mourinho’s toxic allegations of betrayal. “I wouldn’t say letting me down because that’s not my job to sit here and say that to you,” he said, which may not have been a denial earlier.
And yet there was a reference to the ghosts of Chelsea past. “You’re asking a lot of them to become prime John Terry overnight,” he replied, asked about a lack of leaders. “We are not in the position as Chelsea Football Club as we were in the periods when we were winning leagues.” Mentions of youth and inexperience were understandable last season. They are less forgivable now.
“It is a developing team,” Lampard argued. Yet the numbers suggest it is a regressing side, particularly against elite opponents. Lampard can at least say his Chelsea have beaten a top-seven side this season, but only because they have slipped behind West Ham. It amounts to another indignity for Upton Park’s least favourite son.
Perhaps Lampard was a better Chelsea manager with fewer premier players, without the expectation expenditure brings. “In an ideal world you find a team and you roll with it,” said Lampard. Instead, he does not know his strongest side. Lampard belatedly installed Kai Havertz in his preferred position as a No. 10 at Leicester. The wunderkind looked off the pace; thus far, he is Chelsea’s worst £70 million signing since, well, Kepa Arrizabalaga. Timo Werner, the other jewel of the Bundesliga, came on for a cameo, briefly thought he had scored a first goal in 11 league games, but saw it ruled offside. The marquee buys have posed Lampard more problems than they have solved. Chelsea thought they had acquired two thoroughbreds but only Lampard’s faithful, trusty Mount – Mason thereof – performed.
Autumnal defensive excellence has given way to errors. Leicester’s opener was a failure of organisation. Maddison noted they can switch off at corners and a short one led to Wilfred Ndidi’s opener. Reece James’ poor positioning was a factor in the second.
The entire game amounted to a failure of motivation. “They were sharper than us and ran more than us,” Lampard said. “The bare minimum is to run and sprint and cover ground and too many of our players didn’t do it.”
It was rarely an accusation levelled at him as the most driven of players spurred himself on to Chelsea greatness. His status as a player got him the manager’s job, but past deeds alone will not be enough to keep it. Nor will references to a 16-game unbeaten run when Chelsea are amassing losses and tumbling down the table, when the pressure is mounting. “I am good at handling that pressure,” Lampard said. Ultimately, Mourinho wasn’t. But he had the glory days before the gory day at Leicester.