Frank Lampard: Has Chelsea boss restored ‘soul’ of club?
Chelsea might be one of the most successful teams in the Premier League era, but there have been times when they have been hard to warm to for neutral observers.
Funded by Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich, they won the club's first league championship in 50 years in 2004-05 having spent more than £200m in the two years immediately after he took over the club, with many feeling they had bought success.
They had a high turnover of managers, who often preferred substance over style, farmed young English talent out on loan and had a team led by a divisive captain in John Terry.
And yet, they kept on winning. Since Abramovich took over in 2003, no team in the Premier League has won more than Chelsea's 15 major trophies.
This season, however, Chelsea are different. Unable to spend money because of a transfer ban, the club have turned to their talented younger players, and led by head coach and former player Frank Lampard, they appear less manufactured, more organic. Maybe even more likeable.
“When you talk about having a second favourite team, one that you don't support but you admire and respect, I don't think Chelsea come up much,” former Blues defender Graeme Le Saux tells BBC Sport.
“Maybe in the 1990s when we had Marcel Desailly, Luca Vialli and Gianfranco Zola, we were a likeable team then. We had a style which people admired and we had a good mix of English players and international stars, but in more recent history that has been missing.
“With the high turnover of players and managers, a little bit of soul had been lost within the club, and now suddenly that has changed. It gives me a sense there is a heartbeat at the club again.”
This season's expectations might have been tempered by the two-window transfer ban and Lampard being only in his second season of management after reaching the Championship play-offs with Derby County last season.
But, with Chelsea two points behind second-placed Manchester City in the Premier League and well placed in their Champions League group before hosting Ajax on Tuesday, Lampard's appointment appears shrewd on several levels.
Lampard restores ‘Chelsea identity'
Where once the team was managed by well-paid names there to do a job for a limited time only, it is now overseen by people who understand the club from its foundations up.
Chelsea staff also describe how much easier it is to deal with Lampard than previous managers such as Maurizio Sarri and Antonio Conte.
Media conferences are more relaxed and Lampard answers questions honestly and, where appropriate, with good humour.
Part of that is down to Lampard's stature in the club. Having spent 13 years at Chelsea, he is the club's all-time leading goalscorer. That means he feels at ease in the surroundings, while appreciating the demands on him to succeed.
But the current mood is helped by the head coach being surrounded by those with an intimate knowledge of the club rather than a foreign manager recruiting his own staff.
Former midfielder Jody Morris is Lampard's assistant, and has coached Chelsea's Under-18 side, which included current first-teamers Mason Mount and Callum Hudson-Odoi.
The coaching team is also made up of Joe Edwards, a former Under-23 coach, and former midfielder Eddie Newton, who helped Mount, Tammy Abraham and Fikayo Tomori while they were on loan before making their first-team breakthroughs this season.
Former Chelsea goalkeeper Petr Cech, – Lampard's team-mate for 10 years – is now the club's technical and performance adviser.
“There is an identity that is emerging from within,” says Le Saux, who made more than 250 appearances for Chelsea. “There is an energy and determination in the team which is a compliment to Frank and what his coaching staff are doing.
“There's an honesty, too, and it could be a really significant moment in the club's recent history. Part of that is down to the transfer ban but it's also how they have not let it be used as an excuse, it's been seen as an opportunity.”
Academy graduates finally get their chance
Chelsea's academy has long been rated as one of the best in the country, but chances for graduates to establish themselves in the first team have been rare.
Ever since former skipper Terry made his first-team debut for Chelsea in 1998, only he and Morris have had sustained playing time for the club, though Ruben Loftus-Cheek was a regular last season before rupturing his Achilles tendon just before the Europa League final.
This season, however, the spine of Lampard's team was schooled at Cobham. Abraham, Mount and Tomori have all impressed. Hudson-Odoi, who featured in the team last season but threatened to leave unless he was assured about his future, looks to be blossoming after injury.
Le Saux believes Lampard has been afforded some “tolerance” compared to other managers, where the directive might have been to win trophies immediately and not worry about developing academy graduates.
But he also says that will make little difference to a “serial winner” who “trained harder and longer” than any of his team-mates.
Lampard rejects any notion his hand was forced, saying his younger players are in the team “on merit”.
And Le Saux says the manager will be “grateful” for the emergence of so many talented youngsters at Chelsea, which coincides with the wider promotion of young players across English football.
“The pathway created doesn't just benefit those who are getting their opportunity now,” Le Saux says. “It benefits everybody because there is a story to tell a 12-year-old, or a 14-year-old, and the parents of new players coming in.”
It has also built a connection with fans, who have been yearning for a home-grown youngster to make an impact in the first team.
And with Abraham, Mount, Hudson-Odoi and Tomori all called up by their country, there is a benefit for England fans too.
Style, substance and a meritocracy
Chelsea's approach to managers tends to be short-lived and short-loved, but they cannot be accused of being unsuccessful.
Whether their teams have always been pleasing on the eye is another matter.
Carlo Ancelotti's Double winners from 2009-10 scored a then-record 103 Premier League goals, but Jose Mourinho's template for success was built around a physically strong team, which could counter-attack with ruthlessness. Conte's side were like hound-dogs on the pitch, pressing opposition teams to within an inch of their lives, while Sarri's team attempted to kill the opposition with a death by a thousand passes.
Lampard has so far made Chelsea more appealing in terms of their style too and it has been no easy task unstitching Sarri's team, who took their time getting anywhere on the pitch.
The new Chelsea head coach has made the passing quicker and more direct, leading to a rate of 2.3 goals per game which outstrips Sarri (1.7), Conte (1.9) and Mourinho (1.8) in his second spell at the club. His side have had to tighten up in defence after leaking goals at the start of the season, but Lampard has shown tactical nous in making changes to how his side defends at corners.
He has also made them more of a force on the road too. Chelsea finished third last season, but their form away from Stamford Bridge was poor. This term, Chelsea have equalled a club record seven successive away wins, which included an impressive 1-0 victory at last season's Champions League semi-finalists Ajax. Even midfielder Jorginho has turned into a fans' favourite, having been a target for supporters last season.
“Frank has created a meritocracy very quickly,” Le Saux adds. “That's a very powerful message for any coach to deliver but it can be hard to achieve. Coaches are sometimes under pressure to play players who cost money to justify the investment, but he's basing it on merit.
“This season was an unknown quantity but the biggest achievement of the group is that those players have stepped up and risen to the challenge. Mateo Kovacic is playing well, Jorginho is playing the best I've seen him play, Willian is playing as well as I've seen him, the others not playing must be putting in a shift in training too.
“There must have been a slight change in mindset about expectations this season, but no-one would say ‘take it easy, don't worry about results' and it wouldn't be realistic in Frank either. Overall, though, Chelsea are above the level that they would have settled for.”
After the hard-fought win over Watford on Saturday, Lampard would not answer whether Chelsea had become more likeable under his stewardship, but the smile he offered suggests he is enjoying the journey.
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