It’s been such a strange, topsy-turvy Premier League season, and Frank Lampard is such an icon at Chelsea, that it was easy to feel that even Sunday’s 3-1 embarrassing home loss to Manchester City wouldn’t be quite enough to put Lampard’s status as the Blues manager in serious jeopardy.
After all, Lampard led Chelsea to the knockout stage of the Champions League earlier this season, winning the group to boot. He’d overachieved last term, his first on the sideline at Stamford Bridge, finishing fourth (and just a hair out of third) with a young and mostly inexperienced squad. Just a few weeks ago, before the Blues dropped four of six league matches, Lampard’s side was in the thick of the conversation as a bona fide title contender.
Not anymore. And no matter how much Lampard is revered in southwest London, this is Chelsea we’re talking about, a club whose owner Roman Abramovich is famously impatient with his coaches, having burned though 14 different mangers in 16 years before hiring Lampard in 2019. After dropping more than $300 million on new players over the summer, it really shouldn’t have been any surprise that, within seconds of the final whistle Sunday, The Athletic reported that Chelsea’s brass had already begun the process of assessing possible successors.
“I played here, I understand how everyone looks and asks questions when you lose a few games,” Lampard, who captained Chelsea to its lone European title in 2012, said afterward. “I have to be a realist.”
The reality is this: If Lampard is going to save himself, his team needs to turn things around in short order. And Christian Pulisic could be the key.
Pulisic has been among the Blues’ few bright spots during the current slump. Even though the 21-year-old American has managed just one league goal, in a 3-1 win over Leeds in early December that temporarily sent Chelsea to the top of the table, he’s been an automatic starter for Lampard. Finally healthy after dealing with hamstring issues at the beginning of the 2020-21 campaign that forced him to miss seven of Chelsea’s first 17 league games, Pulisic has gone the full 90 minutes in three straight contests.
That’s a far cry from early last season, when Lampard benched Pulisic whenever he went a few games without a goal or assist. He went on to establish himself as a worthy replacement for Eden Hazard, with 10 goals in his first 32 Prem games. (Hazard, now in his second season with Real Madrid, had nine in his first 34.) This year, Lampard has kept Pulisic on the field regardless — a possible tell on his job security.
Even without the end-product that made Pulisic one of the Prem’s top players during the English top-flight’s summer restart following a three-month coronavirus hiatus, it’s clear Lampard knows that riding Pulisic, consistently his most dangerous player this season, as much as possible gives him the best chance to win. The sense of urgency isn’t lost on anyone.
“We need to start turning it around,” Pulisic told the club’s website Sunday. “We do need to start getting results quickly.”
And they do have time to take a breath and regroup. Following six matches in 23 days over the Prem’s jam-packed “festive period,” Chelsea’s next league game isn’t until Jan. 15. The defense will need to tighten considerably — City showed just how vulnerable Lampard’s side is to counterattacks — but the back line was always going to be Chelsea’s weak spot, with just a fraction of its transfer outlay devoted to shoring it up.
The bigger worry is Lampard’s sputtering attack, which was expected to score goals in droves. But blue-chip summer signings Kai Havertz and Timo Werner have struggled to adapt to the faster, more physical Premier League since arriving from the Bundesliga in their native Germany. Another prized recruit, winger Hakim Ziyech, has been limited by injury.
Pulisic endured similar issues at first before ending last season with aplomb. Through the first half of this one, he’s quietly emerged as a respected veteran. Now his teammates are looking to him for answers. And one gets the feeling that if and when Pulisic really gets going and starts creating and finishing chances, Havertz, Werner and the rest will follow.
Lampard certainly seems to be banking on that being the case. His future as Chelsea boss just may depend on it.
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