A few days ago, Frank Lampard was confirmed as Chelsea FC’s first team manager as one of the most open secrets in football this year was finally announced publicly. This now means that two of the most successful clubs in Premier League history (yes, I am aware that football did not begin in 1992), Manchester United and Chelsea, currently have first team managers that are club legends who have played hundreds of games for their respective clubs, winning several major trophies in the process.
However, legend status and immense popularity at their clubs are not the only things Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Frank Lampard have in common. Both also share the characteristic of replacing one of the best managers in the world, although it can be argued that both those managers were not exactly having the time of their lives in their jobs. For Solskjaer it was Jose Mourinho, for Lampard it is Maurizio Sarri. The public discourse and grand jury regarding Sarri’s time at Chelsea is a rather peculiar and interesting topic itself, but I digress.
Solskjaer and Lampard’s other similarity, which is the brunt of my piece, is that they were hardly the most competent candidates in the respective pool of managers that was looked at by their clubs. After successfully guiding Molde FK to successive league titles in Norway, Solskjaer secured his first high-profile job in 2014 as manager of Cardiff City.
It is safe to say that Solskjaer’s stint at Cardiff was a failure, as the side slipped into the relegation zone for the first time that season and ended up finishing bottom of the Premier League. Despite summer spending, initial results in the Championship next season were hardly uplifting, with successive home defeats to Norwich and Middlesbrough turning out to be the final nails in the coffin for Solskjaer. The Norwegian eventually returned to Molde FK in his home country, before joining Manchester United as caretaker manager in late 2018 when Jose Mourinho was sacked.
He was eventually handed the permanent role in March 2019 after a superb run of form for the team in both the Premier League and UEFA Champions League. However, results dipped spectacularly from March onwards, with United only winning two of their last ten games in all competitions. Their form in the last five games Premier League was amongst the worst three in the entire league.
Frank Lampard, on the other hand, is a slightly complicated case, and granted, has more to show for his efforts than Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. The Chelsea legend started off his managerial career with a challenging and high-profile job at Derby County in the Championship, where expectation was to break into the top two and secure promotion to the Premier League. Lampard’s Derby played some neat football with promising youngsters like Harry Wilson getting chances, and even had some breakthrough results that created quite a storm, such as beating United at Old Trafford whilst having more of the ball than them (Derby had 53% possession compared to United’s 47%). Lampard’s side didn’t just go to the biggest club stadium in England to sit back and hope for something on the counter – they controlled most of the game and overpowered United. People sat up and started taking notice of Derby County.
As the season went on, results did start to falter a little, and after hoping for a top-two finish in the initial parts of the season, Derby disappointingly ended up sixth in the Championship table. The season wasn’t a complete failure, though, as they narrowly missed out on earning promotion to the Premier League after reaching the Play-Off final by beating Bielsa’s excellent Leeds side but losing to Aston Villa in the final (where a Chelsea legend by the name of John Terry is part of the coaching staff, coincidentally).
On the face of it, it may seem like Lampard has had an acceptable season with Derby. Nothing ground-breaking, but certainly not a failure either. From such an angle, it may not seem outrageous that Chelsea have gone for him as their new manager. There is certainly a historical precedent of ‘big’ clubs choosing managers who have performed well in weaker leagues who then go onto be successful at those top jobs as well. However, digging slightly deeper into Lampard’s season at Derby reveals a troubling find.
Despite finishing sixth last season, Derby County posted xG (expected goals) and xPTS (expected points) that had them finishing as the 14thbest team in the Championship (source: InfoGol) (if you are unaware of how xG works and what its importance is, please check it out here). Put simply, if last season was to be repeated, absolutely identically, 1000 times, Derby would, on average, finish 14th. Their underlying numbers of xG (expected goals for) and xGA (expected goals against) were both lower than their actual numbers. They also created just 0.77 “big chances” per game last season (source: InfoGol).
In essence, Lampard’s Derby were lucky and quite below average in terms of performances in the league. Despite having one of the best squads in the league, they posted performance numbers of a bottom-half side. This finally brings me to my main point.
Surely Chelsea looked at more than just his final league position. Surely they looked at his underlying numbers and other performance metrics. Surely they must have seen that Lampard’s first full season was underwhelming by many standards. Why, then, did they still persist with him? Why, then, do they think he is the man to better a third-place league finish and a Europa League trophy? Why, then, do they think he is better equipped than the proven tactician named Maurizio Sarri?
We already know the answer, to be honest. They think Frank Lampard is better equipped for Chelseathan Maurizio Sarri was, or all other managerial candidates are. And it is the same in Ole Gunnar Solksjaer’s case. Why else would Man United look past trying to acquire Mauricio Pochettino’s world class services? Why else would they not the wait till the summer to see who else is available (who else but the world class Max Allegri)? Why else would both clubs not try for managers who were gettable and had, without a doubt, much more to show on their CV than the two gentlemen in question?
Frank Lampard “gets” Chelsea. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer “gets” United. That is the main reason they have been hired.
What exactly is “getting the club” worth? Is it enough to secure a top-four finish? Is it enough to warrant a successful cup run? Is the variable itself a valid criterion? What about experience, tactical nous, man management skills, transfer market aptitude etcetera – aspects that, in my view at least, matter far more than how many appearances you amassed as a player for said club?
Apparently, for Chelsea and Man United, “getting the club” carries enough weight to overpower all the other important indicators. These indicators are, coincidentally, clear weaknesses in Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Frank Lampard’s cases. Simply put, if Frank Lampard and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer did not play for Chelsea and Man United, respectively, they would be no way near the jobs that they currently have. No one would go through their managerial record and reasonably expect them to lead two of Premier League’s most successful clubs to top-four finishes and then, eventually, to consistent title challenges. Solskjaer said in February that he was not ready for the Cardiff City job back in 2014, but knew Man United’s DNA. Somehow going back to Molde for a few years suddenly made Solskjaer ready for one of the biggest jobs in football, probably the toughest one around at the moment.
History has shown us repeatedly that if you do not have the tools to be a successful manager, it does not matter how many trophies you won or how many goals you scored for your beloved club. Just ask Alan Shearer or Graeme Souness.
The fact that individuals like Johan Cryuff, Carlo Ancelotti, Pep Guardiola and Zinedine Zidane became excellent managers at their former clubs had less to do with the fact that they became managers of the clubs where they were legends, and more to do with their actual abilities as managers.
It is puzzling to see such huge clubs with so many resources and infrastructure overriding all levels of analysis, logic, and historical cases and simply going for a decision borne out of emotion and passion. But then again, fans are naturally emotional and passionate people, and these decisions win them over completely.
That is, in essence, the best thing about such appointments. The board appeases the fans, everyone starts pulling in one direction, and there is a strong “feel-good” factor around the club. Club legends enjoy job security unlike anyone else. Therefore, it takes a seriously awful patch of results for anyone to even consider calling for their head.
But all of this eventually comes crashing down if the manager is out of his depth. That is exactly what happened with Solskjaer. The “feel-good” factor helped United on a run of results that were akin to many previous league winners. Eventually, though, passion and enthusiasm could only get you so far, and United’s form in the last month was similar to a relegation-zone club.
Solskjaer and Lampard will surely get a full season before the pressure truly starts mounting on them from the inside, unless things go disastrously wrong. But can United and Chelsea afford another full season of transition and instability? This is especially important since there is enough evidence to suggest that next season will have the most open race for fourth spot since at least a decade. Will Lampard and Solskjaer be able to breathe new life into clubs that have structural issues (United’s Director of Football conundrum, for instance), creaking parts and problems beyond their control (Chelsea’s transfer ban, for example)? Or will these club legends pull through and post results that will exceed, by far, anything they have done so far in their careers?