Take yourself back to May 2004. On paper, it was Chelsea’s most successful season in the Premier League. Claudio Ranieri delivered Champions League football in back-to-back seasons for the first time and they were the closest challengers to the Arsenal Invincibles.
Despite the seemingly progressive season, it was not enough for Ranieri. Roman Abramovich, who arrived the previous summer, wanted trophies to show for his investment. The Italian did not guarantee this, whereas a certain fresh, charismatic manager did. A man who publicly displayed his intense winning personality. Abramovich wasted no time in acquiring his services. Ranieri was sacked and the José Mourinho era began.
The Italian later admitted he expected to be fired at the start of the season, never mind at the end. However, perception matters. Even now some may still find it harsh regardless of the sweeping winning stamp Mourinho brought to Stamford Bridge. Most of all, Ranieri’s departure was the first public sign of the type of regime Abramovich would be running.
Fast-forward nearly seventeen-years and Chelsea’s ruthless culture cycle continues to spin. It is dogged, brutal in fact. The only tasks are to compete at a high level and to win trophies. Fail to do so and Abramovich will cut you off. Little remorse will be shown.
No manager or head coach has so far overcome the institutionalised culture. This time the system consumed Frank Lampard. His sacking caused immediate polarisation in the fanbase and the media. One half supported Chelsea’s conviction while the other shielded him.
The tensions flared quicker when details of what happened filtered out. The Athletic, the Independent and The Telegraph all published their specialist inside stories. Each one displays slightly different information and scenarios, but the same themes showed: Lampard lacked tactical intuition and effective man-management; Timo Werner’s and Kai Havertz’s form was a cause of concern; there were tensions with the board, particularly director Marina Granovskaia; and, crucially, player discontent.
These summary points show how Lampard’s messy divorce had many different guilty parties, including the head coach himself. Tactical infancy, poor man-management and being unable to integrate Werner and Havertz are damning prosecution evidence. After all, Abramovich’s Chelsea is not the environment to grow as a head coach.
On the other hand, the other two themes are long-lasting traits at Chelsea. Player power culture is a traditionalist core to the Russian’s regime. It was always a point of influence under Chelsea’s greatest backbones with Petr Cech, John Terry, Ashley Cole, Lampard himself, Didier Drogba, Eden Hazard, Cesc Fabregas and others. The head coach was always dispensable, the team’s spine was not. Abramovich knew he possessed a winning formula; he just needed a coach to adjust the tunes to the instruments every season.
Now, beyond the heights of their greatest era, it seems Chelsea’s inherited disgruntling culture is infectious beyond reasonable means.
The inside reports detailed how Antonio Rüdiger and Kepa Arrizabalaga were problems for Lampard. Reported issues in training and alleged clashes with the board over them persisted. Tammy Abraham and César Azpilicueta attempted to quash the tensions in the fanbase with unifying messages on Twitter after Thomas Tuchel’s first training session. Whether they were asked to do it or it held purposeful meaning, it was a symbolic move. The best way to force the fanbase to move on is to control the public narrative. Tweets are a means of doing this. It is a simple modern strategy to promote public team harmony.
In the summer window, Lampard was unable to move either of them on. Board stubbornness and the impact of the pandemic are said to be contributing factors. However, the dual problem the head coach apparently faced with each senior player was always a losing battle. Rüdiger is anticipated to be highly respected by the hierarchy and Arrizabalaga’s situation boiled down to Granovskaia’s unwillingness to accept their £71.6m signing was a flawed investment.
It was ego over clinical assessment, a surprising trait considering their callousness towards head coaches or managers. The Chelsea board always consider the failings of those they have appointed in the dugout but ignore their own mistakes. This was displayed again with the suggestion that the board would feel embarrassed re-signing Declan Rice. Additionally, the fact there was a possibility Lampard could lose his job over his desire to sign Rice was even more remarkable.
Lampard understands how the club manoeuvres. Football may move fast; at Chelsea, they move faster. A once settled and heartening scenario can flip in a blink of an eye. Crucially, it is not a managerial right to be given time at Chelsea regardless of what the contract says.
The scale of the disgruntlement is particularly unknown, but Lampard did reportedly challenge the culture cycle head-on.
“When things are going wrong at Chelsea, you will also find there are many people that will be happy to blame anything but their own area,” an insider told The Athletic. “It is something Lampard was trying to change, but it was going to take time. It is a deeply sad problem that has been there for many years.”
Another source said, “He knew there was a lot of work still to do. He wanted to get players out because he was worried about the effect it would have on training and the spirit.
“On a bigger note for Lampard, it was about building a culture and a way. It’s been a process and something difficult to hit head on with no new signings last year and modern players at times can be difficult. Chelsea needed freshness in personnel and good people, which the new signings were starting to provide.”
It was about building a culture. This was Lampard’s fundamental target and the first known attempt to truly reform Chelsea’s ruthless culture. The idea likely stems from the belief the greatest cultures are impenetrable fortresses. No matter the situation, no matter the issue, the cultural ethos shields the team from the oncoming storm. They recover…. together.
In a Deloitte survey, two distinctive results showed how culture is important: 94% of executives and 88% of employees said corporate culture is fundamental to business success. It also said there is a strong correlation between employees who say they feel happy and valued at work and those who claim their place of work has a strong culture.
The maths was there for Lampard. His vision foresaw where he felt Chelsea’s greatest problem lied. He visualised the future if he were successful. The best-case scenario would be establishing a Sir Alex Ferguson-esque situation. Not in terms of beaming trophies sitting side-by-side on the mantelpiece (though that would be quite nice), but in terms of culture.
For this model to work, however, it must revolve around the manager or the head coach. Arsenal has worked tirelessly to revolve their cultural ethos around Mikel Arteta. He is the mainstay, and it has shown in the January transfer window. The club could have easily sacked him before, but they are working towards something greater than a bad run of form exhibits. The same could be said for Ole Gunnar Solskjær at Manchester United.
Nevertheless, Lampard’s vision was clouded and misjudged. He was at the wrong club to attempt to push through such reforms.
To revolutionise the culture means changing the fabric of what makes Abramovich’s Chelsea the ruthless yet impressive anomaly in sport. The traditional philosophy of stability between coach and squad is unfounded; it is traded for an overpowering demand to win. It is an extreme type of winning mentality that has served him extraordinarily well.
The inherited Chelsea culture circles around Abramovich and the messaging he sends below. A fight against the culture is a fight against Abramovich, even if isn’t the Russian Lampard was attacking. When tensions allegedly soured between Lampard and Granovskaia over transfers, particularly Rüdiger, Arrizabalaga and Rice, the director was always going to triumph. She is one of Abramovich’s most trusted allies and so naturally Chelsea’s culture revolves around her as well.
You could argue whether Lampard knew the cultural issue too well. When he agreed to the job, there was always the risk he would become a victim to the regime. The thought of such pain must have played on his mind. Lampard’s romanticism meant he gave it a shot and so it became a personal project.
If he did have the authorisation, he would have been given more time and Granovskaia, in addition to other board members, would have been calmer when a crisis occurred. The events that played out suggest otherwise. Some Chelsea figures were allegedly sceptical of Lampard’s appointment in the first place. One bad run of form and the lights were out on the Chelsea legend’s dream.
This shows his role always held weak knees, despite the messaging through the media. Lampard’s target was futile. He battled an unstoppable force as a disposable object.
He understood this at the end. Lampard’s desire to push through attitude reform grew and grew as the pressure mounted. He double downed, demanding the players to hold themselves accountable through his post-match interviews. Like his predecessors who have followed a similar style, he got minimal results. They did not respond to his demand. “Self-preservation” triumphed once again.
The story of how Lampard lost his dream job has many tangibles attached to it. Although some are issues he will need to resolve personally, Chelsea’s culture was just as crucial.
You can view that Chelsea potentially set Lampard up to fail. Or Lampard was naïve to believe he could transform the club’s culture when it was so ingrained from the upper echelons he knew too well. Or perhaps Lampard was noble to try to reform a system he reportedly viewed as troublesome. Or even he was just not the man for the job.
They all hold weight. Chelsea is going through a rebuild of sorts, yet the order to win remains. The effectiveness of Abramovich’s culture stood the test against Lampard. It moves onto Tuchel. He is unlikely to have such a long-term view after signing an 18-month contract with a possible one-year extension.
One question result from Lampard’s exit: how will Chelsea’s ruthlessness uphold as they transition from one era to the next? Despite his defeat, Lampard played his role in reaching the Champions League in his first season. Now, Tuchel must fulfil his.
Chelsea’s culture will play its part. Whether Lampard was right or wrong about it, will be a sub-plot to the story that follows.