When I left Chelsea to join Juventus last year Antonio Conte was a couple of weeks away from the sack. I had arrived for my second spell at Chelsea in 2012 just a few weeks after Roberto Di Matteo had lost the job. The men’s team won two league titles in the six years I was there but there was also a lot of disappointment and a lot of managers who struggled to really connect with the fans, a problem that continued under Maurizio Sarri last season. Last week, a few days after my return from Turin, I went back to Stamford Bridge working as a pundit to find a club transformed.
This is the effect Frank Lampard has had. When he was appointed people questioned his experience, but as an absolute legend at the club he has something other managers can’t match, no matter how many titles they have won. There is a nostalgia and a love between old players and fans that you can’t artificially create and Chelsea is suddenly stuffed with them: Jody Morris is Lampard’s assistant, Eddie Newton is on the coaching staff, Petr Cech’s title is technical and performance adviser. On Wednesday night John Terry was on the Aston Villa bench, another familiar face for the fans to cheer and cherish. Of course football is first and foremost about results and Lampard’s popularity would not last long if his team were disorganized and unsuccessful. He has harnessed this deep emotional connection really well to transform the atmosphere around the club, creating an environment of familiarity and love for the shirt.
He has put commitment, discipline and work rate back at the heart of the team. As David Luiz soon found out Lampard is not interested in a player’s reputation, but their attitude. He has made an impact by trusting young players and under him Mason Mount, Tammy Abraham and Fikayo Tomori are producing the levels of consistency we associated with Lampard himself as a player. The culture in Chelsea’s academy has changed, from young players knowing they had to go out on loan if they were going to get a game to knowing if they keep pushing they’ve got a chance.
On Wednesday against Aston Villa I saw a lot of Lampard in his players, in terms of their discipline and more superficially in the way Mount got his goal from the edge of the penalty area. Sometimes a club legend can impose that on his players. Fans will always feel a connection to a team that guarantees effort, commitment and pride in the badge.
Meanwhile at Arsenal another manager has gone and the atmosphere remains one of bitterness and disappointment. Clearly Lampard’s impact at Chelsea has had an effect, because of the bookmakers’ top five favorites for the Arsenal job three used to play for the club – the caretaker, Freddie Ljungberg, Mikel Arteta and Patrick Vieira, and I think the Frenchman is the one to go for.
There are more experienced names on the list, with Carlo Ancelotti standing out as someone who can steady the ship, make the team a bit more attacking and attract big-name players. I can see how the idea of bringing in someone who can guarantee an instant impact may appeal to the Arsenal board. Vieira would be more of a long-term commitment, an acceptance they are unlikely to win the league in the next couple of seasons and the best course is to look to the future, trying to build something over three to five years.
The atmosphere at the Emirates Stadium is a factor. We all know the Arsenal fans like to make themselves heard, and while most new managers would be welcomed cautiously, or maybe in some cases even with hostility, it is possible to appoint someone who will instantly command their respect, bring a bit of nostalgia and reignite a relationship. In the situation Arsenal find themselves in, after the way the Arsène Wenger era ended and Unai Emery’s appointment panned out they have the great luxury of being able to produce an instant fix for fans – and he is working in Nice.
The effect does not always last. Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s arrival transformed the atmosphere at Old Trafford and led to a stunning upturn in performances and results that lasted a couple of months. He reminded the players what it means to play for the club. The results have not been sustained – though Wednesday’s victory over Tottenham showed what the squad is capable of – but Solskjær is sticking to his core values: picking players who want to be at United and giving young players a shot.
Lampard and Solskjaer have followed a similar path, coaching at academy level, getting some managerial experience at one or more smaller clubs and then moving to a top-six team. Unlike Ljungberg and Arteta, Vieira has gone down the same route. I think that is one reason why I would favor him. There is also something in the way he played – without fear, with fight and responsibility but also with quality and guile – that sounds like the recipe Arsenal require.
It is a big call, particularly for a club that has made a lot of bad ones recently about team management and also player recruitment. Some of the decision-making – for example the conclusion that David Luiz and an 18-year-old in William Saliba who could not play for them for at least a year was a good way to invest £35m in the heart of their defense last summer – has just been weird. A bad decision now would not only impact on performances on the pitch and the club’s profit margins off it, it may be terminal for the credibility of everyone involved in making it.
In four days over the new year Lampard and Solskjaer will bring their teams to the Emirates; by then I think Arsenal should have another legend in the dugout.
The Guardian Sport