Frank Lampard’s homecoming with Chelsea strikes a tone of anticlimax | Dominic Fifield | Football
Frank Lampard always envisaged enduring occasions such as this. He knew there would be periods of frustration mixed in with all the elation whipped up by his return to a club where he is so cherished, games where his team are exposed as a work in progress when that gap to the top two seems to gape ever larger. That acceptance does not make it any easier to take. The frown he wore at the end of his homecoming betrayed underlying concerns.
A week into his competitive tenure and contests continue to follow a familiar pattern. For a quarter of an hour here he had thrilled from the sidelines as his Chelsea team showcased everything dazzling he hopes to promote, the hosts vibrant and inventive, gloriously energetic and incisive. And yet, just as at Manchester United and against Liverpool in Istanbul, it all rather fizzled out with the initiative passed up and, steadily, momentum switching. By the end, it was an impressive Leicester who were threatening to prevail.
It was telling that Lampard admitted he had taken more positives from that 4-0 loss at Old Trafford than the draw that had gained his first point in charge. He had fidgeted through the latter stages, wincing at the threat Jamie Vardy posed on the shoulders of his centre-halves or whenever James Maddison collected the ball and spied those inviting spaces opening up all over the pitch through which to slide a pass.
Chelsea’s sloppiness in possession had Lampard retreating back to his bench to bend Jody Morris’s ear. “I don’t expect that 100-mile energy for 90 minutes,” said the head coach. “But I do expect that, when you rest, you keep the ball better. We have to have more personality. We need to do better than we did today.”
Improvement of a kind will surely come as fitness builds. The newly installed coaching staff had spent pre-season assessing a squad flooded by loan returnees and youth products eager for their opportunities – maybe some in the ranks might have benefited from greater game time in the jet-setting from Dublin to Yokohama. Leicester looked fitter once they had roused after the interval, stampeding forward themselves and wresting control of midfield from players whose midweek exertions in Istanbul had taken a toll. Even N’Golo Kanté, whose energy levels never seem to dip, laboured at times here, a legacy of the knee injury that has eaten away at his preparations for the new campaign.
There were relatively few alternatives to freshen up personnel. Lampard will have surveyed the options on his bench and shuddered at the thought of a Champions League group campaign to come. That cluttered schedule did for Antonio Conte of his more recent predecessors and this squad, pining for the departed Eden Hazard, will be stretched even thinner over the months to come.
It was notable that he chose to bring up Fifa’s transfer ban, pointing out that he has not had the opportunity to bring in the players who might instantly perform at the level he aspires his team to reach. Mateo Kovacic and a barely fit Willian were flung on but offered very little different. Tammy Abraham, like Olivier Giroud before him, found himself too isolated to exert a telling influence. This is how it will be. The buzzword was patience. Lampard was not have been glum, but his tone of realism felt rather anticlimactic after a summer of joyous buildup.
Perhaps, as a fillip, it is worth remembering just how exhilarating the home side had been in those opening exchanges, when Leicester should have been dispatched. Back then, with the welcoming banners barely gathered in, it had felt wonderfully appropriate that Mason Mount, a player around whom Lampard is building his regime, should score the first goal of his league tenure. The 20-year-old’s pilfering of the ball from Wilfred Ndidi, before skimming his finish back across Kasper Schmeichel, had set an upbeat tone on an eye-catching home debut for a player who had joined the academy at the age of six.
Mount epitomised the drive and energy Lampard wants to instil, whether he was retreating to muster tackles in his own half or sprinting forward into space between Leicester defenders. “It was high-pressing, attacking football,” he said. It just could not be sustained.
Chelsea, even with their lead pegged back thereafter, could still bask in the youngster’s talent, the manner in which he has seized his chance a tonic to the odd stodgy result. They will benefit from the return of Antonio Rüdiger at centre-back and, soon, from Callum Hudson-Odoi’s skill on the flank. Ruben Loftus-Cheek can serve as the cavalry later in the year once he returns from his own fitness issues. But there may be reminders to endure in the interim that this is a process that will require time. Lampard knows that more than anyone.